Julian Bond’s Love-Hate Relationship with Boston: The Last Interview

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One of the very last interviews with Julian Bond before his untimely death over the weekend was conducted by WGBH Radio News Senior Reporter, Phillip Martin. Phillip interviewed the civil rights leader at Brandeis University where Bond was honored in the spring. Bond offered opinions on a range of issues including the issue that continues to plague Boston; the reputation it garnered during Boston’s violent anti-busing years.

Julian Bond arrived at the Brandeis University television studio 20 minutes ahead of our scheduled interview this past April. It was in keeping with his reputation that spanned decades as a man ahead of his time. He joined the civil rights movement in the late 1950’s as a 17 year old, was the youngest founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SCLC) and had his name placed in nomination for vice president at the fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention. He withdrew because he was too young to assume the office.

Julian Bond (foreground) with other members of SCLC in the early 1960's.

But Julian Bond not only made civil rights history, he chronicled it, including the history of Boston desegregation, as we heard in the locally produced 14-part Award-winning PBS series “Eyes on The Prize” that was narrated by Bond.

Bond was not detached from the subjects of his narration, and in my Brandeis interview with the civil rights icon, Boston’s unrelenting reputation for bigotry lingered in his mind. “I hate to say it. I’m a little wary of Boston today.” And for Bond, the Red Sox–the last major league baseball team to admit black players — was still a source of trepidation.

“I’m married to a woman who is a tremendous sports fan and she wants to go to a baseball game. And I said, ‘no, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go to a game there.’ And it turned out in this particular case I went with her. And the people in front of us are telling us jokers — they turned out to be college students looking for recruits to their college — and they said they made sure they never told any black people about their college. They didn’t want that to happen. And it just reinforced my feelings about Boston.”

He’s [Mayor Marty Walsh] got to find someway to engage white Bostonians and tell them they’ve got to behave better — Julian Bond on his lingering concerns about Boston in the post-busing era.

Photographer Stanley Forman’s famous image “The Soiling of Old Glory” that for many cemented Boston’s lingering reputation for bigotry. Credit Stanley Forman

I asked Bond, if he could say one thing to the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh — who realizes that this perception is a problem, and who recently accepted a one-million dollar grant to engage communities around race, with busing as the backdrop — about how he might change the perception of Boston, what would it be?

“I think he’s got to find someway, and I don’t know how he can do it, but he’s got to find someway to engage white Bostonians and tell them they’ve got to behave better,” said Bond. “They’ve got to change their way of acting and become more interested in being decent to other people; people not like them: people of color.”

But Bond also conceded his view of Boston may be framed by a picture of the city that many now consider outdated.

Bond also commented on the Black Lives Matter protests against police shootings and civilian killings of unarmed black men and women, comparing it to the Occupy Movement.

“The Occupy Movement was good but it wasn’t as good as it should be in my view. And Black Lives Matter is good, but then again it’s not as good as it should be. What’s the outcome here? What do you want to happen? What’s the end game? I have yet to find out”

On another subject, that of the election of the first black President, Bond said he never thought it could happen in the United States. He said he supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, but went on to become friends with President Barack Obama. In the process, Bond became fiercely protective of the President, whom he says has been the target of animus that can only be explained one way:

  • BOND: “He is a black man. That’s the reason he’s engendered so much animus. That’s the reason people don’t like him, because he’s a black man. That’s the only reason.”
  • REPORTER: What makes you think that and why do you say he’s viewed (this way) as a result of the color of his skin?
  • BOND: “I know that’s the case. I can’t prove it and say here’s the reason why, this is my proof. But I know it to be true.”
  • REPORTER: “No doubt you met with the President and I’m just wondering has he ever expressed concerns about this central issue in the United States that we call race?”
  • BOND: “Not to me. We’ve met a couple of times together about this or that or the other thing. I’ve tried to be encouraging to him because he needs, any president needs, all the encouragement he can get. I don’t care who he is.”

Barack Obama was not the only U.S. president whom Julian Bond befriended. In the movie Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson is portrayed as complicit in an effort to discredit Martin Luther King and to delay voting rights. It’ s a portrayal that angered Bond.

“Now if you follow politics and you know anything about President Johnson, there’s got to be things you don’t like. But one of the things you cannot dislike is Johnson’s attitude toward voting rights. He’s the best civil rights President we have ever had in this country. There’s nobody better than Lyndon Johnson. And to say in this movie that he played a bad role in the struggle for voting rights is just a terrible, terrible mistake.”

In our half-hour long interview, Julian Bond also spoke with me about what he called Republican efforts to suppress voting rights leading up to 2016, the upcoming presidential election, the freedom riders of 1961 and the re-creators of 2011, his election to Georgia’s House of Representatives (and efforts by fellow representatives to keep him from being seated), and the most recent honor bestowed on him: the 20115 Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life Award at Brandeis University.

“I never considered this would happen to me. I am flattered that Brandeis has chosen to give me this award. It’s flattering. I’m happy to see it, but I never thought it would happen.”

Julian Bond has received more than 20 honorary degrees over the course of his life . But he told me that the greatest honor for him, ever, was the honor of serving and marching in America’s ongoing and changing struggle for civil rights — for everyone.

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