Examining civil rights at the College

MLK addresses community in Thompson Chapel in April, 1961.
MLK addresses community in Thompson Chapel in April, 1961. Photo courtesy of North Adams Transcript.

In the spring of 1960, there was a dawning sense that, “finally Williams students were doing something,” as John S. Mayer phrased it in a April 20, 1960 editorial for the Record (“Old men and maidens gay” Editorial, April 20, 1960). Mayer was referring to the 30-odd College students who had recently exited the Purple Bubble to picket on Pennsylvania Avenue for seven hours, carrying posters that “declared student agreement with integration, and supported southern ‘sit-in’ strikers” (“College crusade hits White House,” April 20, 1964). While some, including Mayer, wondered if such a showing was little more than “spring exhibitionism” and others questioned whether the North could do any good by intervening in the South’s affairs, this demonstration signified the beginning of the civil rights movement on the Williams campus (“Old men and maidens gay;” “Opposition to ‘March’” Letter to the Editor, April 20, 1960). Following the ’64 protest, students initiated a fundraiser for programs aiding black students in the South.

The next year, in mid-April 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. himself came to campus to address an enormous audience in Thompson Chapel, a crowd so large that

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King’s sermon had to be “piped” to allow latecomers to hear it in Baxter Hall (“Standing room only at Thompson Chapel to hear King preach,” April 19, 1964). Stewart Burns, now the Assistant Director for the Center in Learning in Action at the College and a biographer of Dr. King, was a 12 year-old Williamstown student at the time and attended King’s speech. In his 2009 book To the Mountaintop, Burns recalls King’s appearance as “holy” with a face that was “glowing.”

King’s stated mission, “to save the soul of America,” found a ready audience among the Williams community (“‘Non-violent action’ keynote of King method,” April 19, 1961). By the next spring, a group of twelve undergraduates, led by Gordon Davis ’63 and Roger Warren ’63, formed the Williams Civil Rights Committee (WCRC). The committee’s basis was the “strong belief that racial discrimination is wrong” and its first action was to organize a fund drive for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), ultimately raising more than $2000, which at the time was more than a Williams student’s yearly tuition (“Students form civil rights group; Warren, Davis plan fund drive,” March 9, 1962; “Tops small school gifts as drive nears close,” April 18, 1962).

Over the next several years, the committee continued to fundraise for the SNCC and the Northern Student Movement (NSM), host speakers on the issue of civil rights and work to solve racial problems in urban areas. In April 1963, the committee sponsored an open letter that supported black efforts to desegregate Birmingham and protested against the jailing of Martin Luther King and 80 other black protesters. This letter was signed by more than 100 College students and faculty. In May, as the demonstrations in Birmingham continued, the College Chaplain, John S. Eusden, and the leader of the WCRC, Jay H.K. Davis ’65, travelled to Alabama to aid in the ongoing negotiations. Several other students followed and the Dean of the College announced that absences by demonstrators would be dismissed.

However, such stands for civil rights were hardly uncontroversial, even among the College community. At the same time that the committee’s open letter was circulating, the Record reported that one fraternity had drafted a statement praising the Birmingham police for quelling the protests. Similarly, earlier that spring, President Sawyer had expressed worry that a planned exchange with the historically black Morehouse College would offend alumni who would only donate to the college if it remained “aloof in civil rights affairs” (“Civil rights, here and there” Editorial, April 12, 1963). The exchange ulmately took place anyway.

Others criticized the College’s civil rights progression for its blindness to the local prejudice in the Berkshire community. In 1960, Richard C. Plater Jr. ’31, wrote a letter to the editor urging those students who had protested in Washington to instead protest the discrimination practiced by the motels and restaurants of Williamstown (“To the Editor of the Record” April 29, 1960). The demographic realities of the student body at the College during the 1960s further undermined the idea that was a bastion of perfect diversity and equality. Although the first black student at the College, Gaius Charles Bolin, enrolled in 1885, the class of 1967 had only two black students (“Civil Rights Committee to discuss ‘Mister Charlie’ and Eph Williams,” September 25, 1963). The following year, the admissions office received what was, at the time, a “record number” of applications from black students – a mere 14 (“Admissions assistant reveals marked rise in negro candidates,” March 20, 1964).

Nevertheless, the WCRC was very accomplished both on and off campus in the quest for civil rights, even working with the admissions office in order to increase the number of black applicants and enrolled students. By the fall of 1963, the WCRC had become the largest committee on campus, with over 80 students and eight faculty members counted among its ranks (“Civil rights group plans activities,” September 27, 1963). Many of these students also worked off campus with groups such as the SNCC and the NSM.

With Martin Luther King Day this week, there is perhaps no better time to reflect on the importance not only of diversity, but also of social activism on college campuses. In his 1960 editorial, Benjamin P. Campbell, an executive editor of the Record at the time, wrote that although that first picket’s results were “inconclusive,” the protest was “gratifying to those of us who are tired of seeing the Williams student identification card doubling as a license for non-involvement” (“Limelight” Editorial, April 20, 1960). We, too, in wielding our own yellow ID cards, might seek to make them indications of action rather than apathy.