It was Spring of 1965. The high hopes raised by the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been dashed by the failures encountered in implementation. Everyone agreed that these failures had one root cause: voter disenfranchisement.
Voter registration workers were being threatened, beaten up, and intimidated by local law officers and courts. Voter-rights activists James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner had been brutally murdered on road 491 near Meridian, Mississippi, because of their work on voter registration. At the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, the integrated delegation of the grassroots Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party ( MFDP ) had failed to unseat the all-white delegation of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party.
Into this volatile 1965 spring of hope, fear and disappointment, I joined a group of Catholic clergy affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC ) and with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC ) to work on voter registration in Greenville, Mississippi. We had three objectives: 1 ) register voters for the upcoming local and general elections; 2 ) organize these voters to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and 3 ) network for the passing of federal voting-rights legislation to overcome the complex maze of local voting regulations designed to keep Blacks and others from voting.
Our work went along surprisingly well except for a few nuisance instances of harassment. The local sheriff ‘detained’ me and two of my colleagues for trespassing by walking into an all-Black school to talk about voter registration. William Hodding Carter III, whose family owned the local newspaper and who later became a key player in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, came to the jail house to bail us out—actually, he got us released from all charges.
In the local elections, the regular Democrats won handsomely—and with a whole lot of votes of the new voters we had registered. This defeat fueled the already simmering anger and frustration of many civil-rights workers, especially in the ranks of SNCC, who were becoming demoralized in their efforts to change culture and behavior through grassroots political activism.
Some activists wanted to turn to violence. Enter Julian Bond, SNCC co-founder and director of communications: a calm, creative, intelligent voice in troubled times.
There were essentially two main camps within SNCC: the one group supported John Lewis and Julian Bond who wanted to keep SNCC committed to the civil-rights strategy and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the other group supported Stokely Carmichael who was a strong advocate of Black Power. In Spring 1965 these two camps were evenly matched. Starting in 1966, the balance of power shifted to Carmichael. Bond left his position as director of communications of SNCC in 1966. Carmichael became president of SNCC in 1967. In 1969 SNCC replaced the term ‘nonviolent’ with the term ‘national.’ SNCC became the Student National Coordinating Committee.
This change in the spirit of SNCC was personal for me. At the end of our work in Greenville, a co-worker came to me and asked me to go with him to Detroit to take up arms to fight for civil rights. He was a close friend. I told him I could never pick up a gun for three reasons: 1 ) I am a coward; 2 ) If I were to pick up a gun, I feared I would never put it down; and 3 ) I was committed to the spirituality of Jesus the Christ, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Gandhi, the Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now, Julian Bond. His reply: ‘the next time we meet you will be at the wrong end of the gun.’
As the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and as the Chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond fought for the rights of all peoples regardless of their color, ethnicity, sexual identity, or their legal status as migrants.
When some Black leaders and clergy opposed complete civil rights for members of the LGBTQ communities, Julian Bond advocated for marriage equality, facing down opposition even within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. ( Cfr: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Bond )
Julian Bond is my personal hero because his example helped me to remain committed to my values.
Thank you, Julian. May we continue to remember you. May your spirit continue to bless us.
Horace Julian Bond died August 15, 2015.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.
WCTimes : 02 September 2015