This is the photograph of Julian Bond I like best. It is January 10, 1966. Everyone but Julian is standing, their right hands raised as they take the oath of office to serve as duly elected representatives of the Georgia State Legislature. Julian does not remain seated in protest, as one might expect this firebrand of the Civil Rights Movement to do. He’s not standing because he is being punished. The legislature has denied him the seat his constituents have elected him to. Why? Because he spoke out against the war in Vietnam before it became popular to do so.
Look at his face. He is twenty-six years old—and from the looks of him, a mere boy. Already he has co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key player in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He has risked his life in rural areas south of Atlanta in order to register poor black sharecroppers for the vote. He has marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along paths fraught with danger. He has run for office and won.
Keep looking at that face—and you will see that Hamlet got it wrong. Conscience does not make cowards of us all. That only happens to people too afraid to stand up for what they believe in. In the early 1960s, Julian Bond believed that a disproportionately high number of African-Americans were drafted to fight in Vietnam. SNCC released a statement condemning US involvement in the war. Bond, a pacifist, endorsed the statement and said he admired those who had the courage to protest the conflict by burning their draft cards. The state legislature responded by denying him his seat. He shows up anyway. After all, he has been elected. But they don’t let him take the oath.
In his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Esquire Magazine’s long-time fiction editor, L. Rust Hills maintains that the job of fiction is to reveal the moment when a character turns the corner and becomes something else. The spinster aunt was not always a spinster. The drunk uncle was not always the inebriated embarrassment routinely parodied on Saturday Night Live. Something happened to make them that way. Their response to life’s circumstances defined the selves they would become. Julian Bond was already on his way to becoming the heroic icon whose life and legacy are mourned with his passing at the age of 75. But he did not start out that way. You are not born an icon. You make decisions, and the decisions make you.
That boyish face of January 10, 1966, belongs to someone who does not know how things will turn out. Notice the uncertainty written in those eyes. Look at the battle taking place in the corridors of the unknown. He’s out on a limb. Ostracism, doubt, and who knows what else has come to shake its fist at him. See the resolve written there. The willingness to face the lions. No matter what.
We know the rest of the story now. How the United States Supreme Court ruled in Bond’s favor by a vote of 9-0. The state had denied his freedom of speech, the unanimous high court said, and was required to let him take the seat his constituents wanted him to have. Two years later, during the turmoil of the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago, Julian Bond will become the first African-American to be nominated for Vice President of the United States—an honor he must decline because he is not yet thirty-five years old and therefore too young to hold the office if elected.
Other moments will follow, many victories, a few losses. The boyish curls will fall away. His face will become set, his hair gray. He will age and eventually leave the planet after a brief illness. Julian Bond will be mourned and lauded as the activist, hero, and legend he most certainly was. Head of the NAACP. State legislator, professor, author, narrator of Eyes on the Prize. By all accounts a great man who served his country by standing up for its core values even when that service took on the isolating posture of dissent.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner is a mantle you choose to accept. It’s something you take on when everyone else stands up and raises their right hand. You don’t know how things will turn out, but you do it anyway.
Look at that face.