Mary remembers Julian Bond

17 August, 2015

Julian Bond: In Memoriam

By Mary Elizabeth King

Julian Bond, with historian Howard Zinn to his left, Andy Shalal (prop. Busboys and Poets) at head of table, his wife lawyer Pamela Horowitz opposite him, and Mary King to his right (2009).

Excerpts from Chapter 6, “Communications,” in Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987).

. . . . The civil rights movement could not succeed without significant coverage by the national news corps, but to accomplish this aspect of our strategy would not be easy. The primary reason for this difficulty was that the activities and grievances of the black community were not considered newsworthy. We would have to overcome this fundamental obstacle that stood in the way of mobilizing public opinion. To do this, SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] created a function called Communications that was based in its Atlanta headquarters. It was to play a little-understood but key role in the conflict. How it did this is an important part of the larger saga of the civil rights movement.

“BE SPECIFIC. ASK QUESTIONS. SUMMARIZE OFTEN.” The words leaped out from a mimeographed circular about gathering news information that I sent from the Communications office in the Atlanta headquarters in 1964 to all of SNCC’s field offices across the southern states and to each of the local offices in Mississippi. These were instructions that I asked to be followed when Julian Bond, I, or someone else called from the Communications office:

Distinguishing phrases must be used. There is a difference between being shot at, being shot, and shot down; between being hit with fists and beaten with blackjacks; between being taken into custody and being arrested; between city, county, and state police.

I asked for information: What? Where? When? Who? How? I explained that “this means names, ages, dates, locations, back-ground, and organizational affiliation.” I suggested underlining important data, pointed out that “all interpretative statements (not specific facts) should be attributed to someone,” and advised that headlining would be useful.

It’s difficult to grasp now that anything as pedestrian as registering potential voters or as prosaic as gathering in a church could have been a life-threatening act in the United States of America only twenty-five years ago, when, particularly in rural areas, law enforcement agents collaborated with vigilantes and terrorist groups. Whatever small protection we had came through news reports that brought our actions to the attention of the nation and broke the cover of secrecy. So little has been written about the civil rights movement from the inside that it is fair to say that, with the exception of those involved at the time, no one knows how important the effective use of the news media was to our safety, and even our lives.

Whenever a field secretary was jailed or a church mass-meeting bombed, whenever night riders struck or firebombings occurred, whenever a local leader’s home was shot into, or any other serious act perpetrated, Julian Bond and I went into high gear. The presence of a reporter at a jail or a telephone inquiry from a newspaper was often the only step that let a local sheriff know he was being watched. Our job, in mobilizing the press, was to make local law officers feel that they were under scrutiny, thereby providing a measure of safety for civil rights workers.

My memorandum to the field offices was followed by an “urgent memo” from Jim Forman to all field staff. In it, he said that it was mandatory to follow the procedures I had earlier outlined. Jim went one step further and urged SNCC workers to pose as journalists-something that Julian and I were routinely doing: “If the incident is an arrest, start calling the jail posing as a reporter for an Atlanta or Washington or New York newspaper. This is extremely important. Police may modify violence. Try to get information.”

First from Atlanta, in 1963 and the first half of 1964, and then from Jackson, in the rest of 1964 and 1965, I spent my days and nights telephoning our field offices or receiving incoming phone calls, and then telephoning the news media to place the stories obtained from our field secretaries. It was normal for me to work seven days a week and from twelve to sixteen hours a day. The information that I collected from the field offices was compiled into a daily “WATS Line Report.” As I or someone else finished the compendium, I slipped a carbon copy into a personal file in the left-hand drawer of my desk along with other papers that I was collecting for my own records. I had no plan for using these documents; I merely thought they were worth keeping.

In 1963, SNCC introduced a technological change that increased the effectiveness of the Communications office by installing three Wide Area Telephone Service—WATS—lines, special trunk lines that allowed us to call all over the country for a set monthly rate of what I think was approximately three hundred dollars for each line. This advance made a tremendous difference to us because it meant we could telephone long-distance without considering the individual cost of each call. No WATS lines installed by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company ever got more use than SNCC’s.

