Civil-rights pioneer Julian Bond died this week at the age of 75. In 1960, as a student at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bond led nonviolent protests against racially segregated facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and parks. He co-founded SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and spent years organizing and registering African-Americans to vote in the Deep South. In 1965, he was elected to the Georgia state Legislature, where legislators blocked him from being sworn in because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision to get him seated.
Julian Bond was a lifelong activist. He spoke out early for marriage equality and got arrested in front of the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He supported the Black Lives Matter movement as well.
Black Lives Matter was founded after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The movement mushroomed in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown one year ago in Ferguson, Missouri, and has grown to more than 20 chapters nationally. Black Lives Matter is making waves on the presidential campaign trail, as activists disrupt events and demand that the candidates address the issues at the core of their movement. At one recent Hillary Clinton campaign event in Keene, New Hampshire, four Black Lives Matter activists were denied entry to the venue.
“We went to New Hampshire with the intention of confronting Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told that we couldn’t come inside,” Daunasia Yancey, founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Boston, told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. CNN reporter Dan Merica had tweeted about their exclusion, which he was told was due to the room being at capacity. After that, Yancey explained: “Someone came out and invited us into an overflow room, where we could actually watch the forum. And then, one of her staffers came in and said, ‘We could offer you a couple of minutes with her.’ And we said, ‘Absolutely,’ so that we could ask her the questions that we had.”
To say the least, candidates running for president are hard to reach, unless you are a large campaign donor. The candidates’ public appearances are closely stage-managed. At campaign events in key primary states, however, where the candidates stump day in and day out, they sometimes have no choice but to speak with prospective voters. Black Lives Matter activists have been using these moments to challenge business as usual, bringing the issues of racism and inequality to a broad audience.
Yancey asked Clinton: “You and your family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused health and human services disasters in impoverished communities of color through the domestic and international war on drugs that you championed as first lady, senator and secretary of state. And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?” Julius Jones, from the Black Lives Matter movement in Worcester, Massachusetts, also questioned Clinton: “How do you actually feel that’s different than you did before? What were the mistakes? And how can those mistakes that you made be lessons for all of America for a moment of reflection on how we treat black people in this country?”
Clinton responded: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
Black Lives Matter has confronted other candidates at their speaking events, including Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, and Republican Jeb Bush. The campaign disruptions will continue, organizers say. Their website states: “We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project: taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.”
Back in 2013, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Julian Bond spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. His words there, spoken two months after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, bear remembering as the movement for justice grows in ways we can’t predict:
“We march because Trayvon Martin has joined Emmett Till in the pantheon of young black martyrs. We march because the United States Supreme Court has eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, for which we fought and died. We march because every economic indicator shows gaping white-black disparities. We march for freedom from white supremacy. But still we have work to do. None of it is easy, but we have never wished our way to freedom; instead, we have always worked our way.”