A voice uttered words we still need to hear

The Baltimore Sun

James Emory Bond was the grandson of a slave. He was born in a log cabin in Baltimore County in 1889. He had little education, but strong hands and a strong back and a solid work ethic.

He served in the Army, then moved to the city, got a job, bought a house and married a woman named Isabella in 1916. They had 10 children. They lived on Mount Street, a few blocks from Union Square. H.L. Mencken was among the whites James Emory Bond sometimes engaged in conversation as he walked along the border between the races of that long-gone West Baltimore.

Based on what I've come to know about this man from an old videotape - what he had to say and how he said it - I envy those who might have been standing there when Bond encountered Mencken. Bond was not a man of letters but certainly a man of wisdom, and he spoke with serene confidence and common sense, with evangelical flourishes and the big idea of love.

One night in 1964, thousands of Baltimoreans got to know him. He made a splash on local television and became, for a time, nationally famous.

By then 75 years old and retired from his job as a truck driver, Bond watched a local television show that disturbed him - a panel of judges and law enforcement officials discussing the rising crime rate in the city. It was a 90-minute, prime-time special. At the close, viewers were asked to contact the station with comments or ideas.

Bond went to bed thinking about it. He woke up thinking about it. He dressed, pulled up his suspenders and walked to WBAL-TV, a trek of three miles, the last part up Television Hill. What happened next is the stuff of local legend and no small landmark in the civil rights movement. "A series of miracles" is what J. Sydney King calls it.

King had produced the program the night before - Feb. 4, 1964 - and, while he and the station's general manager, Brent Gunts, had anticipated public feedback, they did not expect anyone, much less a tall black man in work boots, to walk into the station to be heard.

The first miracle, says King, was that Bond got past the receptionist. Television in those days was mostly black-and-white, and far more white than black. The panelists on the crime program had been white. King was white. Gunts was white. The receptionist was white.

Gunts asked King to record Bond's ideas for stemming crime. King sat Bond in front of a camera, and Bond held court for more than an hour.

Gunts watched the tape and was so impressed that he ordered the interview edited for telecast that night at 9. "Conversation with James Emory Bond" aired in prime time without commercial breaks. The public response was remarkable - hundreds of letters and telegrams and phone calls, and all positive.

"Particularly meaningful," King says, "were the letters from African-American viewers, who were greatly touched that one of their own had been allowed to speak, without interruption, for a solid hour on prime-time television."

WBAL aired it two more times before Gunts and King shipped copies around the country. James Emory Bond ended up on television screens in every major television market and many smaller ones. The program won an Emmy.

Bond's was an authentic voice of black history, of poverty, of hard work and of perseverance over racial discrimination. It was the voice of a man grateful for life's blessings, who saw beauty in everything, and who, above all, learned love from the Gospel and believed others, white and black, could do the same.

"I hated white men," Bond says. "I sat at the feet of ex-slaves ... and they told me of the atrocities that were wrought upon them when they were slaves. ... And the white folks down there where we were raised, and the boys throwing stones at me when I walked up the road to go to my little hut back in the woods to get a little learning. And my father told me to fight it and not take it, and I grew up with that in me."

Bond says it was through the Gospel that he found peace - at the age of "25 years and six months."

"When the preacher preached the Gospel, and I stepped up according to the custom, it come over me, and I've loved white men ever since, loved them ever since! My hate turned into love. ... That's what it did to me. It changed me from a rascal and from a fool to somebody that loved people."

I can't do James Emory Bond's homespun eloquence justice in this space. If you want to hear all that he had to say, go to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The full program is in the exhibit that Sydney King and Bond's son, Frank Bond Sr., put together. It's called "One Night in '64: African American Voices and Television in the Civil Rights Era," and it's there through Jan. 19.

"Some folks are talking about the injustices," James Emory Bond says, "some folks are talking about the thorns, and they're terrible, they're mean, there's blood poisoning in them and they're nasty. But, brother, I'm looking at the rose, and I'm handling the rose, and I'm inhaling the sweet aroma that the rose throws out and just avoiding the thorns carefully."

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