The Health Issue That Julian Bond Helped Pioneer

Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACK PLUNKETT
Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JACK PLUNKETT

As the nation reflects on the life and legacy of the late civil rights leader Julian Bond, who passed away on Saturday night after a short illness, much of the focus has been on his activism during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

But Bond, who also served on the Georgia legislature throughout the 1970s and 1980s, did much more for black people, especially when it came to health. More than five years after foiling segregationists’ efforts to unseat him, Bond introduced and passed his first bill establishing a statewide testing program for sickle cell anemia, an inherited disease that significantly affects African Americans.

This move would place Georgia among a dozen states that expanded sickle cell testing for black people during the 1970s.

When Bond introduced his bill, sickle cell anemia affected between 25,000 and 50,000 African Americans nationwide and 1,000 infants were born with the disease annually. According to government estimates, 2 billion black people were carriers of hemoglobin S.

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People with sickle cell anemia inherit two abnormal hemoglobin S genes, each from a parent. Sickle hemoglobin, unlike its conventional counterparts, forms stiff rods within the red cell, turning it into the shape of a sickle. Cells shaped in that form stick to blood vessel walls and cause blockages that slow down or stop the flow of blood and oxygen. Those who develop sickle cell often have a shortened life expectancy.

Blood tests, often conducted on newborns, check for hemoglobin S. Despite its benefits, some African Americans became wary of sickle cell anemia testing in the early 1970s, particularly because the procedure, which became mandatory in some states, marginalized black people from opportunities. Confusion between the sickle cell trait and the actual disease worsened matters. For instance, those who carried the sickle cell trait — which meant they could pass on the disease to their children, not necessarily develop it themselves — were often denied employment, education, and insurance coverage.

Months after Bond spoke about his sickle cell testing bill before the Georgia General Assembly, President Richard Nixon signed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act, which ended discriminatory testing practices and made screening voluntary. Subsequent events, particularly the full sequencing of the Human Genome in the early 2000s, normalized sickle cell testing, allowing African Americans in Georgia and around the country a chance to get a grip on this disease.

But Bond’s work didn’t stop there.

In the Georgia legislature, he would go on to lead African-American voter registration campaigns, help create a majority-black congressional district, and launch a program that would give low-interest loans to people of color. During and well after his tenure with the NAACP, Bond educated the American public about the Civil Rights Movement and led discussions about the contemporary African-American struggle.

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Shortly after his death on Saturday, a bevy of lawmakers and activists recounted their memories of Bond. Georgia Stare Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (D), Bonds’ colleague during his tenure in the Georgia legislature, described him as an advocate for the voiceless. “Julian Bond was a State Senator when I first walked into the Georgia Capitol as an advocate for low income citizens,” Oliver (D) said in a statement. “He was immediately kind, helpful, and daily leader for the right causes. I am grateful to have known him, and more importantly, for his life of service.”

While it’s unknown exactly how many people currently live with sickle cell anemia, the death rate among African-American children under the age of four fell more than 40 percent in the late 1990s and early-2000s, thanks in part to a vaccine. Research and aggressive treatment in recent years — including antibiotics and prescription drug hydroxyurea, — have made the inherited blood disorder less painful and more manageable so that those with sickle cell live well into adulthood.