Touring the major sites of the Civil Rights Movement with Julian Bond is a little like touring England with a Beatle.
Celebrities do him favors, young people flock to take his picture, and women sometimes admit to having a decades-long crush on him.
Bond, now a university professor, was once one of the movement’s best-known faces. Communications director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, Bond helped focus the outside world’s attention on the battles being waged in the American South for civil rights.
I joined Bond in March on an annual trip he leads, through the University of Virginia, to some of those old battlegrounds. In Georgia, we met a freedom rider and sang with freedom singers. In Alabama, we met a Black lawyer who defended Rosa Parks and a White preacher who supported her. We strolled through the park in Birmingham, Ala., where police unleashed attack dogs and water cannons on children, and in Selma, Ala., we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where in 1965 segregationist forces of the South made their last, brutal stand.
Particularly memorable was praying alongside Christine King Farris, sister of Martin Luther King Jr., at Sunday mass at the new Ebenezer Church, the King family parish in Atlanta. Farris sat near the front of the church, in the center aisle. She wore an orange skirt and an orange sequined jacket with fur down the lapel. With a matching hat, both orange and lined with fur, Farris fit in with the well-dressed Sunday crowd yet stood out at the same time.
Bond asked Farris to stop and talk with us after mass. She carried an almost regal air and bore a clear resemblance to her brother, who she said used to ask her for help with spelling growing up. We asked Farris of her role in the movement.
“People always say they don’t see me in those marches, but I was there,” Farris said, “usually in the background, working at the hotel, whatever my brother needed me to do.”
I had read a great deal about the Civil Rights Movement before this trip, but sometimes seeing is understanding.
I was shocked at how close the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King’s parish in Montgomery, Ala., and the command center for the Montgomery bus boycott, is to the Alabama state capitol. You can peer through the stained glass windows of the church and see the bright white capitol rising atop a hill, as though all the power of authority is looming over you. A statue of Jefferson Davis still stands outside the capitol, facing the church.
Many of the stops on our trip related to King, but anyone who has studied the movement knows that today’s America sometimes overstates King’s role. In Albany, Ga., we met Charles Sherrod, who moved to Albany as a young SNCC volunteer. While King and other national figures grew frustrated with efforts in Albany and moved on, Sherrod saw the thing through to the end. Before dinner, in an effort to make small talk, I asked his wife Shirley how they met.
“Well, my father was murdered in 1965,” she began. It was a shocking response, but her father’s death – he was murdered by a White farmer, who never even faced charges, when Shirley was 17 years old – put the couple on a shared path.
“On the night of my father’s death,” she said, “I made a commitment to stay in the South and work for change.”
Charles visited Shirley’s family home soon thereafter – her father had been a leader in the community – and the two have fought together for justice in Albany and throughout Georgia ever since.
Shirley Sherrod’s name may be familiar; she was fired from her position as the head Department of Agriculture official in Georgia in 2010 after a conservative blogger altered the video of one of her speeches to make her appear a racist. The true intent of her speech was nearly the opposite – that if she could get over race, everyone can.
Our Trailways bus nearly tipped over as we attempted to pull into the driveway of a church outside of Tuskegee, Ala. The driver turned the wheel too soon, and we ended up stuck in a ditch, with three of four tires floating perilously off the ground. We wondered how long we might be stranded. We forgot that we were traveling with Julian Bond.
Before long, church and community leaders had gathered at the site of our unfortunate accident. While a tow truck tried to free our bus, the locals commandeered a school bus and driver so that our group could move on.
Joan Browning, a White freedom rider in her youth, traveled to Albany to join us for dinner. She spoke at one point of the importance of outside attention for the Freedom Riders, who faced the threat of extreme violence, and turned to Bond.
“I want to thank Julian for all that he did for us,” Browning said. “I truly believe that he saved my life.”
Bond went on to serve 20 years in the Georgia Legislature, and then 12 years as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. He was famously denied his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1966 after he spoke out against the Vietnam War, which I knew before taking this trip. What I did not know was why.
As we bumped along Alabama highways in our bus – freed from the ditch – Bond told us the story of Samuel Younge Jr., a Black Alabaman who in 1962 joined the U.S. Navy. Younge received a medical discharge after losing a kidney in service and returned home to Tuskegee, Ala. He had to urinate more frequently than normal as a result of his condition. On Jan. 3, 1966, he was shot and killed by a Standard Oil gas station attendant after trying to use a bathroom that was Whites-only.
“The tragedy of a man losing his kidney for his country, only to have his country kill him as a result,” Bond said, “that was too much to bear.”