To reduce the cost even further, Julian and I set up a list of dummy surnames, using the names of trees, so that we could re-fuse to accept incoming collect phone calls with reversed charges, only to re-dial the call on the WATS line seconds later. A collect call from John Chestnut might mean that Atlanta should telephone Ruleville, Mississippi; a collect call from John Maple might mean that we should get back to the Greenville office; reversed charges from John Pine might mean that Julian or I should call McComb. We used this technique as long as we could until the local operators figured it out.

What did we do with the information we collected? This WATS line system was a vital connection among individual field secretaries, local offices across the region, state offices, and the headquarters. We used this lifeline for a host of purposes-to co-ordinate action, gather information or news stories as they occurred, break those items into the news media, send messages, issue telegrams, call press conferences, lessen reprisals, and some-times to save lives. . . . [pp. 214–16]

News story after news story-about arrests, beatings, fire-bombings, night riders, church burnings, and the economic reprisals that represented more subtle efforts to squash local movements-made the national news through the network of connections that Julian Bond and I managed. This trellis of press contacts was a necessity. To the national press, these were local stories; to the news corps in the region they were not stories at all because of whom they were about-members of the black community. In rare accounts of a criminal court case, black people were referred to disparagingly in the press as “the Smith woman” or “the Williams man.” Few of the big-city southern daily news-papers, with the usual exception of The Atlanta Constitution, carried mention of the stories we were trying to break. The AP [Associated Press] and UPI [United Press International], wire services, even though disseminating their accounts from bureaus in all of the state capitals staffed by regular employees, often depended on local reporters, or “stringers,” to file stories with the regional bureau. Thus, whatever the wire service carried was often written by a reporter from a local newspaper such as The Jackson Clarion-Ledger or The Selma Times-Journal; because of the ingrained bias of reporters writing for these local newspapers, these could scarcely be construed as straight news stories.

Most of the time neither the AP nor UPI would make any mention of the latest violence. Here is where Julian’s and my network of connections came into play. We would call our Friends of SNCC offices in northern cities and ask them to telephone the regional AP or UPI wire-service bureaus to inquire if the particular news item was being carried. SNCC’s northern coordinator—in succession, Casey Hayden, Dinky Romilly, and later Betty Garman—sometimes helped with these calls. When the Friends of SNCC inquired of AP or UPI their questions would usually prompt the news bureaus in those cities to teletype a query to the Atlanta regional bureau of both wire services. Having received such requests for information from their regional offices in the Northeast, the Middle Atlantic, the West Coast, or the Middle West, the Atlanta AP and UPI wire-service bureaus would be obligated to carry a dispatch over their national wires. To do that, they would have to ask a state bureau or request that an affiliated newspaper send a stringer to the site to file an account. Getting a reporter, any reporter, to the scene could save lives, and did.

Public exposure was critical for the success of our strategy but in no area was the role of the news media more necessary than when civil rights workers were jailed. Sheriffs, their deputies, and the so-called courthouse crowd (which Bob Moses once described as “the old farmers and the young ones and the thugs, an all-man male chorus”) who lingered about the county seats watching for action might beat our staff or provoke their beating with impunity-unless they believed that they were under some form of surveillance. . . . [222–23]

The typewriter on which I composed the reports was faulty. Its capital letters jumped up a half space giving a crazy confusion to the accounts—all of our typewriters were donated, so characters were frequently missing and something was usually dysfunctional. . . . [225]

When Communications wasn’t functioning as a life-saving apparatus, our operation was gathering affidavits, publishing special reports, monitoring daily events in the lives of far-flung field secretaries, and servicing the information needs of the national news corps. Communications had, since SNCC’s formation, also published our newspaper called The Student Voice. In 1964, we took an important step and started printing this weekly tabloid on our own photo-offset presses. They were run by a leggy, energetic white staff member named Mark Suckle who sprouted a thatch of flaming red hair. The information for all of these activities, however, was funneled through the WATS-line telephoning process. . . . [226]

