A former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Julian Bond played a critical role in the civil rights movement alongside visionary leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bond's experiences have informed his popular lectures at UVA for the past 20 years. He was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, served in the Georgia State Assembly for more than two decades and was named a "Living Legend" in 2008 by the Library of Congress. He recently spoke with Virginia Magazine about a new professorship of civil rights and social justice named in his honor, and how a self-described "easily amused" man—who hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1977—will keep himself occupied after he steps down from his post as a history professor at the University.
What first brought you to UVA?
I had a friend who was teaching here named Patricia Sullivan. She asked me to come for a semester. So I said sure. I used to drive from my home in D.C. down here every Tuesday morning, teach a class and a seminar and then drive back to D.C., then come back on Thursday and teach just the class, and then drive back to D.C. About a year later, I was asked to come back, which I agreed to do, and I've been here ever since.
I hope they learned that the civil rights movement was a movement of ordinary people, many of them just like these young people who were sitting in my class. They should not believe that it was all magical figures like Martin Luther King. People like King helped immeasurably. But it wasn't all Martin Luther Kings. It was mostly ordinary people who did this, and these students are ordinary people, and they can do the same thing. They can rise to these heights themselves. They can do the same kinds of things that these people did 40, 50 years ago, and be as successful as these people were. That's the lesson I want them to learn.
You were one of eight students to take the only class Martin Luther King taught. What was that experience like?
I remember one day, when class was over, he and I were walking across the Morehouse College campus. I turned to him and I said, "Doc, how are you doing?" He said, "Julian, I'm not doing well. Unemployment is high, racism's everywhere. I feel awful," he said. "I have a nightmare." I said, "No, Doc. Turn that around. Try 'I have a dream.'"
Is that a true story?
No, it's not a true story. But I've had people believe it, and I've had people introduce me as "the man who told Dr. King to say, 'I have a dream.'"
A few years ago, you decided to donate your collection of personal papers to UVA—more than 47,000 items. Why did you choose to donate them here?
The University of Virginia wanted them, and I had a personal tie here, so it was just natural for them to go here. And I've wanted them kept well. My mother worked in the Atlanta University Library as an archivist, and she exhibited this great care toward the things she tended to.
Here's a paper written by a student at the University of Virginia named Tim Lovelace. He recently passed his examination to get his Ph.D. from UVA. I look in the footnotes, and I see, "Julian Bond." The fact that he's able to use my papers to write his paper is impressive to me, and flattering to me, and shows me that they have some use, some utility in the world, and that my life will inform other people about what I did and what my times were like.
What's next for you after you retire?
All my friends who are my age or older have told me that you should never retire unless you know what you're going to do when you retire. I don't have any idea of what I'm going to do when I retire, and I won't retire completely. I still will teach at American University in D.C., so I won't be idle. I'd like to establish a very small think tank: a place where I, and other people like me, could think about things that are important to them, particularly the racial picture in the United States, and what ought to be done to improve it.
What has occurred during your lifetime that you thought might never happen?
The election of Barack Obama. I never thought that would happen. I thought this was a dream. I thought he was a nice guy, probably deserved to be president, but there was no way he would be. Just wouldn't happen.
What would you like your tombstone to say?
I want to have a double-sided tombstone, so you have something on each side. And on one side, it's going to say "Race Man." A race man is an expression that's not used anymore, but it used to describe a man—usually a man, could have been a woman too—who was a good defender of the race, who didn't dislike white people, but who stood up for black people, who fought for black people. I'd want people to say that about me. He was a race man. There's no implication here that white people are evil, just that black people are good people and they need somebody to fight for them, and I'm that person. The other side is going to say "Easily Amused," because I am easily amused.
What kinds of things amuse you?
I love comedians, of almost every kind. You remember Jack Benny? Bob Hope? Johnny Carson, late at night. Richard Pryor, just so funny, incredibly funny. I like people who can make me laugh. I'm so happy with this gala [in early May] celebrating the Bond Professorship. Until the gala, I had not seen a live comedian in a long, long time. Political humorist Kate Clinton was there. Wanda Sykes was one of the emcees, and Chris Tucker was the other. And those are very, very funny people.
Speaking of the gala, what impact do you hope the Bond professorship will have?
Whoever it is, you hope that the professorship is going to be held by a person who is a recognized scholar in the field, and that he or she brings some intellectual weight to the history department. And the University of Virginia will become known as a place where, if you're interested in studying civil rights, you'll think the best place to go is the University of Virginia, because they have the Julian Bond Professorship in Civil Rights and Social Justice.