Fear And Loathing In Cambridge: How Julian Bond Changed My Life And Harvard University

My life changed forever in 1989. I was a second year (2L) at Harvard Law School, and I was very unhappy. I knew that I should appreciate my good fortune in attending one of the nation's most celebrated law schools, but I was not grateful. From my perspective, n 1989, Harvard Law School was a sad and hostile place.

Fighting in the Civil War at Harvard Law School

Harvard Law School was at war. There were no weapons, unless you count dangerous emotions (I do), and the enemy was the person sitting to the left or to the right of you. Anger was the dominant mood at the law school for so many at that time. In those times, perhaps similar to these, many people - male, female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, old or young, gay or straight - felt that they had good reason to be mad. Law professors used the Socratic method to humiliate students into supposedly "thinking like a lawyer", and to most definitely turn many of us into belligerent, somewhat insecure, jerks. In a pre-cursor to the internet, inside and outside of the classroom, hateful personal attacks were "ok" as long as you called it "free speech." Many gay students lived miserable lives "in the closet," because being a known gay person was frowned upon by the older "silent majority" who controlled American life, and could therefore easily keep you from getting a job at many law firms. Meanwhile people still regularly used the f-word (rhymes with "wag") because it was ok to "joke" in that way, and you never even knew that half the people you were 'jokingly' calling a f**, were actually gay.

There was a liberal versus conservative war taking place in print and in the hallways of the law school between students, and more importantly between faculty members, some of whom freely talked about how much they hated their colleagues. There was even a level of open hostility between the sexes. It was sad all around. I knew lots of people who went home after a day of classes and cried about how miserable they were over being surrounded by division and hate, before they headed to the law library for an evening of bitter studying.

I was an African American female law student during this era. In addition to objecting to the law school's not so subtle hostility towards blacks and women, my beef with Harvard Law School was that there were no tenured women of color on the law school's faculty. The great Derrick Bell, an African American law professor with tenure, vowed to leave Harvard until the school offered a black woman tenure. Still, Harvard Law School would not change.

The mantra for many of Harvard's black women law students was "All the blacks are men, all the women are white, but some of us are brave." I was one of the "brave ones." We wore electric blue t-shirts with our slogan on it, and took over the dean's office to protest the law school's intransience. This did not endear us to the faculty. We also protested the lack of diversity in faculty hiring outside the Law School Commons, which was an open space across from Langdell law library. Barack Obama, whom everybody knew, talked to the protesting black students, the "brave ones" and others at a rally about protest being good, but about it also needing to be strategic. For example, he said that we should build coalitions with other students who shared common experiences and values, as we would be stronger together. Certainly, we shouldn't "sit in" to the point where we were expelled, or missed exams - then we'd just deprive the world of some potentially great black women lawyers. I listened to his words, but I thought Barack was a dreamer, who "didn't get it." Our world at the law school was too divided to come together.
Even though I only had one more year to go, I seriously thought about quitting law school. (Youth is, as they say, wasted on the young.) I found HLS intolerable. I was tired of being at war on a daily basis, tired of fighting, and tired of being angry. I doubted Harvard and the world around me. Was there really this much hate and division in the world? If there was, what could I do about it? Did I even want to be bothered with these people? If I was going to stay and graduate, I needed a lifeline.

I got one. In the fall of 1989 Julian Bond hired me to work as his Head Teaching Fellow for a course on the "Southern Movement for Civil Rights" at Harvard College. I could have never imagined it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, one that would change my perspective on life, inspire me, and carry me through many storms.

The Julian Bond that I Knew

I was a student of the civil rights movement, so I knew exactly who Julian Bond was when he came to teach at Harvard. From the age of 20, he had played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, as a leader and founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC kids were the college students who first "sat in" all across America at the nation's lunch counters, and who then rode on freedom rides throughout the South in the early 1960s. They started off desegregating southern lunch counters, but literally desegregated the world. Certainly, I wanted to work for him.

Of the many participants in the movement, Bond was one of the few who stood out. There were many reasons for this. He was the extremely good looking kid in the movement, the fair skinned Morehouse man with good hair like Becky, a member of the talented tenth, who put aside his privilege to fight for the rights of ordinary black people. He was SNCC's director of communications. He wrote stories about violence during the struggle, including the student deaths in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. He risked his life to draw mainstream media attention to the life and death battles that were taking place on the front lines of the movement. He became a media darling in his own right in the 1960s, and was nominated for Vice President at the age of 28. Even after the movement for civil rights was over in the late 1960s, he continued to speak up as a representative of the Georgia State legislature, as an outspoken proponent for the rights of African Americans, poor people, gay people, women, and for all human rights. He was a TV personality as the host of "America's Black Forum", and even as an occasional television star on shows like Saturday Night Live.