Although they were mostly humorless and devoid of commentary, there were occasional lapses in the WATS Line Reports. So it was one autumn day when we had received no response from Selma: The evening report read, “Selma—no answer (Where art thou, Selma? You are like the spring, out of season)”

The FBI, supposed to be upholding the Constitution, was a major factor in the thwarting of constitutional rights for blacks in the South. Julian Bond and I made it a practice to report any incident or atrocity to the FBI, a formality we knew in advance would be futile, because of the frequent collusion between the FBI and local law officers. In its 1960 report, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission politely noted that the FBI was closely allied to local police forces because of mutual need in the solving of ordinary crimes. Yet, SNCC workers knew, there was a simpler explanation-the FBI agents in the South tended to be segregationists. Whenever I telephoned the FBI, they seemed more interested in recording my name, address, date and place of birth (presumably for the dossier of one Mary Elizabeth King) than they were in obtaining the facts that I was calling to report. I would try to put the facts across, offering details of each incident, but these points were brushed over as the agent zeroed in on me. Even though Julian and I thought that it would do no good, SNCC had embarked on the wobbly path of hope that the FBI could eventually be forced to do its proper job, and we believed that we should lay the groundwork by providing the agency with a steady flow of information. We informed the bureau methodically of every incident. It was boring and sometimes humiliating, but we were still a reformist movement seeking to change existing institutions. I thought it was required of us to act on the theory that the FBI, the federal agency charged with upholding U.S. law, would actually do so.

Sometimes I fantasized about the extent of the influence Julian and I could exert across the country with our WATS lines. There we were hunched over two telephones on an obscure street in southwest Atlanta. Yet we were mobilizing support groups in all the key cities around the country, contriving to make it impossible for the wire services to walk away from a story, rousing the national press corps into action, trying to prod the FBI into doing right. All of this we did with but two telephones crooked in our necks.

In retrospect, I realized that this gave me a sense of what might be called personal power—that is, the ability to effectuate—that few people my age had the opportunity to experience, for I came to expect to read the results of my telephone call in The New York Times the next day. It took me almost ten years to realize it, but a strange thing was happening. I was developing from this work a need that was subsequently to influence many life decisions. Before I was barely into my twenties, the skills I had acquired allowed me to have an effect on certain national issues that many people far older than I and in more powerful positions did not have. I began to hope that, whatever I was doing with my life, I would not only be breaking ground, but would be making broad positive impact. . . . [228–29]

I used to visualize New York City as the communications center of the planet. As I pictured it, Julian and I were like David up against Goliath, only we were contesting skyscrapers filled with editors sporting green eyeshades and plastic cuffs to protect their shirt sleeves from smudging. These editors, in my mind’s eye, were busily lining out with red pencil anything that might arouse sympathy in the copy sent by their correspondents in the South, or they were dropping stories of the civil rights struggle unceremoniously into their trash bins. One reporter showed me the story on Mississippi he was filing with his editors at Time. It was well-researched and rousing copy with breadth and depth. When I saw later what the editors ran, it had an unrecognizable pall.

It would be inaccurate to say that Julian and I had total faith in the news media. Many instances of indifference or even malice linger in my memory. Even now, I remember the day in 1963 that I picked up Roland Evans and Robert Novak, the syndicated Washington columnists, and read how they attempted to discredit the movement by describing SNCC as the “nonstudent violent coordinating committee.”

Concerning those journalists and columnists who were seriously interested in covering the movement, Julian and I had drawn an invisible line in the sand barring emotional investment in the stories they were filing. I suppose they felt the same way about us. We came to respect individuals like Claude Sitton and Karl Fleming and, later, Paul Good of ABC-TV, who broke with his network because he believed its editorial position was not positive enough on the struggle.

