I met Julian Bond for the first time like so many did: as the narrator of Eyes on the Prize, the wonderful televised series about the Civil Rights Movement. My African-American Politics professor required us to come in the evenings to watch the videos about events that were much more recent when he showed them in the late 1980s.
I didn’t realize at the time that one day I’d be showing an episode from the same series regularly in my class on Politics in the U.S. I would have been even more surprised if you told me that Julian Bond would be my colleague at American University where he was a Distinguished Lecturer for over two decades.
When another assistant professor and I first saw him down the hall in the late 1990s, neither of us had the nerve to go up and say hello and introduce ourselves. As my colleague put it, “that’s Julian Bond!”
His course on the Civil Rights Movement was much beloved not just because he served as a living bridge between the Movement and now who could communicate it to students. Or because he had a speaking voice and ability anyone would envy.
He took the time to respond thoughtfully and seriously to many, many students who came by his office hours. Though he was a fearless advocate with strong opinions who famously stood up to the powerful, he also somehow managed to be a consistently kind and gentle man.
Of course, I’ll always remember him for saying yes immediately to a request to speak out in favor of marriage equality during the referendum fight in Maryland. His clear and eloquent message of civil rights for all people unquestionably helped put us over the top.
His continued willingness to work for the basic dignity for all people until shortly before his death was typical. Long after he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and fought successfully to be seated in the Georgia legislature, he spent many years restoring the NAACP to health and to respectability after it fell into crisis.
I’ll miss being able to refer students to his course–what an amazing opportunity it was for so many to learn from him. America will sorely miss a man who fought hard for justice with style and grace–and taught others to do the same.