About a year before I met him, Bond had taken a very public hit. He had lost a bruising race for a congressional seat to his former SNCC friend, John Lewis. When he came to Harvard, Bond was still finding his sea legs after that painful loss. He had decided to teach, and Harvard University had in turn invited him to teach a course on the Southern Movement for Civil Rights at Harvard College.
So when I met Bond I was well aware of his history and his personal narrative. I showed up for our first pre-course prep session prepared to talk about the class he was teaching, and my own thoughts about how the lectures he presented (the core of the course content) might be conveyed to students in the smaller weekly class sessions taught by graduate students like myself.
I was actually intimidated in our early meetings. He was my boss, and he was also an extremely good looking celebrity. I expected to be impacted by the standard charm and charisma of celebrity, but I knew he had hired me because he knew from my resume and our interview that I was a young expert on the movement. I assumed that I had blown him away with my knowledge of the movement (typical 2L mindset). However, I soon found that both Bond's knowledge of history - American, African American, non-violent social resistance, and relevant constitutional legal history - as well as his raw intelligence was absolutely off the charts. Without embarrassing me in any way, Bond made it clear to me that he had an extraordinary command and insight over the coursework materials, and that he would be setting the course work and agenda. I had a lot to learn.

While I had expected to be intimidated and a little scared by him, I did not expect for those feelings to fade so quickly. I soon fell in love with the guy. He was kind, fun, and funny. I tried to keep things professional, but I know that like many others I asked him "What was it like to know Dr. King? What was it like to sit in? What was it like to have your life threatened by the Klan?" Julian welcomed my inquiries. While the questions were new to me, Bond was 25 years into them. He answered the questions with gusto and enthusiasm.

I also liked that he trusted people, and put his faith in their commitment. I was his head teaching fellow, so Julian trusted me to help him make his course as strong as it could be. This felt very different from my experiences at Harvard Law School where no one trusted the motives or abilities of anyone else. I wanted to ensure that Julian's trust was rewarded. I spent the days of summer working at a law firm, and the evenings preparing for the teaching fellowship with Bond.

I told him all the Harvard tricks I knew (and I knew a lot of them) to help make his course as strong as possible. I did not engage in law school protest thought or activity that summer. Not focusing on the Law School and its issues was great for me. It kept me sane.

I hired a bunch of my law school friends and classmates as teaching fellows for his course. (Julian Bond loved to tell the story that Barack Obama was considered for a teaching position for his course, but that I somehow didn't hire him. This is the stuff of urban legends.) We mixed it up - 2 black men, 2 black women, a white man, a white woman, and a Hispanic man, worked as fellows for the course. I wanted to mock the law school's insistence that women and minorities couldn't teach at Harvard. Wanna bet? Here we are teaching one of the most popular courses this semester at the college, and we are kicking a**. I also started to buy into the argument that we were stronger together. But as excited as we were to be there serving Bond and his class, we knew were just the supporting cast for Julian Bond's starring role as the course's professor.
While I did not have plans to be actively involved in the faculty fight when I returned to school, I did tell Bond about it. How could I not talk about a student movement with one of the founders of SNCC? We talked about student movements and whether the movement for faculty diversity at the law school made sense. Bond thought it did and he wasn't surprised by the need to fight for equality. In his experience, advancement never occurred without a fight. He also agreed that the black women law students needed to stay in school and graduate. "We really wanted black people to have great opportunities as a result of the movement. To make money if they wanted to. To attend the best schools if they wanted to. I can think of few greater opportunities than going to Harvard Law School. You should do the work and do it well. You'd be foolish to leave." So I stayed.

He also had a few words of advice "Have you ever heard of a little thing called collective student organizing? You should work with students of common thinking of all races and see if that does not propel you forward. It may not help you, but it sure won't hurt. There are folks who you are not talking to who are probably on the same page as you. They could be supporting you. That's not smart."

How He Changed Harvard

Julian Bond loved Harvard College and Harvard loved Bond back. He certainly enjoyed strolling around campus, and walking through Harvard Yard to class, and meeting graduate and undergraduate students from all disciplines who wanted to talk to him about the history of the civil rights movement, and his own storied career. I had to drag him across campus through the student crowds to make sure that he made it to class on time.

When the fall semester started we learned that there was a lot of interest in the man and the movement campus wide. The class for which we expected 100 students ended up having an enrollment of over 400. I wasn't the only Harvard student who knew who Julian Bond was. The enrollment numbers shocked me. I'd done my undergrad work at Harvard too, so I knew very well that Harvard's Afro Am department was very weak at the time. (Professor Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates was not yet in the picture.) A department that had been obtained through protest was fading because it seemed to have lost student and faculty interest in its success. The course offerings were slim and class enrollments were down year after year, students majoring in Afro Am were also down. There were very few professors who even wanted to teach Afro Am courses for the department. And here was Bond changing all that.

I told him "Professor Bond you are really doing something here with this class. The Afro Am department just doesn't see enrollments like this." Bond was pleased, but I am not sure he was surprised. He was after all Julian Bond. Bond's class was the start of a new beginning for the Afro Am department at Harvard. Enrollments went up, and eventually academic super stars came on board. They could see that the department had real possibilities and was heading in the right direction. Today, Harvard's African American studies department is one of the most celebrated on earth.