I also thought highly of a reporter named Fred Powledge of The Atlanta Journal and another, Jack Nelson of The Atlanta Constitution, both men of integrity and ability. Fred’s reportage was accurate enough that he was wooed away to The New York Times. Jack was born in Talladega, Alabama, and had won a Pulitzer Prize for his story on Georgia’s central state mental hospital. He later became Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. Fred and Jack were among a small group of southern white re-porters from rural backgrounds who showed discernment and courage in standing up against the prevailing bias. As time has sifted and sorted my experiences, the four white southern reporters among the national news corps who stand out in my memory as having shown unusual perception and understanding—Claude Sitton, Karl Fleming, Jack Nelson, and Fred Powledge—still have my admiration.

Julian never showed anger but I am positive he felt what I did, continual consternation over the lukewarm, equivocating stories most reporters wrote. It may not have been fair for us to feel this way. Nicholas Von Hoffman probably thought he offered strong coverage through The Chicago Daily News, but most of the time when I was dealing with Nick, I was furious that he would not go further or make more definitive statements. I remember Jim Forman’s exasperation with him for the same reason.

Yet it was through these experiences of handling the national press, despite my being so young, that I learned not to let my anger stand in the way of pursuing my goal or getting the job done. I would say to myself, Don’t waste time getting aggravated, Mary, just use the press—get the story out; don’t indulge your feelings. Looking back, I can understand Nick’s efforts to remain “objective.” I probably judged him harshly precisely because I sensed that he was sympathetic.

* * *

We were dependent on the news media. It grated on me, but it was true without question. We needed the media to cover the social upheaval and register the suffering from the many forms of retaliation employed against those trying to change a racist system. In addition, we relied on the media to create the impression that state, county, and municipal law officers were being observed. We also required coverage for the monumental public-education campaign that the civil rights movement had undertaken—it was the only way we could do what Ella Baker stressed: Make the rest of the country shoulder responsibility for the continued degradation of black lives in the Deep South.

In order to make the system of segregation a national problem, rather than a regional one, we had to have public information flowing on a massive basis. Using the tools of telephones and typewriters, the civil rights movement represented one of the first deliberately organized citizen efforts to use the power of electronic and print media systematically to change national opinion. One person more than anyone else was responsible for originating and developing the creativity of this approach—an enigmatic and handsome young man named Julian Bond.

From the beginning, dependency on the news media was recognized by SNCC. The first issue of its newspaper, The Student Voice, published in June 1960, contained the report of the committee on communications at SNCC’s founding conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and described the communications functions SNCC should carry out:

The Committee on Communications recommended:

A. The publishing of a newsletter to be distributed within the movement and to supporting groups. It should contain, among other articles, news reports sent in from areas all across the South.

B. A system of flash reports to alert the nation of emergencies and serious developments.

C. The release of press statements on the movement.

D. The issuing of public and interpretive statements.

E. The development of public relations pamphlets.

There is more to placing news stories, however, than issuing releases. Julian and I had to be believable. This required that we meticulously check the facts we passed on to journalists and that we verify all the information contained in each news release. I picked up Julian’s style of editing as the excited, occasionally agitated, and sometimes tremulous telephone reports came in from the field. In every contact with any field secretary, we tried to emphasize the importance of being specific and differentiating terms by the questions that we asked. The accounts we ended up writing were unemotional and often dry.

It was sink-or-swim learning for me. There was no time for deliberation. I had to catch on and do it with speed. Strangely, I felt there was equity in this because Julian treated me as his peer. Never once can I remember Julian’s exaggerating anything. In fact, we tried as much as possible to minimize. We held back our opinions. Sometimes our news releases contained provocative quotations from John Lewis or Jim Forman, and, if asked, Julian or I would express our opinion for a direct quotation. But when trying to stimulate the news media, we were cautious, deliberate, and thorough. Credibility was everything. It would take only an instant for one error or overstatement to destroy that. Eventually we reached the point where Julian or I could get any story placed that we deemed important. Of course, this process of gaining credibility was accompanied by the greater sophistication of the SNCC staff, coverage in the live media of major confrontations and increased broadcast of Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s orations, and the diligence of the Friends of SNCC groups. Once this credibility was acquired, it was precious.

