When late civil rights champion Julian Bond gave the commencement address at Wagner College in 2014, he quoted from his grandfather’s commencement address at Berea College, Kentucky, 123 years earlier. Born a slave, Bond’s grandfather graduated in 1891, at 28, from Berea, the South’s first non-segregated college. For many, that was a time of darkness. For others, like Bond’s grandfather, it was a time of great expectations, the beginning of the journey to victories that surely lay ahead.
“The pessimist from his corner looks out on the world of wickedness and sin and, blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future. In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil, and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe. He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories,” Bond said at Wagner, excerpting a passage from his grandfather’s speech that could have been written to describe today.
Bond was no stranger to college campuses. In the 1960s, famous as a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that brazenly opposed the Vietnam War and espoused Black Power, he drew huge crowds at campuses across the country. College women, myself included, flocked to his appearances as much to feast on his good looks as to be inspired by his exhortations of racial pride. By 2014, he was a retired college professor, having taught at American, Drexel and Harvard universities and the University of Virginia. He wished the graduating class at Wagner well and hoped that they would do good.
“Think of your task in this way,” he told them. “Two men sitting by a river see, to their great shock, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child and, to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream. ‘Come back!’ yells the man in the water. ‘We must save this baby!’ ‘You save it,’ the other yells back. ‘I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and make them stop!’ Racial minorities serve society like the canaries that miners used to carry to warn them when the underground air was becoming too toxic to breathe. But too many people want to put gas masks on the canaries instead of eliminating the poison in the air. Too many want to put life preservers on the babies, instead of stopping them from being thrown into a treacherous, dangerous stream. As you aspire to greater efforts and grander victories, you must be prepared to offer not just love, but justice; not gas masks, but pure air; not life preservers, but an end to throwing babies away.”
At 28, Bond was an elected member of the Georgia House of Representatives and the first African-American to be nominated as a major-party candidate for vice president of the United States, a candidacy he declined under the Constitution’s age guidelines. He personified the greater effort his grandfather envisioned, and witnessed grand achievements. When Bond’s life ended in August this year at 75, “grander victories” were still a dream.