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Eleanor Holmes Norton Remembers Julian Bond


This moment has stuck with me since I was hardly more than a kid. There was a film called "Mississippi Burning," a big movie, but much criticized - a story of the civil rights movement that included no major black characters. It centered instead on two white FBI agents played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. Hackman went on television to defend his movie in early 1989. And the great actor was drawn into debate with a guy I'd never heard of, Julian Bond, a man who'd been part of the civil rights movement. Bond said two things; first, that Gene Hackman had given a brilliant performance, and second, that "Mississippi Burning" was a terrible movie. He said this so elegantly that Gene Hackman seemed disarmed, and, in my memory at least, Hackman came close to agreeing with Julian Bond at one point. That's what I remembered. When do you ever see a TV debate where one person actually persuades the other person? That question came to mind when Julian Bond died over the weekend. He spent more than half a century working for civil rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton knew him for many years. She is Washington, D.C.'s delegate in Congress, and she's on the line. Congresswoman Norton, welcome to the program.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Thank you, good to be with you.

INSKEEP: How typical of Julian Bond was that moment I saw on television?

NORTON: Well, in a - in a real sense, that epitomizes the talent that Julian had when I first knew him in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I mean, Julian was the spokesman. He also was the writer. At that point, he would be the press man for SNCC - or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - precisely because of his ability to think through tough issues and to give good answers. And that's what you heard - him in the Hackman debate.

INSKEEP: Now, you mention the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We should explain for people that was founded, I believe, around 1960. It was active in the South, leading voter registration drives and sit-ins in the South. And Julian Bond talked about that on NPR in 2010. Let's listen to a little bit of that.


JULIAN BOND: I think our greatest triumph was that we existed at all, that these young people of college age, some of high school age, a couple a little older, put together an organization against the advice of our elders, dropped out of college, many of us against the advice of our parents, created an organization that dared to go into the rural South where resistance to racial justice was at its greatest. The fact that we were able to do this at all and do it successfully and win victories I think is a great triumph that all of us who had anything to do with this are immensely proud of today.

INSKEEP: Weren't you one of those people, Eleanor Holmes Norton?

NORTON: I was, but I was not like Julian, one of the very founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was the student civil rights movement, and it was not formed by elders. It was formed by the students themselves, called together by a fear. A woman named Ella Baker, who, when seeing these students in their sit-ins around the country, wondered if they didn't want to come together in North Carolina and form their own organization.

And what was really different is that SNCC was not the student group of some organization in the movement. It was a brand-new organization. And it became the shock troops for the movement itself, coming into the most racially biased, segregated, tormented, dangerous parts of the South before the other organizations - before the NAACP, even before the Southern Leadership Conference with - with Martin Luther King. For example, SNCC was in Selma before Dr. King came to Selma.

INSKEEP: Did SNCC push older civil rights leaders to go a little farther than they wanted to go?

NORTON: Oh, it did. It was - it was sometimes at odds. But in a real sense, all of these groups - there were about five of these groups - were in concert. And they would - they would come to a particular part of the South. It was the part that SNCC had just gone into on its own, and everyone saw it as more ripe than the next part. For opening, you go to North Carolina, you go to Alabama, you go to Tennessee - SNCC was usually there first. There were always NAACP chapters there. There was always some group there. But in terms of facing off against the racial discrimination in that particular locale, it could be as simple as you couldn't go into a restaurant or it could be as dangerous as you couldn't register to vote.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you one other thing, Eleanor Holmes Norton, in the few seconds we have left, Julian Bond got arrested in his 70s just a few years ago for civil disobedience outside the White House. He was protesting climate change. He was involved in the movement for same-sex rights. What kept him going?

NORTON: Well, this is what is perhaps most important about Julian Bond. Unlike the rest of us, who always were a part of civil rights and the movement in our own way, Julian was more ensconced in the movement for human rights throughout his lifetime than any of us. He became, of course, the chair for - of the NAACP itself, an organization...


NORTON: ...That we were not really a part of at the time.

INSKEEP: Forgive me, Eleanor Holmes Norton, I have to stop you there. But thank you for reminding us of his long career in civil rights.

NORTON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Eleanor Holmes Norton on the late Julian Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.