Impact

As class got into full swing and Professor Bond and I started working together almost daily. His kindness and wisdom kept me going in my last year at the law school. He was very committed to imparting wisdom about the movement, and to really helping people understand the courage and simplicity of its history. He always had time for me as his teaching fellow, and he always had time for the students in the class.

I could see that teaching about the Southern Movement for Civil Rights was a movement activity in itself for Julian Bond. He wanted students to know 3 things -1) that there was a struggle for equality in America in recent American history; 2) that the good guys won, but that the struggle was not over, and 3) that the good guys needed to keep fighting. Aside from the assignments in books and his classroom lectures, one of the best ways that Bond taught and provided historical context for the struggle, was to require each student in class to find someone in their lives who had participated in the movement, and to report back on the story. "You all know someone who was part of America's most recent, dramatic struggle for social change; they have just never told you about it. The wonderful thing about the civil rights movement is that it prevailed because of the will and sacrifice of ordinary people like you and me! That was its strength." Bond advised.
The students pursued the assignment, and they almost always found out that he was right. Civil rights activists and heroes were in their family or living next door to them. One kid reported that a parent had been a young, white freedom rider for SNCC. Another kid reported that a neighbor had protested for civil rights with King in Chicago, where some of the most brutal attacks on protesters occurred. The stories of courage and participation inspired the students. Professor Bond's lesson was clear: the civil rights movement didn't prevail solely because Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or John Lewis led courageously, or because Julian Bond organized with SNCC. The civil rights movement prevailed because the good guys all worked on it together. It was a non-violent social movement for the people, by the people and of the people - and it was one of the most effective social movements in the history of the United States.

As I said, I was a student of civil rights history, but until I worked for Bond I didn't understand much more than "what happened". He helped me and so many others to understand why it happened, and how non-violent social change can happen again and again and again because we the people are the ones who make it happen.

The Crowded Road to Civil Rights

My radical self would complain to Bond about the "crowded road for civil rights" and how black people - who led the way forward - didn't get their share from America. "Women are in the work force because black people opened the door for equality at work, and yet white women make more and have better jobs than the folks who opened the door. Asians who were cast aside in America until the movement came, and now they are the "model minority" - making the money - while we were still holding the door that we opened. It is not fair." Bond schooled me. "Angela, the road for civil rights is never 'crowded'. We have rebuilt the road and made space on it for all - and yes, we black people paved the way. That's something to be proud of and celebrate. But you've got to continue fighting for complete equality. You can't stop fighting -ever. We are still black and in America. But there's no denying that things are better in this country - for all of us - because of this struggle. "

The Julian Bond I knew was modest, super fun, incredibly smart, gracious, kind and good, and he always had excellent stories to tell. And he was generous with himself and everyone he met. He made it clear to me that he believed in me - and he put his faith in me at a pretty important time in his life - at his Harvard debut, post his political career. It was likewise, a challenging and important time in my life. The messages I felt I was receiving from Harvard Law School was that as a black woman, I was really nothing and didn't matter at all. Julian Bond said otherwise - and because I believed him, I could move on and focus on being the best me I could be. Ultimately, like everybody else who ever knew him, I fell in love with the man. He was magnetic, committed to good work, and a lover of people. He cared as much about the well-being of others as he did about himself.

I knew that I wanted to contribute some lasting change to the world in the same way that he had. Because of my friendship with him, and belief in Bond, I too try to make a difference in one of today's platform for protest and social change- the not for profit sector.

I clicked with Bond when I was in my mid-twenties, and I kept in touch with him until the day he died a year ago in August. He and his wife Pamela Horowitz became my true friends. He was a mentor and someone I looked up to. I watched him fight for gay rights at the NAACP and throughout the nation, I appreciated it when he got me appointed to the NAACP Foundation's board. It was my great privilege to know and befriend someone who changed the world!
When I took up his mantle in some small way by serving as a founding member of a national anti-poverty organization, he honored me and the work by serving on our Advisory board. His support advanced the work, and helped Single Stop serve over a million people in the United States who were living in poverty - all ages, races, sexes, and ambitions. I think he was happy to know me in some small way, and respected my efforts to "do good", but more fundamentally he told me openly that he wished me much happiness in life, and personal freedom and contentment. Because that was also was also what the movement's fight was all about - a happy life, personal freedom, and contentment.

When Julian Bond died last year at the age of 75, I realized that the nation had lost a great warrior - and someone who was uniquely interested in standing up for what was right whatever the consequences. I also felt a personal loss, and mourned the loss of his friendship - as anyone does - when they lose a loved one or a close friend. I think about ways to continue to honor his memory, and his great contributions to the United States.

Some of honoring him just boils down to being happy, and enjoying the privileges and opportunity that freedom and this wonderful nation brings. Honoring him also means staying in the fight, speaking up against what is obviously wrong and doing what I believe is right.

Bond never forgot his time at Harvard. One rarely does. A month before he died, he introduced me to a friend of his as his Harvard teaching fellow from "when I taught at Harvard. I just love saying that." said Julian Bond.

This is in loving tribute to my friend Julian Bond - gone but not forgotten. The struggle continues. We won't let you down. Rest in power.