Sherwood's Notebook: Take a Seat …With History

Try Googling the late civil rights icon Julian Bond.

In a life full of activism, historic achievement and honors, none of the pictures show him relaxing quietly on a bench.

But this week a bench took center stage.

“He liked the idea of sitting on a bench,” recalled Bond’s widow Pamela Horowitz. “He walked in the neighborhood a lot because he said it was his thinking time.”

On Monday, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase) joined in celebrating a new bench in Bond’s honor. Its proclamation said Bond walked and sat along Connecticut Avenue, “always greeting both neighbors and strangers with kindness and consideration.” The bench sits in the shadow of the Chevy Chase Community Center at Connecticut Avenue and McKinley Street NW, only a small plaque acknowledging his storied life.

“I know it might seem modest for such a grand life, such a giant of a man,” said Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh. “But he would be delighted to know that this bench was here.”

And the accolades kept coming.

Joyce and Dorie Ladner, two sisters involved in the civil rights movement and accomplished in their own right, knew the quiet-spoken but determined leader who had steel will behind his boyish demeanor. The bench “tells a side of him that people don’t know,” Joyce Ladner said. “And I think that’s important.”

She said he would sit and talk with anyone: “Part of that was because of the way he carried himself. He wasn’t interested in being famous.”

Dorie Ladner was there with her young grandson, Seyoum Gipson.

“What do you want him to know when he grows up?” we asked.

“I want him to know that he is a free black man,” she said without hesitation. “And he’s able to move in and out of different circles unencumbered and to not be afraid to compete in the world.”

Courtland Cox stood quietly in Monday’s crowd, as usual. Cox also doesn’t seek public acknowledgement, but he has been a fixture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, including stints in Deep South Mississippi. He said it’s important that people today and in the future do not romanticize the civil rights movement, its bold push against legal segregation and the unspeakable violence against the civil rights workers.

“It was terror. Basically we were dealing with terror,” he told the Notebook. “You did not know at any time riding down any of those highways in Mississippi that you would be shot, or bombed in Alabama. Those were very terrifying times.”

Cox said Bond was important as a key contact with the authorities and any sympathetic media. Many local demonstrations or attacks were not reported unless word got to Bond.

■ “Race Man” explained. Some who visit the bench might at first be startled. Its plaque reads: In Memory of Julian Bond, 1940 – 2015, “Race Man,” A Life Dedicated to Civil Rights.

The phrase dates to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and debates about black liberation, the role of women and who could best represent African-American communities. Bond acknowledged the intellectual and cultural discussions. He knew some segregationist whites might hurl the name “race man” as an insult.

“Julian actually wanted a bench,” his widow said. “He knew what he wanted on it. And he wanted it to say, ‘Race Man.’” Horowitz said he was worried the plaque supporters “might flinch at ‘Race Man.’’

She said there are different interpretations, but “Julian always thought about W.E.B. Du Bois and the idea that a ‘race man’ devoted himself — and, of course, it could be herself — but at the time it was a male-dominated society. So a ‘race man’ devoted himself to the uplift of his race. … Julian always considered himself a ‘race man.’”

Your Notebook will remember Julian Bond gently chastising us a few years ago.

Passing through the National Portrait Gallery’s atrium, we spotted Bond and his wife having a quiet talk at a side table. We decided to leave them in peace and stepped into the gift shop.

A moment later, a voice said, “So, you don’t speak anymore?” It was Julian Bond coming to get me. He said then he wished more people in public would speak to him rather than be reticent.

Well, now, you can sit at his bench all you want.

■ A fresh start. Rep. Trey Gowdy is the new House Republican chairman of the committee that oversees the District of Columbia government. Gowdy replaces Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who seemed to be involved in everything except setting up an office in the Wilson Building.

“I try really hard not to meddle in the affairs of the District of Columbia beyond that which is constitutionally required,” Gowdy told reporters last week. Gowdy already has met with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and will meet in July with Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Ward 6 D.C. Council member Charles Allen welcomes the change in Hill leadership, but remains wary. There are current efforts to weaken the city’s gun laws. Will Gowdy’s committee assist or stand by while that happens? Allen once mocked Chaffetz, calling his office and reporting a trash problem. We’re hoping there won’t be any reason to make the same request of Gowdy.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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