From Julian Bond to Palestine: Protecting Dissent

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

From 1965 to 1966, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and court-ordered redistricting in Georgia ensured that Black voters could fairly exercise their right to vote, eleven Black candidates were elected to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Among them was Julian Bond, an individual whom the phrase “civil rights activist” fails to recognize fully. Bond was a titan, an integral part of the civil rights movement. He was one of the founders of both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center; decades later, he would also go on to chair the NAACP.

In January 1966, despite his legitimate electoral victory, the Georgia House of Representatives voted against seating Bond over his opposition to the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Bond had signed onto an SNCC statement questioning the US’s reasoning for its involvement and calling the US hypocritical for claiming to fight for freedom abroad despite weak civil rights enforcement at home.

In the coming weeks, some would rush to Bond’s defense. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bond’s friends at the SNCC organized rallies to protest the legislature’s refusal to seat him; this response was so eager that it even drew some condemnation from the Atlanta NAACP, who expressed concern over an incident in which protesters tried to push into the capitol.

Bond would also receive some support from the nation’s capital. Twenty-three Democratic Representatives sent a telegram to Georgia’s Governor to voice opposition to the refusal to seat him. These were mainly more liberal members of Congress who shared Bond’s opposition to the war. Bond would find some unlikely allies in a group of eight Congressional Republicans. Themselves speaking as the members of the minority, this group said that it opposed Bond’s views on Vietnam but that he had a right to express them, noting the dangers in “suppressing minority rights of any kind.” The argument of these members hinged on one key point: that people have a right to hold unpopular views and voice dissent. To them, even if Bond’s views were wrong, it was clear that the legislature’s decision was indefensible.

A new election was called to fill the seat, which Bond won again. However, the legislature again refused to seat Bond, and he lost a case he had filed over the initial denial of his seat. Despite saying that they would take Bond’s case, the ACLU balked. With two lawyers behind him, Bond appealed to the Supreme Court. There, Georgia’s argument was met with scorn, and Chief Justice Warren penned a unanimous opinion in favor of Bond. States, the Court said, could not limit the ability of legislators to express their views on policy issues. Finally, in 1967, Bond took his seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Today, America is again in a moment where many of its people are questioning its approach to foreign policy. This time, it’s over the US’s relationship with Israel amid the latter’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. With significant opposition to Israel’s actions and the US’s role, especially from younger Americans, a national conversation surrounding free speech and dissent has risen.

However, many of those who have protested US policy towards Israel and Palestine have found themselves being doxxed, receiving threats and being condemned by public officials. There has been a concentrated movement to label and punish even mild criticisms of the US and Israel, with groups like the Canary Mission and even high-ranking officials leading a push against dissent. Of course, there is a line between free speech and hate speech — but when that line has not been crossed, retribution for dissent is unjustifiable. That’s what we are seeing today: an attempt to silence and ruin dissenters, even those who are doing no harm, instead of simply contesting their views.

There is undeniably a right to dissent that must be protected. Free speech is a tenet that, while it has not always been respected, has been of immense value to the people of this nation. It is a tool to fight for other rights, to call out injustice, and to push for positive change. Dissent needs to be protected, both legally and socially. Julian Bond did not enjoy universal support for his dissent, but even some of those who disagreed with him were willing to publicly defend his right to speak out and hold a minority stance. There’s a lesson in that: it is worth protecting the rights of even those who we do not agree with; it is worth using our speech to defend that of others. It is on all of us to speak out against retribution for the sole reason of dissent, which we are undoubtedly seeing today.

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