Giving a Shout for Freedom, Part I:
Michael B. Friedland, History Department, Boston College
This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
When asked in late 1964 what mistakes he may have made in leading the civil rights movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., replied that his "most pervasive mistake" was believing that because the cause of racial equality was just, white ministers, "once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid." Instead, when direct appeals were made to white clergymen, "most folded their hands--and some even took stands against us." The role of the churches was to project the social gospel, he continued, and challenge society. The church used to be the "thermostat of society. But today," he concluded, "I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion."1
While King was referring specifically to southern white clergy, his judgment could have served for the majority of white ministers and priests throughout the nation, for only a small number of Christian (and Jewish) clergy, the group that theologian Harvey Cox termed "the new breed" of clergy, became active in the civil rights and, later, the antiwar movement. The great majority of clergy were either pietists, who believed that their duty was to proclaim the word of God and focus their attention on the afterlife, and not involve themselves in civil rights and antiwar protests which they considered to be secular and political; or theologically and politically conservatives who believed that religion, like politics, had a duty to uphold society's traditions, and therefore spoke out on behalf of the status quo.2 On the whole, the majority of parishioners felt most comfortable with the latter types, fearing that the activism of the "new breed" went beyond theology to embrace uncertain political solutions to problems that the laity were not convinced even existed. One is tempted to recall Samuel Butler's late nineteenth century description of English parishioners: "good, sensible fellows who...were most contented when things were changing least; tolerant, if not lovers, of all that was familiar, haters of all that was unfamiliar; they would have been equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced."3
As a rule, the majority of priests, ministers, and rabbis who involved themselves in protests and other public demonstrations tended to come from positions where they were not subject to direct pressure from the laity and did not risk losing their jobs: bishops or other members of the denominational hierarchy, administrators, seminarians or the faculty of divinity schools, and campus chaplains.4 Thus it was that the ranks of clerical activists included such prominent religious leaders as the Reverend Robert McAfee Brown, professor of religion at Stanford University, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Presbyterian chaplain of Yale University, and Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. Even the Episcopal Church, a denomination which has the reputation of being rather staid, aristocratic, and conservative in bearing, had its share of clergymen who involved themselves in social activism.5 Two such individuals were the Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., and later Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and the Reverend Malcolm Boyd, a writer, playwright, and national field director of the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity. For these two men, the Gospel meant nothing if it did not stand for the inclusiveness of all believers, and their social activism did not end with the waning of the civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam War. The decades following the 1960s found them continuing to fight for liberal causes, including the ordination of women and homosexuals into the Episcopal ministry, federal assistance to the homeless, and the establishment of AIDs ministries.
Paul Moore, Jr., the older of the two, was born into a wealthy family from Morristown, New Jersey, on November 15, 1919. As he recalled decades later, he had a "protected youth," shielded "from even seeing poverty."6 Still, the sense that others were less fortunate was not lost on the adolescent who, out of embarrassment, hid on the floor of his family's chauffeured limousine as it drove past lines of people at soup kitchens in Hoboken during the Depression. While attending a church school in New Hampshire, he experienced what he described as a religious conversion during his senior year when making his first confession. By the time of his graduation from Yale University in 1941, the prospect of attending seminary was a strong possibility.7
Stronger yet was the prospect of military service once the United States entered the Second World War that December. Moore entered the Marine Corps, and, as a lieutenant, was sent to Guadalcanal the following August. His platoon remained on the island until October, and the experience of seeing death all around him in the steaming jungles deeply influenced his decision to enter the priesthood, especially when he participated in a religious service conducted on the island, and found himself amazed and moved by turns over the fact that religious services were being conducted in the midst of all the bloodshed and terror. "Catholic Mass near the cemetery with a tin roof to support the altar," he noted in his diary. "Many dirty Marines in congregation. The priest wore an immaculate chasuble--probably the only clean thing on the island. One could hear firing in the distance."8 Moore himself would later officiate at religious services in equally unlikely places during the height of the civil rights movement.
