The 1960’s were very difficult times, filled with danger and racial strife, discontent over the Viet Nam war, the death of heroes, not to mention the ongoing concern over a nuclear holocaust. Everyone, including myself, was confused and groping for meaning and direction. Nihilism, agnosticism, revolt, aggression and atheism were raising their pitiful heads everywhere.
I was shocked when I left Iowa in 1963 and arrived in McKenzie, Tennessee to learn that segregation was a powerful force in almost every home, town and city in the South. In Des Moines County, Iowa, I had not known one black person personally and we had no non-Anglos in our high school with the exception of one native-American family. Certainly there was racism in the rural Midwest, but it was seldom voiced.
The infra-structure to guarantee segregation caught me by surprise when I tried to buy a cheaper balcony seat at the movie theatre, other students quipped that “niggers” sat up there. Later, I applied for my driver’s license and saw separate restrooms and drinking fountains for the two races in the courthouse. Most white owned restaurants would not allow any black person to enter the premise unless hired as an employee. All of this disgusted me and small seeds of discontent with these injustices began to germinate in my heart and mind.
I moved from McKenzie to Nashville to attend the Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1967 after completing my B. S. at Bethel College. By then, God was calling me to become a minister, and I was idealistic enough to believe I could make a difference in the injustice and spirituality of the general populace. It was obvious to me that ministers had a significant platform from which to effect change. I also desired to avoid the draft and was able to secure a deferment by remaining in the university. I was absolutely certain I did not want to fight in what I believed was an unjustified war. I could not fully define myself as a pacifist, but I was extremely fearful of both killing and being killed.
When I enrolled in seminary I had little knowledge I was moving to one of primary cauldrons of racial unrest in the USA. The expulsion of James Lawson from the Divinity School in March of 1960 to thwart his support of the desegregation sit-ins in Nashville, the involvement of many influential Nashville clergy in Freedom Rides on public buses throughout the South, and the convergence of many key activists such as Kelly Miller Smith created a center of mutual support for integration that provided the substance for what would result in the slow but certain crumbling of segregation in one arena after another during the 1970’s. But these changes would cost the life of many; including Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, less than a year after I arrived in Nashville.
Most of the Tennessee elementary and high schools were not integrated, and many white racist churches still dared any black to even walk toward their doors. Within weeks after I arrived in Nashville, the papers and television coverage announced that supporters of civil rights were marching through Nashville. My roommate, an intern in the United Methodist’s Denominational Center, was a bold activist. He challenged me–“Would you be interested in going to South Nashville for the march this weekend?” His invitation “to act and not talk” shoved my emerging social beliefs to a different level. His encouragement set me free to actually do what I had previously only voiced.
In those days, you could get fired from your job for such social action, especially in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama or Mississippi. Nevertheless, on the assigned day, we made our way to a highway in south Nashville where the civil rights activists were walking. There were television cameras everywhere and I wished I were short enough to hide below the hundreds of placards. Racists, Klu Klux Klansman, religious bigots, and curious observers lined the street. Many people waved opposing banners aggressively until people of all persuasions could hold them above their heads not longer, and let them fall here and there along the sidewalk. Anger dominated many of the participants. It was beastly humid and hot; everyone’s dark clothes were a deeper color because of perspiration. The more radical young people had shed their shirts and had phrases of hate written with lipstick on their chests. Many of the people on the roadside sprayed us with profanity and racist labels I had not heard such as burr head lovers, ape goons, and black bloods. The intensity and volume of the threats and slurs from the sidewalks frightened me to the point of wanting to leave. I felt surrounded by packs of bloodthirsty wolves with no physical weapons to defend myself. I had not seen so many policemen in one place in my life. Some had a cudgel in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. All the while, they tried to separate the walkers from the hecklers on the sidewalks.
As it turned out the march ended without any physical violence and as far as I know no one I knew saw me on the TV. I remember both fear and satisfaction in retrospect. Intimidation and fear are two powerful tools for inaction. The experience consolidated my growing commitment to make a difference among the “least” peoples of the world. Equality and freedom for blacks would slowly emerge and then sadly be lost time and again over the next fifty years. The longer I live it becomes clear to me that the evil nature of humanity always leads many people to demean and abuse others. But I am still convinced our personal modeling of compassion and kindness to all can make a small difference in a big world.