University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

Julian Bond Pays Homage to King, Unsung Civil Rights Workers

Large crowd turns out at Ira Allen Chapel to hear civil rights leader

Julian Bond
(Photo: Sally McCay)

Legendary civil rights leader Julian Bond paid special tribute to the thousands of unheralded volunteers who laid their lives on the line for racial equality under the leadership of his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr., during his keynote address Jan. 23 at Ira Allen Chapel.

“Martin King was the most famous and the best known of all the modern movement personalities, but we should remember this was a people’s movement,” said Bond, former Chairman of the NAACP and founding member of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It relied not on the noted, but on the nameless; not on the famous, but on the faceless.... We now see a different view of the events and personalities of that period. Instead of the towering figures of Kennedys and Kings standing alone, we see an anonymous army of women and men. We now see the planning and the work that preceded the speech. Instead of a series of well publicized marches and protests, we see long organizing campaigns and brave and lonely soldiers working in near solitude.”

Bond’s comments were part of an inspirational evening that marked the end of the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration, Education & Learning Week, sponsored by President Tom Sullivan, the Department of Student Life, and the Office of the Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Audience members were treated to music by the SUNY Plattsburgh Gospel Choir, soloists Joy Che, Andrea Ogle and Rev. Leory Dixon, and a poignant poetry reading by Professor Major Jackson in tribute of Nelson Mandela. Beverly Colson, director of ALANA Student Center, and Wanda Heading Grant, event organizer and vice president for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, also provided inspirational comments.

After a passionate introduction by UVM President Tom Sullivan, who called Bond “one of America’s most important public leaders and historic figures in the United States for the last 50 years,” Bond joked that Sullivan left something out that was important to him: “you didn't mention that I was the host of Saturday Night Live. Now, probably some of the younger people here don't realize that it used to be a comedy show.”

Bond’s compelling 40-minue talk was infused with poignant moments and humorous anecdotes about his experiences with King as a young man, including one following the only class Bond says King ever taught. “I’m one of eight people in the universe who honestly can say I was a student of Martin Luther King’s,” said Bond. “He and I were walking across the beautiful Morehouse campus (after class) and I said to him, ‘Doc,’ – his friends called him Doc – 'how are you doing?’ He said, ‘Julian, I'm not doing well. Unemployment is high, racism is everywhere, segregation... I feel awful.’ He said, ‘I have a nightmare.’ I said, ‘No, Doc, turn that around. Try, ‘I have a dream.’” Bond then looked at audience and said, “I sense doubt. But you know, I think that my word is my bond.”

The bulk of Bond’s speech was a fascinating insider’s account of the history of the Civil Rights Movement starting with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and King’s ability to recognize the significance of early events like these and seemingly small acts like that of Rosa Parks. These led to larger battles waged in Birmingham, he said, which paved the way for the passage of historic legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Bond called one of Congress’ "finest hours."

“We look at the passages of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with some pride,” said Bond, who was one of the first black members to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1965 to 1975, followed by six terms in the Georgia Senate. “Those were the days when politicians from both parties struggled to pass civil rights. Now they struggle to be civil. Those were the days when banks loaned money to people and not today when the people loan money to our banks. Those were the days when good music was popular and when popular music was good. Those were the days when the president picked the Supreme Court; and not the other way around. Those are the days when we had a war on poverty and not a war on the poor. Those are the days when voters chose their politicians, unlike today, where self-serving gerrymandering and political manipulation allow politicians to choose their voters. Those were the days when the news media really was fair and balanced and not just mouthpieces for the misinformed. But those were not the good old days. In those days, the law, the courts, the schools, almost every institution favored whites. This was white supremacy.”

Bond also drew stark contrasts between the wealthiest and poorest Americans and the widening income gap between the classes and races. “We're now asked to believe that 200 years of being somebody else’s property followed by 100 years of legal oppression in the south and discrimination in the north...we're asked to believe that this can be wiped away by five decades of remediation and one black president,” said Bond. “We're now asked to believe that no permanent damage was done to the oppressors or the oppressed. We're asked to believe that Americans are now a healed people. The truth is that Jim Crow may be dead, but racism is alive and well.” 

While recognizing the significance of the Civil Rights Movement, Bond says in some ways there is more work to be done than ever. “Many of us now stand in reflection of that earlier movement’s successes, including the election of Barack Obama, confused about what the next steps ought to be. The task ahead is enormous, equal to, if not greater than, the job already done.”