Julian Bond Vs. John Lewis: An Unforgettable Fight For Atlanta’s Fifth Congressional District
In 1986, two civil rights icons went head to head.
July 03, 2017 at 4:56 pm
Black politics are much more complex than they look. Sometimes, going back into history is what helps define the present in black politics and helps point the way forward. The fight for Atlanta’s fifth congressional district once upon a time, in 1986, pitted two civil rights icons, Julian Bond and John Lewis, against each other. It is the sort of history that tells us everything about much of black politics today: Bond, the intellectual race man beloved by blacks, loses to John Lewis, the man who sold himself particularly well to whites.
Julian Bond is one of the great figures in black political history. The son of Horace Mann Bond, an historian and university president (Lincoln University), he lived a life of relative ease as a young black man, at a time of southern segregation and open American racism. He became a great figure in the civil rights movement as a co-founder of the SNCC, an unapologetic race man as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and as a State Senator. In 1968, the year that changed American politics by being the reason why today we have delegates and superdelegates who chose which democrat will run against whichever republican for the presidency, at 28, his name was entered to be vice-president. He declined the offer, but could not decline the luster that it afforded him. He eventually became chairman of the NAACP and a wise, old, history professor at the University of Virginia. He co-founded and led the SPLC, the all important Southern Poverty Law Center. As a writer, he was very prolific, and his comic book on the Vietnam war is, to me, one of the very best political books written in American history. He attended Morehouse, and passed away in 2015.
John Lewis did not have the charmed childhood that Julian Bond had. Lewis was the son of two sharecroppers. He attended American Baptist College and Fisk University, before becoming one of the great names of the SNCC and in the civil rights movement. John Lewis was famous for having bled for the cause, due to getting battered by a police officer on “Bloody Sunday,” during the Selma marches. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. John Lewis is considered the more iconic civil rights leader, and very well known in popular culture.
In the end, John Lewis beat Julian Bond in what turned out to be a tight race, and an upset. The following are excerpts from the New York Times’s September 3rd 1986 report about the race:
With all 241 precincts reporting in the unofficial count tonight, Mr. Lewis had 34,548 votes, 52 percent of the total, to 32,170 votes for Mr. Bond.
In a race that badly strained relations in Atlanta's black community, Mr. Lewis's margin of victory appeared to come from his strong lead in white precincts on the city's north side, the last to be tabulated tonight.
Mr. Lewis, endorsed by the Atlanta newspapers and a favorite of the white liberal establishment and neighborhood organizations, swept the white vote in the first primary, and Mr. Bond captured the black vote. But in a district whose electorate is 58 percent black, that division was almost enough to give Mr. Bond a majority. He got 47 percent to Mr. Lewis's 35.
Julian Bond was the more powerful politician at time. He was a state senator, and John Lewis was a city councilman. It was he, as a state senator that fought to create the fifth congressional district that was the object of their fight. Bond, despite his alleged drug use, was the southern gentleman, the man, or woman, of intriguing erudition that is so beloved through figures like pastors and our community’s more intellectual rappers.
John Lewis had the media on his side, and the white liberal establishment. He is today famous for having been the only, or one of the only, black politicians in congress to get behind Barack Obama for the now legendary 2008 campaign that elected the first black man as President. He is a tough legislator, though not a perfect one. He was a civil rights icon, who pitted against another one, realized and worked the difference: that a black politician's way forward is to craft and execute strategy that will produce a winning coalition out of any electorate.