Julian Bond's Lesson: We Can All Sit Down

To hear him tell it, Julian Bond's long career as a civil rights activist began almost by accident: sitting in a cafeteria in Atlanta's Morehouse College, Julian was approached by another student angrily waving a newspaper. That student showed Julian an article about sit-ins in Greensboro and asked him what he thought about them. When Julian said he thought the sit-ins were "a great idea," the other student told him to go around the cafeteria with him to solicit volunteers. So the Atlanta sit-in movement, and Julian's role in it, were born, in his words, of "peer pressure."

That self-deprecating attitude was typical of Julian's modest and deceptively low-key approach to social activism. Julian was a titan of the civil rights movement, a key figure in the struggle against poverty, and more recently an influential voice in support of gay rights and marriage equality. But when spending time with him, you could never quite believe how grounded and down-to-earth this man -- who had seen and played a role in so much of our recent history -- could remain.

It's fair to say Julian Bond had a spectacular career. But what made Julian so special was his kindness, his unflagging patience and courtesy, and his willingness to mentor younger generations, with the benefit of his experience and his example. What made him great were the personal values he married to his historic accomplishments.

My colleague Angela Dorn and I were lucky enough to know Julian well and benefit from his vast experience and even more boundless generosity. Just a few weeks ago he joined us as keynote speaker at an event in Philadelphia, infusing the room with his inimitable wit and charm.

Julian was always underplaying his own role in history: when asked what he did during the March on Washington on that sweltering day in August 1963, Julian would often say his job was to hand out Cokes to the "movie stars." One of the highlights of that day for him? Sammy Davis Jr. telling him "thanks, kid!" as he pointed finger and thumb at him, gun-style.

Julian's purpose in belittling his own role was to remember not to dwell in the past. Yes of course, these were historic events in which he'd participated. But Julian refused to rest on his laurels. He understood better than anyone that the struggle for social justice was never over. History did not grind to a halt after the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Poverty persisted; inequality increased; discrimination diversified. And racism, banished from the front rooms of politics, skulked to the byways and back corridors, continuing to exert its insidious pull, consciously and unconsciously.

That's why Julian was much more at home meeting with and mentoring a new generation of activists than he was waxing lyrical about the glories of the Civil Rights movement. More than any of his contemporaries, you could find Julian at the flashpoints of today's debates about inequality and injustice. Because Julian understood that everything was connected, and the fight for rights and recognition continues. You could not advocate for racial equality without championing social justice; you could not fight the wealth gap without appreciating its disparate impact on the lives of minorities. To be an activist meant to tackle injustice in all its manifestations.

As always, Julian was nonchalant about his own contribution. He used to say: "I could do this one thing - sit down."

Wow, and could Julian sit. And walk.

As can we all.

That was why, in the end, Julian's heroes were the followers, not the leaders. His genius lay in reversing the usual trope of social activism. There would always be a transcendent and inspiring leader, but s/he was nothing without a willing army of footsoldiers to do the hard, good work of change.

Most of all, Julian believed in the power of the people. He was not one for the Great Man of History theory. Change came about person by person, step by step, word by word.

Once again, Julian himself put it best:

Most of those who made the movement were not famous, they were the faceless. They were the nameless, the marchers with tired feet, the protesters beat back with fire hoses and billy clubs, and the unknown women and men who risked job and home and life.

And his struggle isn't over. When fires burn in Ferguson and the front pages report Gilded Age levels of inequality, America still faces huge obstacles -- obstacles that can diminish her greatness and cripple her future. But it isn't a foregone conclusion that these obstacles will stand in our way. We can -- and with enough ordinary folks each doing their small part, we shall -- overcome.

The course of our future boils down to two simple questions:

Can you sit? Will you march?