I traveled down the Amazon River over the 2011 Christmas and New Year holidays with civil rights icon Julian Bond and his brilliant wife Pamela Horowitz. I had gotten to know Julian and Pam, from years of traveling with them trying to raise money to secure the financial future of the NAACP. And it was an honor to be asked to serve on the host committee with President Clinton, Harry Belafonte, Dave Matthews and others to endow a chair in his name at the University of Virginia to be called the Julian Bond Professorship in Civil Rights and Social Justice.
This would be the great narrative arc in the complicated history of philanthropic investment in educating blacks from slavery to the present. From the investment in schools for newly freed slaves, to segregationist schools, to John D. Rockefeller's founding of the now famous Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, named after Rockefeller's mother (the daughter of abolitionists) Laura Spelman and conservative Baptist Minister Henry Morehouse respectively, to an endowed Professorship at Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia. This is the great American story of philanthropy.
The Julian Bond story is the culmination of a great philanthropic contradiction: the limits of philanthropy to achieve social justice and yet its role in helping to launch social justice movements that take on lives of their own.
Think of the story -- after the Civil War northern philanthropists invested mightily in the schools to educate freed blacks, most missionary and exclusive to blacks. Congress, by contrast, failed to pass laws that would have provided for public schools that could educate blacks in large numbers.
Southern members of Congress could block federal investment in improving the lot for blacks -- but they couldn't quite stop individual philanthropists from getting involved. And these philanthropists hoped that indirectly, over generations, black beneficiaries (and white ones) would become change makers and achieve what they could not. Thus, their strategy was one of appeasing whites while hoping to secure gains for blacks.
But philanthropy was no direct match for the fundamental inequity between whites and blacks -- and philanthropists just avoided the head-to-head confrontation. Southern white resistance was strong to measures that benefited blacks. Yet the Julian Bond story is the story of how the troubling compromise and underground philanthropic strategy finally paid off.
Facing Southern white resistance, philanthropist George Peabody invested in state school systems, instead of schools limited to blacks. His plan was to replicate what Horace Mann had done in Massachusetts (for whom Julian Bond's father was named -- Horace Mann Bond).
Peabody's strategy, though, was to fund white schools almost exclusively. This action was justified by a surprising claim in 1881: that white children had been denied admission to an overcrowded building in Montgomery, Alabama while the New York Missionary Society "has erected a handsome brick building exclusively for the colored race, and the white citizens of the city have to endure this painful contrast."
Simply, educate white Southerners first. Educated whites would be more tolerant -- a belief that remains deep seated and feared in the South and by conservative Americans. Even in 2012 Republican presidential candidates echo the same sentiments, fears and paranoia of how higher education -- especially in the North -- breeds liberalism, almost parroting the statements of a more than a century ago.
This whites first strategy led Horace Mann Bond to decry in 1934 that in 1890 Alabama was spending 18.4% more on white students than blacks, but by 1911 it had grown to 459% more on white students than blacks.
Yet what these philanthropists set in motions could not be stopped. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mother and grandmother were both educated at Rockefeller's Spelman College. And his father, as he did later, attended Morehouse. Julian Bond became one of only seven of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s students at Morehouse. And so the philanthropic strategy worked -- a lot.
America's greatest civil rights and social justice leaders came out of this peculiarly American philanthropic story.
A month ago I had lunch with Harry Belafonte whose recently published memoir My Song reveals that he was the philanthropist behind much of the 1950s civil rights movement. In that lunch he affirmed the civil rights musical movement in this philanthropy song. I get the honor of continuing that conversation with him at Yale on April 11, 2012.
Harry can also be justly proud that we will now have the first endowed Professorship named after Julian Bond, in Civil Rights and Social Justice. This is the perfect bookend to this movement in the song of education philanthropy story.
We face other movements of course -- the continued disparity in education between blacks and whites, boys and girls, and the bullying of LGBT kids. Philanthropy and the government are playing a role there too.
But take a moment to enjoy the American philanthropic Julian Bond song for the success that it is, inasmuch as we hear and see the discordant notes. The lessons of his song will have great meaning in the civil rights and social justice movements of today.
Follow Maxim Thorne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maximthorne