Welcome to "Keep the Movement Coming On," a multi-interdisciplinary symposium organized in remembrance of Julian Bond, honoring the life and legacy of this lodestar in the modern movement for civil rights and social justice. It is altogether fitting that we host this symposium here at the University of Virginia, where Julian Bond taught for twenty years—from 1992-2012—in the Corcoran Department of History. By conservative estimates, over 5,000 students enrolled in his blockbuster course on the History of the Civil Rights Movement, "making his past our present," as one student noted. Indeed, the phrase "making his past our present" captures perhaps one of the major objectives of this symposium, which looks backward and forward simultaneously: backward at the broad arc of Bond’s 50-year career as a legislator, educator, and life-long champion for civil rights and social justice, and forward to what his illustrious career demands of those of us who strive to honor him over the next two days.
Roughly two decades before Professor Bond began the work of enlightening UVA students in his classes, he had mounted the lectern here on two memorable occasions during "Black Culture Week," drawing literally thousands in February 1971, and again in February 1979, to hear him speak. Invited by the University Union and the Black Students for Freedom, Bond, a Georgia legislator by then, had been involved in the black freedom struggle since his student days at Morehouse College, where he co-founded the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights in 1960. During that same year, he became one of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The audiences who witnessed the legendary eloquence of his oratory on those occasions in the 1970s would have heard Bond make observations and sound alarms about a range of matters that still resonate today, those specifically affecting African Americans: repressive police state tactics, police brutality, "preventive detention," the "vicious cycle of poverty and powerlessness," joblessness, a failing educational system, economic inequality, environmental toxins, illegal surveillance, the "snail’s pace" of Civil Rights enforcement, the widening division between the "haves and have-nots," and above all, the destruction of democratic values. Those audiences would have heard Bond call for "widen[ing] the goals of the Civil Rights movement," for reviving the "politics of protest," and for transforming "rhetoric into action."
In organizing this event, we are guided first and foremost by the "road map" Julian Bond left us through the words he wrote, the speeches he delivered, and the stances he took—in public and private—against myriad and intractable forms of injustice. While some panelists will consider the arc and touchstones of Bond's impressive 50-year career, others will provide a critical overview of the Civil Rights Movement, assessing its achievements, measuring its failures, and formulating new strategies for continuing the never-ending struggle for freedom, justice, and social change, including in the classroom. To teach about the movement, as one participant put it, is a further way to carry it forward to a new generation, another way to keep the movement moving.
The conference theme, "Keep the Movement Coming On," is excerpted from "Faces at the Bottom of the Well," a speech Bond delivered at MIT in February 2003, in celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. There, Bond chose to focus his remarks on an aspect of King's legacy often lost in popular discourse: his consistent efforts to foreground economics and his advocacy on behalf of workers and the poor. King, Bond reminded his audience, understood that Black Americans are "almost entirely a working people . . . Our needs are identical to labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, [and] respect in their communities." Bond concluded, "That there are proportionately few black people working today is an indictment of our times and a reflection of our failure to keep the movement coming on."
Just who failed to keep the movement coming on is but one question we hope to explore over the course of these two days. Others include:
We have brought together an impressive group of scholars and activists who will take up many of these questions, and still others will surely emerge organically from our panels, discussions and the conversations in between. Representing various disciplines and professions—literature, media, history, politics, education, law, journalism, music, theater—these scholars will join a range of performers, poets, and musicians to honor and celebrate the life and legacy of Julian Bond. The participants who assemble here come together implicitly to reinforce a central conviction voiced again and again by Julian Bond:
Civil Rights are positive legal prerogatives, the right to equal treatment before the law. These are rights shared by everyone. There's no one in the United Stated who does not, or should not, share in these rights... [Securing these rights] constitutes a legal, moral, and political imperative for America—a matter of elemental justice, simple right waged against historical wrong.
Since the defining years of the "modern" Civil Rights movement, termed by some historians, "the King years," the gulf between the legal imperatives of the Civil Rights movement and "elemental justice" has widened, reminding us that the evolution of our national racial politics is far from linear and progressive. In some cases, we have witnessed the very disintegration of the law; its center has not held, as exemplified by the evisceration of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Voter suppression (particularly felon disenfranchisement) restricts voting rights to an estimated 2.6 million people even after completion of sentences. As we convene this symposium, the nation is grappling yet again with the politics of racial division, grappling with the erosion of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties, grappling with assaults on what Bond once called the "forgotten and unrepresented elements in society," those whose plight is neglected by the "comfortable, callous, and the smug." We are grappling with mass incarceration; grappling with the wanton loss of African American lives at the hands of our nation's police in the name of maintaining "law of order." As we grapple with these and other assaults on freedom, equity, and justice, the life and legacy of Julian Bond—offer us one way forward. More than ever, as we gather to honor his memory, let us endeavor to revive his spirit and the spirit of his fellow dissident students of the 1960s, who formed the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. Just as they pledged to "join [their] hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of human rights," let us gathered here commit to renewing that pledge, commit to carrying its values forward, mobilizing one and all to “keep the movement coming on."
The Program Committee
Deborah McDowell (Chair)
T'sara Nock (2018)