Fifty years ago this month, on May 5 and 6, 1964, civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., were on campus at the invitation of the student leaders of the Political Forum. A 1995 article in Bowdoin Magazine by Frederick Stoddard ’64, Berle Schiller ’65, and Christos Gianopoulos ’64 gives an account thirty years removed from the event itself, written by the students who had organized it. It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which the public speeches and private conversations with two giants of the civil rights movement changed the perspectives—and even the career trajectories—of Bowdoin students at the time.
There is a history behind the Rustin-King visit to Bowdoin that has received little attention. Bowdoin’s location in Maine had provided a measure of distance from the intensifying civil rights struggles in the South in the early 1960s. On May 6, 1960, Director-Counsel of the NAACP (and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall delivered a Student Council-sponsored lecture at the College entitled “Why the Lunch Counter Demonstration.” Looking back more than a half-century later, however, the subsequent debates that occupied the pages of the Orient seem focused on parochial concerns and race relations “writ comparatively small,” such as how to remove exclusionary clauses for membership in national fraternities.
It took a lecture by Wesleyan University Professor of Religion John D. Maguire in October of 1962 to bring the point home. Maguire was a white Alabaman, a friend of Dr. King, and a “Freedom Rider.” Freedom rides tested compliance with a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited segregation in interstate public transportation by sending buses with black and white passengers across state lines. It was a dangerous undertaking; buses were often fire-bombed, shot at, or pelted with rocks, and passengers were frequently beaten in full view of local law enforcement officials before they were arrested.
On a bus trip from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24-25, 1961, four white clergy (including Maguire and Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin) and three African-American students were arrested in Montgomery for “breach of the peace and inciting a riot” when they attempted to buy coffee at a lunch counter as part of an integrated group. They spent two days in jail; their convictions were eventually overturned. In his talk, Maguire urged Bowdoin students to get involved and to see for themselves what was happening in the South.
On December 9, 1962, David Bayer of the Class of 1964 wrote a letter to Howard Zinn, a history professor at Spelman College (a historically black women’s college in Atlanta), with the suggestion of a week-long exchange program of students in the spring of 1963. Zinn passed the letter on to Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college next door to Spelman. Mays, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse ’48) once described as his “spiritual mentor” and his “intellectual father,” was a Bates alumnus (Class of 1920) and was well-acquainted with Bowdoin. The response from Morehouse was encouraging, and so Bayer and Phil Hansen ’64 began working with Bowdoin Dean of Students A. LeRoy Greason to make the program happen in the spring of 1963.
Nine Bowdoin students (two from ’63, three from ’64, and two each from ’65 and ’66) drove to Atlanta for a six-day program at the end of March. The schedule included daily chapel services; panel discussions; lunch with President and Mrs. Mays; visits with the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson, and the Southern Regional Council; a social hour with Spelman students; and an evening with English Department Chair Richard Barksdale (Bowdoin ’37) and his wife. The last item on the itinerary was a personal meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. at his father’s church on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. The students returned to campus filled with new insights and experiences, to await the arrival of six Morehouse students in mid-April.
The planned activities for the Morehouse students included daily chapel and Easter services; a reception with President and Mrs. Coles; dinners in faculty homes; a concert featuring Boston Symphony cellist Yves Chardon and Professor Fred Tillotson on the piano; a talk by English Professor Larry Hall ’36 (“Jim Crow and John Doe: A Theorem of Integration”), and an evening discussion moderated by Government Professor Athern Daggett ’25. Among the Morehouse students was Student Council President David Satcher, who would become a doctor, an admiral in the U. S. Navy, and Surgeon General of the United States from 1988 to 1992.
The pilot program was deemed to be a success, and plans were made to initiate a semester-long program in the spring of 1964. Six students participated from each school. Bowdoin tuition fees were charged for Bowdoin students at Morehouse, and Morehouse tuition was charged for Morehouse students at Bowdoin. The Morehouse students were assigned a Bowdoin host, and they each filled a room and board vacancy created by a Bowdoin student studying at Morehouse.
Bowdoin students on the exchange returned to campus and became active agents in transforming the College. The nucleus of BUCRO (the Bowdoin Undergraduate Civil Rights Organization) consisted of veterans of the program. BUCRO was instrumental in establishing a scholarship fund to assist a qualified African-American student at Bowdoin. David Bayer and Phil Hansen were awarded Bowdoin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cup in 1964 for their role in establishing the Bowdoin-Morehouse Exchange. Another member of the ’63 exchange program, Andrew Seager ’66, was awarded the FDR Cup the next year for his work with Project ’65, a student-initiated effort to encourage applications to Bowdoin from promising African-American students in southern states.
President Mays wrote to President Coles after the 1964 program, expressing his concern about the number of northern schools that wanted to initiate exchange programs with Morehouse. The success of the program—and news headlines about the Freedom Summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Bill, and the often-violent opposition to integration—had penetrated the insular world of higher education in the North. In 1965 three Bowdoin students and two Morehouse students were involved in the exchange, with the same numbers in 1966, the final year of the program. Presidents Coles and Mays both retired in 1967. Perhaps this is the reason the program was discontinued. It may have been increasingly difficult to manage the program in a turbulent political and social environment. By all accounts, however, the Bowdoin-Morehouse exchange was successful in creating personal connections and engagement in a shared future.
Charlie Toomajian ’65, a member of the 1963 and 1964 exchanges, wrote a letter to the Brunswick Record in April of 1964, describing experiences shared by many Bowdoin participants in the program. Baleful stares, angry threats, and racial epithets were directed at him by whites whenever he was part of a group of white and black students in Atlanta. Integrated groups were refused service in restaurants, and local law enforcement officers threatened to arrest “troublemakers” on the slightest pretext. These were indelible experiences, seared into memory, that forever changed the way a person understood and lived in the world. Although I have no specific examples to support this, I harbor no illusions that Morehouse students in Brunswick were spared from looks, words, or actions that were motivated by prejudices. I hold in high esteem those Bowdoin and Morehouse students who confronted uncertainties—and potential dangers—in their pursuit of knowledge through direct experience.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations