Last April, I went up to Bond on the Court sidewalk and told him I remembered those words frequently.
He smiled politely. Julian Bond, who died Sunday at the age of 75, met a lot of people.
Bond did change the law in more ways than one—as an organizer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a participant in its historic sit-in movement, in the 1960s; as a member of the Georgia General Assembly from 1966 to 1987; as board president of the Southern Poverty Law Center from 1971 to 1979; and as chair of the NAACP from 1998 to 2008.
Here’s just one change Bond made in American constitutional law. For most anyone else, Bond v. Floyd would be a lifetime’s worth of legacy. In Julian Bond’s obituaries, it is almost a footnote.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Bond was one of 11 African Americans elected to the Georgia House. But when he arrived at the state capitol on January 10, 1966, the House refused to seat him, at the urging of Representative James “Sloppy” Floyd. SNCC had issued a statement opposing the war in Vietnam and expressing support for young men who refused induction into the military. America denied justice to black people at home, the statement argued; it was impossible to believe that its war would bring justice to the people of Asia. Asked about the statement on the radio, Bond had supported it. This meant, Sloppy Floyd said, that Bond could not take a legislator’s oath to support the Constitution.
At a special House committee hearing, Bond testified, “I have never suggested or counseled or advocated that any one other person burn their draft card. In fact, I have mine in my pocket and will produce it if you wish. I do not advocate that people should break laws. What I simply try to say was that I admired the courage of someone who could act on his convictions knowing that he faces pretty stiff consequences.” The committee reaffirmed Bond’s exclusion—and so did a three-judge federal district court. Over one dissent, the panel majority wrote that the SNCC statement was a “call to action based on race; a call alien to the concept of the pluralistic society which makes this nation.” Thus the legislature had a “rational basis” for excluding Bond.
Georgia Governor Carl Sanders declared Bond’s seat vacant. The voters elected him again. The House excluded him again. Bond appealed directly to the Supreme Court. The state argued that anyone who criticized the war, and supported draft resisters, could not honestly take the legislative oath. The Court heard argument on November 10, 1966, and released its unanimous opinion less than a month later. Under the U.S. Constitution, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, Bond was entitled to his seat.
“While the State has an interest in requiring its legislators to swear to a belief in constitutional processes of government, surely the oath gives it no interest in limiting its legislators’ capacity to discuss their views of local or national policy,” Warren wrote for a unanimous Court. “We therefore hold that the disqualification of Bond from membership in the Georgia House because of his statements violated Bond’s right of free expression under the First Amendment.” Bond served for 20 years, first in the House, then in the State Senate. Sloppy Floyd died in 1974; remembering him, Georgia Secretary of State Ben Fortson told the press, “Floppy Soyd was a great man.” His name lives on, emblazoned on various state office buildings, and on a state park where children come to play.