Spoiler alert: At the end of the recent documentary, “Julian Bond: Reflections from the Frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement,” Bond, emeritus professor of history in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, tells the interviewer that he firmly believes people will come forward to continue the civil rights work that needs to be done, just as he and so many others rose up to fight for civil rights in the 1960s.
Wednesday’s 30-minute film screening and discussion at the Paramount Theater, part of U.Va.’s Community MLK Celebration, honored Bond – named “A Living Legend” by the Library of Congress in 2008.
The Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, comprising about 30 events, is a collaborative effort involving the University’s Office of Diversity and Equity, several U.Va. schools and offices, community partners, Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Paramount Theater.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond), Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) and Dr. Marcus Martin, U.Va.’s vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, also made remarks to honor Bond, who taught more than 5,000 students at U.Va. over 20 years about the Civil Rights Era, drawing from his firsthand knowledge.
Interspersing Bond’s personal story with news footage and photographs, local filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley’s documentary encapsulates the history of African-Americans and the Civil Rights Era. Bond’s great-grandmother was a slave whose master took her as his mistress. His grandfather walked from Georgia to Kentucky during Reconstruction to attend Berea College. Bond’s father also took the road to success via education and became president of Lincoln University in Chester County, Pa.
Bond met many historic figures at his parents’ house, including poet Langston Hughes and historian W.E.B. DuBois. As a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a spokesperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and took part in the March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
When Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, its members initially prevented him from taking the seat because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He went on to serve four terms in the House and then six more in the Georgia Senate.
After the film, Bond, 73, sat down with Phyllis Leffler, a U.Va. history professor who heads the Institute for Public History for a short interview. Bond and Leffler co-produced an audio series over the past 13 years, “Explorations in Black Leadership,” but Bond always did the interviewing. Wednesday night, he took the other seat while Leffler asked him questions – what he learned from being in SNCC, the significance of President Obama’s elections, what’s needed to improve race relations and what he thought about the film.
Bond said he hoped to interview Obama for the oral history project, but had not heard back from his administration since sending an invitation. He and Leffler will publish a book in 2014 based on interviews with almost 50 black leaders.
Leffler mentioned the film’s depiction of black life in America and asked if Bond thought racism is still an ongoing problem in America.
When he responded, “Yes, I do,” he said W.E.B. DuBois talked about a “double consciousness” that black Americans had – “a consciousness built on a racial divide ... a separateness from other people and a closeness with other people.” Bond said, “That’s what I’ve felt all my life. The feeling has begun to diminish as I’ve grown older, as time has passed.”[
Asked if Obama’s election made a difference, Bond said that it seems to have made things worse in terms of racial enmity, according to public opinion polls, despite “all the hopes and expectations that this would create a racial nirvana in the United States.”
“On the other hand, I do think Obama’s election is important, and his reelection is even more important,” he said. “The first occasion was a great milestone – to do something that had never been done before and that most people thought could not be done ... and the fact that he did it a second time is a greater accomplishment.”
Thus, Obama’s elections are both good news and bad news, Bond said; “Good news that it happened twice; bad news that it made things worse. How both of those things could be true, I do not know.”
Asked what he would advise Obama if he could, Bond said he thinks the president is a different person now from his first presidential run and doesn’t need any encouragement from him. He did encourage young people to join forces and work for social justice.
Sullivan lauded Bond’s influence at U.Va. and discussed the campaign to establish an endowed professorship of civil rights and social justice in his name, saying it is important for students to know about and understand the Civil Rights Movement.
“Endowing a chair in Julian’s honor will enable future generations of students to study civil and human rights,” she said. “I can’t imagine a more appropriate tribute for a man whose character and influence have touched so many lives over the last half-century.”