August 17, 2015
By Phyllis Leffler
Remembering Julian Bond – by Phyllis Leffler
Julian Bond was a prince of a man—a leader of leaders. I had the privilege of working with him for over twenty years on the Explorations in Black Leadership project. He was my collaborator and friend.
Julian was modest, supportive, generous, amenable. His sense of human decency and his principled commitment to engage others and to listen meant that he was open to conversation with people across the political spectrum—from Clarence Thomas to Amiri Baraka, from Angela Davis to Armstrong Williams. He had the oratorical skills to “speak truth to power”—a mantra he used often. In those instances, he pulled no punches and he made no apologies for his strong words. But those words were often necessary to make the larger point. For decades, his was the urbane, polished, disciplined voice of America’s civil and human rights movements.
For a lifetime, Julian Bond continued his civil activism. It started in the 1960s and continued right up to his death: founding member of SNCC, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, elected public servant for 20 years in the Georgia House and Senate, narrator of the famed Eyes on the Prize documentary, professor at U.Va. and American University from 1990-2012, national chair of the NAACP from 1998-2010. I would argue that the Explorations in Black Leadership project was also a form of civic engagement for him, illustrating the multiple roles of African Americans in shaping this country and in leading. He was philosophically interested in the very concept of leadership—what makes one person succeed and another fail? The personal stories of people like Dorothy Height, Geoffrey Canada, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mary Frances Berry, Bill T. Jones and so many others sustained his personal interest, but his interview skills brought out their stories. And the stories themselves demonstrated the ways in which people overcame both the explicit and implicit racism in their midst. They were stories that would inspire others and hopefully raise up a new generation of leaders. It was never about him—and always about the person to whom he was speaking. That, too, was part of his strength. Unlike so many others who rise to prominent positions, he maintained a deep sense of modesty and humility.
Julian’s commitment to equity, justice, and a peaceful world was not bounded by race. He was first and foremost a race man—and he liked that identity. But his empathetic understanding of the limitations he and others experienced extended well beyond race to issues that knew no color. He was an early advocate for gay rights when so many other African Americans adopted more conservative positions. He spoke out strongly against anti-semitism—and talked at synagogues and Jewish gatherings about black/Jewish issues, reminding his audiences of the missed opportunities that the collaborations of the 1960s had not been sustained. He spoke out against those who publicly attacked Jews, whites, and the LGBT community. He hated violence both at home and abroad: he was largely a pacifist. An early critic against the Vietnam War, he believed that the U.S. could be a force for justice and freedom without bold military interventionism. That belief got him into strong trouble politically, but he adhered to principle. His moral compass was unwavering.
No group was beneath him and no person could escape his criticism when warranted. He expressed his views as ones that were personally held. He criticized both black and white leaders when he felt they were out of line—from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrrakhan to Presidents Carter and Clinton. He partnered with those who could expand America’s professed but unrecognized values—and I was the beneficiary of one such partnership.
For me, his death is a great personal loss. It has been the absolute highlight of my professional career to work with him, to create the archive of Explorations in Black Leadership, and to produce the accompanying book, Black Leaders on Leadership: Conversations with Julian Bond. For the country and the world, the loss is profound—a lifelong champion for human rights, a good and principled man, a leader of leaders is no more.
Phyllis Leffler is a history professor at the University of Virginia and longtime volunteer with the Ron Brown Scholar Program.