After being wounded in the fall of 1942, Moore won the Navy Cross and Silver Star for bravery, and was sent home to recover. In 1944, he married Jenny McKean, and entered the General Theological Seminary in New York the following year. While a senior, he joined two faculty members, the Reverends Robert Pegram and Kilmer Myers, in establishing a ministry to the oppressed in urban slum areas as part of their desire to combat the flight of affluent parishioners to suburban churches. Known to their colleagues as the "G.T.S. social conscience crowd," the three men received enough financial and moral support from the Right Reverend Benjamin Washburn, Bishop of Newark to set up such a ministry in Grace Episcopal Church in one of the most dilapidated sections of Jersey City.9 One of the first things they did was to remove the "Keep Out" sign on the iron fence surrounding the church. All lived in the rectory, including Moore, his wife, and four children; Jenny Moore had the challenging task of keeping the rectory clean as a constant stream of neighbors came and went as part of the "open rectory" policy championed by the ministers, who agreed that the rectory served as a symbol of community as well as a decent house to visit for those who did not have decent homes. The mission's focal point went beyond the rectory. Besides daily worship services, Moore, Pegram, and Myers undertook counseling sessions, intervened in housing disputes, and appeared alongside their parishioners before police, judicial, and prison authorities when necessary.
Across the continent, twenty-seven-year-old Malcolm Boyd was making a name for himself in California as the first president of the Television Producers Association of Hollywood. The conditions in which Boyd was living were so different than those at Grace Church that the two future activists might as well have been living on different planets.
Born on June 8, 1923, into a prosperous New York family, Malcolm Boyd attended the University of Arizona, taking a night job at a local radio station where he did everything from reading commercials and playing records to sweeping the floor. As a junior executive in Hollywood, he produced his own radio show, and helped plan evening newscasts and network soap operas.10 As he self-deprecatingly wrote later,
But he was not happy with his vocation, and after much soul-searching he decided to enter the Episcopal priesthood, leaving Hollywood for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in September 1951. As he explained to a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "the road to peace and happiness in my personal life lies in my ability to serve whomever it may be within my power to serve."12 Following his graduation as a deacon in 1954, Boyd studied at Oxford University in England, lived and worked in the industrial missions of the Anglican Church in Leeds, and traveled to Athens and Halki, where he spent a weekend discussing ecumenism with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.13 He returned to California the following year to be ordained by Bishop Francis Eric Bloy of Los Angeles. During the ordination, he remembered, "the sound of TV cameras almost drowned out, from where I stood, the bishop's words. The Hollywood priest was being ordained."14
After continuing his education at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was assigned his first parish in a working class neighborhood in Indianapolis.15 "This will be some 9 months of 'parish experience' which everybody has been hoping on," he excitedly wrote his mother. "I like the clergy and Bishop, very, very much.... There is a lack of pressure and 'competition' and a real brotherhood of priests; the Bishop can be an honest father-in-God to his people."16
Boyd quickly found that the concept of brotherhood was not shared by his congregation at St. George's Church, at least not when other races were concerned. During his two years in downtown Indianapolis, he struggled to integrate church functions such as summer youth programs, potluck suppers, and exchanged pulpits with black priests from neighborhood churches, but all such attempts were met with hostility and resentment from his all-white congregation, although his actions were supported by the church hierarchy--including Paul Moore.17 He and his family had moved to Indiana in 1957 when he was appointed dean of the Cathedral Church of Indianapolis. The decision to leave New Jersey had not been easy. "I cried when I preached the sermon and told them I was going," he recalled. But Indianapolis held challenges all its own, and Moore planned to use his "understanding of how an inner city works, but from a position of strength within the power structure."18
They began to work together to confront urban problems facing Indianapolis, meeting with other inner-city priests in the cathedral each Tuesday morning to celebrate the Eucharist and discuss common problems over breakfast.19 But not all their ventures together were on behalf of social protest. Hoping to merge religion with the arts, Moore gave Boyd permission to direct T.S. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" in the Cathedral Church. When the parishioners mistakenly came to the conclusion that an actual cocktail party was to be held in the church itself, their complaints reached Boyd, and when he found out, according to Moore, "his anger erupted in gloriously four-letter words in that old nave." Moore suspected that the young priest's anger went far deeper than criticism over the staging of a play, yet it was not until years later that he discovered the source of Boyd's rage.20
The young priest was gay in an era in which homosexuality was not publicly discussed--certainly not among those in the clergy. As Boyd himself later wrote,
Forced to disguise his true sexuality, Boyd became a champion of dissent and the rights of other oppressed minorities who were forced to adopt the practices of the dominant culture in order to survive; indeed, the theme of masks, of disguises, permeated much of his writings, including several plays on race that he wrote in the mid-1960s. Thus it was that in 1959, four years before the March on Washington and six years before the Selma to Montgomery March, long before other white clerics outside the South had involved themselves in civil rights, Malcolm Boyd began speaking out on behalf of equal rights for black citizens.
