The Legacy of Julian Bond

There is nothing like being in the presence of a leader. Not just a person who can draw a crowd’s attention, or whose approach and ideas are worth emulating, but who blazes a trail for others to follow. The rare kind of person who doesn’t stand atop others, but who lifts others up.

One of our country’s greatest leaders passed away this week. Julian Bond was one of America’s most dedicated fighters of injustice and he blazed a trail for civil and human rights. He was an icon, remembered for his intelligence and wit.

As Morris Wells from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group once led by Julian Bond, said, “He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.”

While many witnessed his leadership, I was among the lucky few who got to call him my professor.

We met at American University in the fall of 2009 and every week, he guided our class through a project he called “Preserving the Oral Histories of the Civil Rights Movement.” His charge was to research, interview, and document hundreds of personal narratives that when woven together, made up the Civil Rights Movement.

With each interview request we made that semester, whether it was to one of the first students to integrate Baltimore schools, or a woman who helped organize logistics for the March on Washington, the response would almost always be the same: “you want to document my story?” One woman even asked me, “Why, if you have Julian Bond as a professor, would you spend your time talking with me?”

But Professor Bond taught us that in order to preserve the true story of what happened during the Civil Rights Movement – or any moment in history – thousands of people needed to lend their voice.

I know with some certainty that I didn’t take full advantage of Professor Bond’s generosity and knowledge. With his passing, I’m sure I’m not alone in dwelling on the questions I wish I could ask him now. So, in tribute to the man that I called professor, I present to you a challenge: find time today, this week or this month to preserve someone else’s story. Take a break from talking and focus on really listening to a colleague, neighbor, sibling, parent, friend or even stranger.Ask them questions, and honor their experiences.

Julian Bond was a leader who believed that every individual has a voice to be heard and every person has a contribution to history. But it’s only when we step aside and listen—really listen – that we show each other how much we matter.

Professor Bond, I can think of no greater leadership lesson than that.

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