Long-delayed bench honors civil rights icon

Joan Mulholland, left, and Joyce Ladner, right, met in the 1960s through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They joined Julian Bond's widow Pam Horowitz, center, at the June 26 dedication of the bench. (photo by Kathleen Bryan)

By Kathleen J. Bryan, Current Correspondent

Nearly two years after Chevy Chase community leaders began pushing for a bench to honor the passing of neighborhood resident Julian Bond, the civil rights icon and former NAACP chairman has his memorial at last.

More than 60 of Bond’s friends, family, neighbors and civil rights colleagues joined Mayor Muriel Bowser and other D.C. officials for a ceremony last week to dedicate the bench and a memorial plaque outside the Chevy Chase Community Center on Connecticut Avenue NW. Bowser said attendees were paying tribute to a “great man” who, she said, exuded bravery alongside others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in “hostile areas,” where riding a bus or sitting at a lunch counter could spell danger.

Mayor Muriel Bowser was among the speakers at Monday’s dedication of the bench. (photo by Kathy Gest)

Bond, who died in August 2015 at age 75, was known locally for his presence in the D.C. neighborhood where he lived with his wife of 25 years, Pam Horowitz. At the June 26 dedication, she said Bond had always wanted a bench.

“It’s been mentioned that Julian loved to walk in the neighborhood. He said it was his thinking time, so I hope that all of you — not all at once — will sit on the bench and think about making the world a better place,” said Horowitz, eliciting laughter.

The bench’s installation follows an extended period of bureaucratic wrangling, much to the frustration of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh and other community stakeholders who faced unexpected resistance from the D.C. Department of Transportation. “[The] powers that be were so unwilling to be cooperative and frustrated our efforts almost at every turn,” Cheh said, though the department did eventually relent.

When it had seemed unlikely that the agency would ever allow a bench in Chevy Chase, Cheh devised a “Plan B” to dedicate one to Bond at American University, where he had been a professor. University officials were supportive, and a second bench there might come as early as this fall, Cheh said at the ceremony.

“Out of some sense of obstacle and craziness came a benefit,” she said to applause.

American University’s recently departed president Neil Kerwin and his wife Ann are personal friends with the Bond family, according to American University spokesperson Camille Lepre. Kerwin was dean of American’s School of Public Affairs when Bond first started teaching at the university, where he worked for two decades.

Bond also served as a Georgia state legislator and helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center. His work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — which he also helped found — connected him with student activists like Joyce Ladner and Joan Mulholland, who both attended last week’s bench dedication.

The two women were roommates at Tougaloo College, a historically black school north of Jackson, Miss., and recalled meeting Bond in the early 1960s.

“We were all young people together,” said Ladner, a Mount Pleasant resident. “He was at the heart of the civil rights battle. His job was to get the word out if someone was beaten or in jail.”

A plaque honoring Julian Bond’s legacy is installed on the Connecticut Avenue NW bench. (photo by Kathleen Bryan)

A D.C. native who was raised in Arlington, Va., Mulholland would go on to become a Freedom Rider in the Deep South. She and Ladner were joined by other SNCC alumni who posed for photographs with Horowitz on the shiny black bench bearing a plaque that reads: “In memory of Julian Bond, 1940-2015, ‘Race Man,’ A Life Dedicated to Civil Rights.”

In reflecting on her husband’s activism, Horowitz said it was a sense of humor that infused his work. He would find the current political division roiling the country a challenge, she said. But he would not find it overwhelming.

“He was always an optimist,” said Horowitz. “He had to be in order to do the work that he did over a lifetime.”