Reflecting on the Legacy of Julian Bond and the Enduring Significance of Civil Rights History

For more on the Julian Bond Professorship and recent Symposium at UVa, click here.

TAing for Julian Bond in UVa’s History of the Civil Rights Movement (HIUS 367) was a heavy load–literally, as the textbook Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table was no less than 824 pages. While TAing the course a few years earlier, my petite roommate had bought a backpack just to carry it, as she was developing back pain. I admit that I ripped off the spine of her old copy so that I would only carry around only a unit or two at a time. But what a treasure trove of sources Julian Bond and Andrew Lewis put together. It’s been delightful to meet scholars like J. Mills Thornton and to say that I once taught his article on Montgomery as part of “the reader” for this class.

I TA’ed for Julian Bond three times in his last three years of some twenty years teaching the History of the Civil Rights Movement at UVa, twice as the sole TA for the semester. During this first year, he was still national Chairman of the NAACP. I have read that 5,000 students took the course from him during that time, and I know that many took the same course at American University as well, and still others joined his civil rights tours of the South each spring. TAing this course was something of a rite of passage for Ph.D. students at UVA throughout this time.

One thing was certain about my interaction with Julian Bond: our lives were quite different. He would mention in passing that he was heading out to the NAACP image awards to present the Chairman’s award to Tyler Perry–“do you know much about this Tyler Perry, Emily?” Me: “He mostly dresses up in women’s clothes…I don’t think you’d like it.” Another time, if I recall correctly, he was invited to the headquarters of Cracker Barrel, around the time of their discrimination lawsuits. My favorite of these was when he said, “Emily, Barack Obama has asked me to go to Senegal for the weekend, but I’ll be back next Tuesday.”

But for a grad student with limited funds, I so appreciated that he and his wife Pam would take his TAs out for a nice dinner at Charlottesville treasures like Hamilton’s and C & O. It was funny to watch other people’s reactions to him. Running late for a dinner in Belmont (who can keep tracking of Monticello Ave and Monticello Rd?), I arrived to find that we had been seated at what presumably was considered the best table in the house for jazz night, but which led to all of us being unable to carry on a conversation over the noise. When the time came to pass out maracas, several people were very excited to pass them along to him, and it was comically obvious Julian Bond was the only African American man at this jazz night. I remember someone coming up who had once made him a suit-had simply offered out of the blue to make him a free custom suit (probably tan), having never met him. These things simply do not happen to other people. My favorite memory is when he, Pam, and I had about a three-hour dinner just the three of us, in the upstairs of C & O, which ranged anywhere from true crime stories to the veterans of the civil rights movement who had since “gone crazy.”

In our two-hour weekly lectures, he was very much the voice you hear in the “Eyes on the Prize” miniseries, weaving a story of activists both well-known and not. Stripped of their laptops, some students would grow sleepy, while others would sit mesmerized, and still others would feverishly try tojulian-bond write down every word. Although it was rare, I recall times he went off-topic to discuss DC statehood, the King family’s division over gay rights, or the Barnes Foundation controversy. He had a wonderful wit, which almost always whizzed right over the students’ heads, so I’d make a point as I laughed to look around the room, as though to signal, “that was a joke, kids.”My favorite was always at the start of the first PowerPoint, when he would talk about his own background, “this is me with my good friend Bill Clinton, this is me with my good friend George W. Bush, this is me with my very good friend Tyra Banks.” It was clear he had and a great love of music, which he wove into the course through songs like Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Frank Sinatra’s “The House I Live In.” (Though those students never did seem to want to join in during civil rights song sing-along day). When discussing the civil rights movement, though, his goal was never to brag about his own contributions. I could swear I recall, when showing a picture of himself at the aftermath of the Birmingham church bombing, he made fun of his own “high-water pants.” It was often difficult to reconcile his extraordinary history with his own humility, especially when I would read about things he’d done that he had never mentioned in class.

Four years after I last TA’ed for him, I was shocked to hear he’d died. I knew that he and Phyllis Leffler had been publicizing the book Black Leaders on Leadership, which represented the culmination of years of interviews for the Explorations in Black Leadership Project, which in itself is an extraordinary achievement. I am proud to have conducted his background research for interviews with Gwen Ifill, Bakari Sellers, Benjamin Jealous, Bill T. Jones, and Rita Dove, and to have been associated with this project. The last time I had seen him was in spring of 2014 when Bob Moses (my favorite “character” from the whole course) popped up at UVA for not one, but two, interviews. I leapt at the chance to fill someone’s spot at a special lunch at the Miller Center in honor of Bob Moses. It is so special to me that this was the last time I saw Julian Bond. He had many TA’s, and I don’t know if he particularly remembered me, but teaching this course left a mark on me. Even now, as I work on my dissertation on Highlander, I remember how much I valued his support for my topic. At one point while working on my prospectus, someone questioned the historical significance of Highlander, and I remember saying, quite testily, “why just today I was talking to Julian Bond and he was saying he couldn’t imagine anyone wouldn’t have heard of Highlander because it’s so famous.”

amzie-moore

Now, I am back teaching a course in African American history at my alma mater, Sewanee, not 10 minutes from the original Highlander site, and I reflect on the changes in how civil rights history matters today. When I taught the civil rights movement course, the enrollment was actually on the decline. It often seemed to me that President Obama’s recent election had reinforced many people’s belief that we were somehow living in a “post-racial society,” and that students did not see the relevance of the civil rights movement in the present day. In 2016, no one would make the mistake of stating that we live in a post-racial society. I find instead that students are looking to African American history for answers. As they do, there’s a sense of collective action and collective trauma which did not exist on the same level five years ago at UVa. Professor Bond would end the first class of each semester with a video of lynching photos set to the song “Strange Fruit.” In 2016, I don’t think that’s something I could do, as my African American students have seen so many images of recent graphic violence that they are all too aware of how this connects to the present day. I hope instead that I can reveal to them a civil rights movement made up not just of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, but of Amzie Moore, Louis Allen, Jo Ann Robinson, Viola Liuzzo, and Irene Morgan–people who might just remind them of themselves, and their own capabilities. But more than anything, I want these students, born in the 90’s, to realize these are not the events of the distant past, that many of these figures are still alive, and that their stories have much to teach us–if we are wise enough to listen.

 

 

Advertisements