What Julian Bond Taught Me About Politics and PowerRoundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, Georgia
Jeanne Theoharis is the Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. Her research centers on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare and civil rights in post-9/11 America. She is the editor of several books and the author of the award-winning books The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (2013) and More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History (2018). Follow her on Twitter @JeanneTheoharis.
I found myself thinking about Julian Bond when the news broke that Georgia had elected its first Black senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock. What a triumph of long-term organizing, of tilling the soil, for this to happen.
In many ways, the path Warnock rode to the Senate began in 1965 when SNCC co-founder Julian Bond mobilized the power of the Black vote to successfully win a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Bond’s colleagues refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He fought them to the Supreme Court and won, and on January 9, 1967, Julian Bond was sworn in.
Warnock and Ossoff’s victories led to a massive outpouring of praise for the leadership of Stacey Abrams and the memory of John Lewis. As visionary as Stacey Abrams is, as courageous as John Lewis was, our desire for charismatic heroes misses how this sort of change happens—as Abrams herself has made clear and Bond would have reminded us.
I had the great fortune of taking a class on the Southern civil rights movement with Julian Bond as an undergraduate and then serving as his teaching assistant a few years later. Part of the goal of the class was to disrupt the stultifying, politically convenient myths—the master narrative—that had grown around the movement. That narrative, he quipped, reduced the movement to “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” In this master narrative, charismatic leaders are the key, injustice is obvious, decent people took action, and the good guys triumphed.
Challenging this romanticized and dangerous fable, Bond sought to give us a fuller, more accurate sense of the movement’s origin, of the many local people that made its success, and the variety of its opponents. He also aimed to help us think about the uses behind this mythmaking—to see the ground-shaking challenge to American society and politics the civil rights movement had wrought, its unpopularity at the time, and the tremendous amount of work still to be done.
Here are four lessons I learned from him:
Lesson 1: Movements are made; they don’t just happen. It wasn’t “Rosa Parks sat down and then people boycotted the buses.” His treatment of the Montgomery bus boycott—what led to it, what it took, how it worked—spanned three classes. He started back in the 1930s and 1940s Character by character, he detailed the various people who came together to turn Rosa Parks’s bus stand into the Montgomery bus boycott and how they sustained that effort for 382 days.
Starting decades before, he traced all the people who would come together: from E. D. Nixon to Jo Ann Robinson to Claudette Colvin to Rosa Parks herself, from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge. And then, painstakingly, once Parks made her courageous stand, he took us hour by hour, day by day, to show us who talked to whom, what decisions were made, how a movement flowered from Parks’s courageous refusal. Rosa Parks called Fred Gray, who called Jo Ann Robinson; E. D. Nixon called the ministers and reporter Jo Azbell; Jo Ann Robinson snuck into her office at Alabama State College and ran off fifty thousand leaflets; and on and on. By showing how the boycott happened, it also became possible to imagine how we could do it again.
**To make it possible for people to continue to learn from Professor Bond, the author recently edited Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement with Pamela Horowitz.
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