ATLANTA (AP) — Through the tough struggles of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond always kept his sense of humor, and it was his steady demeanor that helped him persist despite the inevitable difficulties involved, his wife recalled.
Bond “never took his eyes off the prize and that was always racial equality,” Pamela Horowitz told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Bond died Saturday in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Horowitz said. He was 75. Horowitz said she did not yet know the exact cause of death, but that her husband had circulatory problems.
Bond’s life traced the arc of the civil rights movement, from his efforts as a militant young man to start a student protest group, through a long career in politics and his leadership of the NAACP almost four decades later.
Year after year, the calm, telegenic Bond was one of the nation’s most poetic voices for equality, inspiring fellow activists with his words in the 1960s and sharing the movement’s vision with succeeding generations as a speaker and academic.
“He always … in that hard struggle kept a sense of humor, and I think that’s what allowed him to do that work for so long — his whole life really,” Horowitz said.
Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said Bond’s legacy would be as a “lifetime struggler.”
“He started when he was about 17 and he went to 75,” Young said. “And I don’t know a single time when he was not involved in some phase of the civil rights movement.”
Bond’s death was first announced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that he founded in 1971 and helped oversee for the rest of his life.
The son of a college president burst into the national consciousness after helping to start the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, where he rubbed shoulders with committee leaders Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis. As the committee grew into one of the movement’s most important groups, the young Bond dropped out of Morehouse College in Atlanta to serve as communications director. He later returned and completed his degree in 1971.
Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965 but fellow lawmakers, many of them white, refused to let him take his seat because of his anti-war stance on Vietnam. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Bond finally took office in 1967.
“If this was another movement, they would call him the PR man, because he was the one who wrote the best, who framed the issues the best. He was called upon time and again to write it, to express it,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was Bond’s colleague on the student committee and later wrote a friend-of-the-court brief for the American Civil Liberties Union when Bond’s case was before the high court.
President Barack Obama called Bond “a hero.”
“Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life,” Obama said in a statement. “Julian Bond helped change this country for the better.”
In 1968, Bond led a delegation to the Democratic National Convention, where his name was placed in nomination for the vice presidency, but he declined because he was too young.
He served in the Georgia House until 1975 and then served six terms in the Georgia Senate until 1986. He also served as president of the law center from its founding until 1979 and was later on its board of directors.
Bond was elected board chairman of the NAACP in 1998 and served for 10 years.
He was known for his intellect and his even keel, even in the most emotional situations, Young said.
“When everybody else was getting worked up, I could find in Julian a cool serious analysis of what was going on,” Young said.
Bond was often at the forefront of protests against segregation. In 1960, he helped organize a sit-in involving Atlanta college students at the city hall cafeteria.
“We never thought that he really would participate and be arrested because he was always so laid back and cool, but he joined in with us,” recalled Carolyn Long Banks, now 74, who said Bond never sought much recognition in those early years.
Bond was “a thinker as well as a doer,” said Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a journalist who struck up a friendship with Bond in the early 1960s, when she was one of the first two black students to attend the University of Georgia. At the time, Bond was an activist in Atlanta with the newly formed committee.
“He was a writer as well as a young philosopher,” Hunter-Gault said. His eloquence and sense of humor “really helped sustain the young people in the civil rights movement.”
Hunter-Gault said she hopes a new generation of activists draws lessons from Bond’s life and work as they embrace the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Everybody is not going to be out there in the street with their hands up or shouting,” she said. “There’ve got to be people like Julian who participate and observe and combine those two things for action and change that make a difference.”
Morris Dees, co-founder of the law center, said the nation had lost one of its most passionate voices for justice.
“He advocated not just for African-Americans but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all,” Dees said.
After leading the NAACP, Bond stayed active in Democratic politics. He also made regular appearances on the lecture circuit and on television and taught at several universities.
“You can use the term giant, champion, trail blazer — there’s just not enough adjectives in the English language to describe the life and career of Julian Bond,” said Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, Alabama.
“A voice that has been silenced now is one that I just don’t think you can replace,” Jones said.
Horace Julian Bond was born Jan. 14, 1940, in Nashville, Tennessee. He is survived by Horowitz and five children. Funeral plans have not been finalized, but Horowitz said Bond will be cremated and his ashes scattered over the Gulf of Mexico.
Holland reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press Race and Ethnicity Editor Sonya Ross, also in Washington, contributed to this report.