Equity & Diversity

Julian Bond, Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 75

By Denisa R. Superville — August 17, 2015 4 min read
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Julian Bond, the civil rights advocate and former chairman of the NAACP whose lifelong cause was equality and justice, has died. He was 75.

Over the years, his civil rights work left an imprint on public education, including his criticism early on of aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In “The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education,” published in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the seminal Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, Bond reflected on the ruling—which was decided when he was 14 years old—and how it changed schooling for African-American students, resistance to integration, and the nettlesome problems that remained in providing better educational opportunities for minorities.

He wrote at the time that among the NAACP’s goals for public education were addressing the concentration of minority students in failing schools and inequitable school funding. That agenda was less focused on integration and zeroed in on addressing the challenges in the schools where the students were already being educated.

He was a supporter of considering race in college admissions decisions. And he was also critical of how the civil rights movement and African-American history were taught in schools.

In a 2014 foreword to “Teaching the Movement 2014,” a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which he co-founded in 1971, he wrote that “ignorance remains the operative word when it comes to the civil rights movement and much of African-American history.”

That analysis was similar to his 2011 assessment in a report that looked at how states were including the civil rights history in their standards.

The report gave most states an F for how they approach civil rights history in their standards. Only Alabama, Florida and New York received As, according to an Education Week article at the time.

From Education Week:

“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” he writes. “One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.”

Bond was a critic of the George W. Bush administration. The NAACP invited Bush to its convention in 2004, but Bush declined, saying that the group had displayed a lack of respect for him, according to an Education Week article at the time.

At the time, the NAACP was critical of aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, not necessarily over the merits, but over what Bond told Education Week was the lack of full-funding for the legislation. Bond also said that the organization was concerned that the law had “fostered a kind of drill-and-kill curriculum,” that fostered teaching to the test rather than critical thinking. (The group did not oppose the law, Bond told the paper.)

The law, however, also led to a necessary conversation about the many problems that public schools faced, he said.

Rod Paige, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education and the first African American to hold that position, said he was confounded that the NAACP would oppose NCLB because it was “specifically designed to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.”

Bond, the son of a college president, became involved in the civil rights movement while still a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he helped co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

When Bond was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, his colleagues refused to seat him because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, according to The Washington Post. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the following year that failing to do so deprived Bond of his free speech. He served in the house until 1975, and in the state Senate until 1986.

He helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center and served as its president from 1971 to 1979. He was the chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2008.

Bond was a writer, poet, and social commentator. He taught at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, and was a scholar in residence at American University in Washington and a professor of history at the University of Virginia, according to The New York Times.

“With Julian’s passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice,” The Southern Poverty Law Center said in announcing Bond’s death on Sunday. “He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”

President Obama called Bond a hero.

“Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life,” the statement read in part.

“Julian Bond helped change this country for the better,” it continued. “And what better way to be remembered than that.”

With research assistance by Rachel James.

Social activist Julian Bond, center, and Luci Baines Johnson, the younger daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, right, join hands as they sing “We Shall Overcome” before President Barack Obama spoke at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, last year during the Civil Rights Summit that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. --Carolyn Kaster/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.