Being something of a celebrity on the lecture circuit for his multifaceted career, Boyd was invited to be the guest speaker for the Religious Emphasis Week at the Louisiana State University in February 1959. He used that forum to deliver a sharp rebuke to the churches for their conformity and hesitancy in fighting racism.22 The speaking engagements in the South quickly dried up after that, and those that had been scheduled beforehand were abruptly cancelled. "[W]e received word of difficulties you met while at Louisiana State University," wrote Chaplain John F. Nau of Mississippi Southern College to Boyd explaining why "it would be an injustice to you and to the great cause of our program to have you appear as our principal speaker for the year 1960." Should the "climate of our society change in the coming years," Nau added, "we will be not only proud but happy to present you as a main speaker of our Religious Emphasis Week."23 How society was to be changed if freedom of speech was abrogated was left unanswered.
By September 1959 it was time for Boyd to move on. So many members of St. George's Church had moved to the suburbs that the Episcopal hierarchy decided to deconsecrate the church building and close the parish. His pulpit moved west to Fort Collins, where he served as college chaplain at Colorado State University.24 The "celebrity priest," as he was known, was quickly dubbed the "espresso priest" for his practice of holding drama, poetry and Gospel readings at a local coffeehouse, where, he believed, he could "speak without pretense or accommodation about sex and love, the role of the rebel historically and existentially in society, the meaning of individual and social freedom; because here I related the gospel to life."25
While his poetry and gospel readings in the coffeehouse raised eyebrows among more conservative residents, it was the rumors of hearing confessions and conducting communion using beer and potato chips in place of the wine and bread which brought Boyd into direct confrontation with his ecclesiastical superior, Bishop Joseph S. Minnis of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. A newspaper featured a story which described Boyd as hearing confessions in a tavern, and while the priest denied such charges, he insisted that for the modern minister, "confession is not heard so much in confessional booths and in rigid form. It is over the oatmeal or martini that people, without form, express themselves."26
Bishop Minnis took a dim view of such activities and associations with the "beatnik" culture, and published his thoughts on the subject in the diocesan magazine. Complaining that "[b]ongo drums and the playing of them with doleful countenances or enraptured twisting of the body have no place in the worship of the Church," he argued that "no Sacrament should be administered to anyone who has been drinking alcoholic beverages or who is under the influence of dope of any kind.... none of us should ever forget that we are created in God's image and that dignity is a precious attainment." Such dignity came from an individual's appreciation of his or her position "as the highest of God's creation. You can't think of yourself as a beloved son of God, and at the same time go around with matted hair, a dirty body, and black underwear [leotards?]."27
Boyd sharply disagreed with his superior, and the clash soon moved beyond the Rocky Mountains to become feature stories in The New York Times and The Christian Century, prompting a flood of telegrams and letters.28 Most were in support of the college chaplain. A self-described "Fundimentalist" [sic] woman in Colorado thanked him for bringing religion back to "Young College Folks," for "God knows how many Atheistic Professors there are tearing every thing that is good and fine into shreds and dragging it in the dust before your children today I don't care where you save a life and get others to think about where they will spend Eternity [sic]."29 Another writer complimented Boyd on his stand against making Christianity "a religion for gentlemen and suburbanites." The Apostles "must certainly have smelled of fish, [and] Job was at his best when sitting on a dung hill.... Our best Christians have been, I think, an odiferous and malcontented rabble, and you are to be congratulated for reminding us of that." 30
"The issue seems to be, must one wear white underwear and smell pretty to be a good Christian?" Boyd asked.31 Feeling that he could neither disobey Minnis nor curtail his own particular style of preaching, he decided to resign. "Although my ministry is not specifically to beatniks," he wrote in his letter of resignation, "I believe that Christ loves the beatnik just as much as the more socially respectable front-pew member of a church congregation." He upbraided Minnis for his use of the word "beatnik," calling it an "ugly... stereotype," "ill-advised, and sometimes un-christian" which did not have "any place in an intellectual consideration."
Offered several jobs by sympathetic ministers and bishops, Boyd chose to serve as chaplain at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, beginning the first week in August 1961. Hardly had he finished unpacking than a call came for Episcopal priests to take part in a clerical freedom ride from New Orleans to Detroit in support of the original Freedom Riders who had traveled through the Deep South earlier in the year. On September 11, twenty-eight black and white Episcopal priests from across the nation met in New Orleans to embark on a Prayer Pilgrimage that would take them north to Detroit in time to attend the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church at the end of the month. Along the way, they planned to visit local churches, integrating bus terminals and restaurants as they went.33 The participants did not see themselves as "ecclesiastical freedom riders, trying to shame recalcitrant church institutions by bringing to bear the pressure of public opinion," wrote one of the priests, but would "certainly rejoice if any concrete change for the better were to come about in any of the places we visited."34