Whether Julian’s personality influenced this particular approach or his personality was influenced by his handling of the news media, it is hard to say. Both are probably true. Julian Bond was ideally suited for the role of Communications director. Slender, debonair, and six feet one and a half inches tall, Julian had a polish that belied his youth, and he could think fast on his feet. Imperturbable and urbane, he had a wry sense of humor. His adroit wit came easily and he never appeared to be troubled. He had a clipped manner, rarely expressed emotion, and used his refined voice and speech tonally to make humorous side comments. He also had one other curiously attractive and intriguing characteristic Julian had an air of diffidence accompanied by a sidelong glance. This is still one of his most appealing features.

The first issue of The Student Voice, in June 1960, contained a poem by Julian:

I too hear America singing

But from where I stand

I can only hear Little Richard

And Fats Domino.

But sometimes,

I hear Ray Charles

Drowning in his own tears or Bird

Relaxing at Camarillo

or Horace Silver doodling,

Then I don’t mind standing a little longer.

Julian was born with all the faculties needed to become a major figure on the American scene. His father was the distinguished black educator Horace Mann Bond, and his mother came from the elite of Nashville’s black community. Julian honed his journalistic skills as a reporter with The Atlanta Inquirer, a weekly that was an outgrowth of the Atlanta student movement. He left Morehouse College before graduating, to go to work for the movement. Like many others active in the sit-ins who had so much to lose, this scion of the black upper class put commitment ahead of personal gain and dropped out, thereby paradoxically earning greater respect.

Years after working with Julian, I stumbled across some lines he had written at the time, when he was twenty-three years old, in a small anthology of black verse that Casey Hayden gave me:

Look at that girl shake that thing.

We can’t all be Martin Luther King.

In another verse he called Ray Charles “the Bishop of Atlanta.”

Julian was the youngest person and first black ever to have his name placed in nomination for the vice-presidency at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 when he was twenty-eight years old. His suave demurral that he was too young, as indeed he was according to the U.S. Constitution, caught the eyes of the national audience.

After SNCC embarked on a course that was more political than its early days of direct-action programs, Julian was elected in 1965 to the Georgia State Assembly. With Ivanhoe Donaldson initially serving as his campaign manager, followed by Charlie Cobb, and with five hundred dollars borrowed from SNCC for qualifying fees plus another hundred dollars to open an office, the campaign was launched. This election was a benchmark in the organization’s turn toward seeking political power. Julian was prevented from taking his seat, however, until 1967 by state legislators who objected to his opposition to the war in Vietnam. His resulting lawsuit was rejected by a three-judge panel in federal court, but in the meantime he was twice reelected to the seat he could not fill. He finally took office in 1967 as a result of a landmark Supreme Court decision, and he served in the Georgia State Assembly for twenty years.

I admired Julian and his reserve. I have rarely liked anyone so much. He was talented and articulate. He also managed always to stand above the fray of daily conflict. I liked that quality about him. I decided that I, too, should work on achieving more distance from needless conflict.

His political stance was like his sidelong glance—he almost never took a hard stand or positioned himself on one side or another of any raging SNCC issue; if pushed to speak on a pending policy question, he would most likely respond with an observation. It was as if he wouldn’t allow himself to be sullied by dissension. Julian had so much to be conceited about and yet he was wholly unpretentious. He was also maddeningly self-contained, so much so that one longed to feel close to him.

Sometimes I dreamed about Julian with ill-concealed distress over my inability to know him deeply. A key broke off in my hand in one of my dreams, and in another I was searching for him but unable to find him. In one dream I was looking for a word in an unabridged dictionary while he sat writing at his desk opposite mine, but as I struggled, endlessly turning page after page of the massive tome, frustrated, I could not find the word. I spent most of my waking hours with Julian and had so much respect for him, and yet there remained large areas about him that I could not penetrate. . . .    [231–36]