POLITICS
08/18/2015 05:40 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2015

The Story Behind An Iconic Picture Of Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond

An often-forgotten battle for free speech rights started when the activist took a stand to take his seat.

Julian Bond, an icon of the civil rights movement, died Saturday, and memories of his legacy and work over the decades have poured in from across the nation.

As news of the leader’s death resonated with both old allies and the new wave of activists waging a battle for racial justice, a striking image of a young Bond swept social media.

The nearly 50-year-old image depicts the new members of the Georgia General Assembly standing to take the oath of office in 1966 -- a requirement that the state constitution imposed on every newly elected representative. This group included Bond, who had won a special election and was poised to take his seat as the member from the 136th District, representing Fulton County.

But he didn’t.

Bill Wilson/Atlanta Journal Constitution/AP

The irony of the photo is that Bond was physically at his seat, yet remained unsworn. The House clerk had barred him from the solemn moment because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, which colleagues said rendered Bond unfit to serve.

The dispute touched off a monumental battle over the meaning of the Constitution and the freedom it affords state legislators to express their views, even those that stood in conflict with national policy. The legal fight would make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the days leading up to the Jan. 10, 1966, swearing-in ceremony, 75 members of the Georgia House of Representatives filed a petition charging that Bond’s opposition to the war “gave aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and Georgia, violated the Selective Service laws, and tended to bring discredit and disrespect on the House.” 

It turns out the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group for which Bond was serving as communications director, had issued a manifesto condemning the Vietnam War. Inspired in part by the murder of one of its own members on American soil, SNCC argued that the U.S. government was engaging in double-talk by seeking the freedom of the Vietnamese abroad while denying it to people within its own borders.

“We ourselves have often been victims of violence and confinement executed by United States governmental officials,” the SNCC statement read. “We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.”

Bond didn’t draft the statement. But this part seemed to have touched a nerve with Georgia lawmakers: “We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the ‘freedom’ we find so false in this country.”

The same day the SNCC statement was released, and less than a week before the new Georgia legislature was scheduled to be sworn in, a radio reporter asked Bond about the issue. Bond was unequivocal.

“I agree with this statement because of the reason set forth in it,” he told the reporter, according to a lower court opinion, “because I think it is sorta hypocritical for us to maintain that we are fighting for liberty in other places and we are not guaranteeing liberty to citizens inside the continental United States.”

Bond’s statement of support, the lawmakers charged in their petition, was “totally and completely repugnant to and inconsistent with the mandatory oath” required by the Georgia Constitution. And so in their view, it stood to reason that Bond could not take an oath to support that constitution. By extension, they argued, he couldn’t support the federal Constitution, either.

The day of the swearing-in, Bond was not allowed to take the oath. He still watched the rest of the Georgia House of Representatives do so, his blank stare and folded hands captured forever, as colleagues all around him raised their right hands and made their constitutional pledge.

At a special committee hearing after the ceremony, Bond again reiterated his support for the SNCC statement “without reservation,” and even praised those who took a stand against the war and faced the consequences of burning their draft cards, even though he never advocated “that people should break laws.” He himself still had his card, he noted, offering to produce it if asked. 

Bond saw the matter as one of free speech and equality for all legislators, “for no member of this House, has ever, to my knowledge, been called upon to explain his public statements for public postures as a prerequisite to admission to that Body," he said, according to Supreme Court documents.

“The fact of my election to public office does not lessen my duty or desire to express my opinions even when they differ from those held by others,” Bond continued. “As to the current controversy, because of convictions that I have arrived at through examination of my conscience, I have decided I personally cannot participate in war.” 

And with that testimony, the special committee, and later the full House, voted overwhelmingly against the seating of Bond.

Determined to sit, Bond joined forces with none other than Martin Luther King Jr. to sue the Georgia legislature in federal court. Among other claims, Bond alleged that his exclusion from the oath had been racially motivated, that his First Amendment rights had been violated and that his constituents had been denied a republican form of government. 

As the case awaited resolution, Bond was re-elected not once, but twice, to the same district seat. A lower court ruled against him, and the Supreme Court eventually got hold of the case. On the day the court held oral arguments, the representative-elect had won his third election just two days earlier. 

“That can be very little doubt that Mr. Bond is the choice of the voters in House District 136,” said one of the lawyers who argued before the court.

The justices confronted two key questions: Was the Georgia legislature only hindering Bond’s right to express dissenting views? Or were the district's voters -- the vast majority of whom were black -- also being deprived of their right to seat a representative of their choosing?

Answering that latter question would have been messy. And so the court instead opted to zero in on the speech issue.

This came at a time when Chief Justice Earl Warren's court was breaking substantial new ground for individual rights and civil liberties: Two years earlier, the justices had decided New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark First Amendment case that gave the press heightened protections from accusations of defamation. 

And it was on the First Amendment question that Georgia’s case unraveled. During a bruising part of the state’s presentation, Justice Tom C. Clark asked Arthur K. Bolton, the Georgia attorney general, point-blank: “Would it be constitutional if Georgia or any other state put in its constitution a provision that no one should be qualified to [serve] in the state legislature if they were opposed to the national foreign policy?”

His argument reduced to nothing, Bolton had no option but to concede the state’s case to Bond.

“I don’t think that this court would hold that was constitutional, no sir,” he said.

Less than a month later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Bond in Bond v. Floyd. Writing for the court, Warren rejected one by one each of the legislature’s arguments, including its contention that Bond’s position incited others to evade the draft and violate federal law. 

Most notably, the court shot down the argument that a legislator's statements should be held to “a stricter standard” under the First Amendment than those of private citizens. In other words, if a radical civil rights group couldn’t be prosecuted for vocalizing its opposition to the war, neither could a lawmaker like Bond.

“The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy,” Warren wrote. And quoting from the Sullivan case, he said that the “central commitment of the First Amendment ... is that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” 

The court concluded with this: “Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them.”

Bond went on to serve in the Georgia General Assembly for 20 years.

His legal battle is hardly remembered as a milestone for free speech. But as Professor Garrett Epps pointed out in The Atlantic, the Supreme Court would later apply the principles established in Bond to federal lawmakers. Anthony Lewis, the late First Amendment historian, called Bond “a signal decision” that set the Supreme Court apart from the era’s rampant Vietnam War hysteria.

Fifty years later, nobody questions the freedom elected officials are given to express all kinds of views, even those that seem extreme. We can begin by crediting Julian Bond for the way things are -- all because he took a stand for his views and for his right to take his seat.
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