On Nov. 12, 1970 I heard Julian Bond speak at the University of Iowa Field House. My memory of the event is wondering why I should care about a Georgia legislator who found his way to Iowa, other than the classroom assignment to report on five university events that semester.
Hearing Bond’s speech changed me in ways that persist at his passing this week, leaving an indelible mark for which I am grateful.
When Bond joined Morris Dees and Joe Levin in 1971 to help found the Southern Poverty Law Center as its first president, I joined and followed the cases they took over the years.
At first, their work showed me how far out of touch I was with the legacy of the south. Why should I care about their 1972 plan to apportion voting districts in Alabama? If I knew then what I know now about redistricting I would have paid more attention.
As a result of their litigation in Nixon vs. Brewer, attorneys for the Center argued, “blacks made up one-fourth of the Alabama population but were unable to elect representatives of their choice under the current at-large voting system.” After a successful outcome in federal court, the state adopted the Center’s plan for apportionment. In 1974, 15 blacks were elected to the state legislature. This is the type of social justice for which I remember Bond.
Like most of my friends, I knew few people of color in my youth. When I was coming up our family visited the plantation where my father lived while attending high school in Tallahassee, Fla. My father’s ease with black acquaintances from his youth taught me acceptance of people as people with whom we have much in common. Bond’s example teaches that we need not just acceptance, but social justice.
Julian Bond was called home too early. His legacy follows the arc of social justice that has been part of public life for most of mine. I feel a sadness at his passing. Not for what he was, or for the loss, as much as for how far we have to go.