Here is an array of candles, lit during worship at Chapel Hill Friends meeting in North Carolina, on the night called Christmas Eve, 2017.
I first took part in such a ceremony at State College Friends meeting in Pennsylvania. The event was quite simple; it began after dusk, with the meeting room unlit except for a single candle on a large table, covered with highly reflective aluminum foil.
Out of the silence, as moved, Friends came to the table in ones or twos or family groups, and each lit another candle, which they placed on the table; they spoke if moved, then sat again in the silence.
From the first time I experienced it, the way the whole room was progressively illuminated, seemed in fact to glow, as the number of flickering flames increased, was very moving to me.
In a way it was a visible, wordless, yet eloquent evocation of Quakerism at its best: a motley, seemingly haphazard collection of candles of witness, more diverse than we outwardly seem, mainly anonymous and individual, somehow joining together to become more than the sum of the parts.
This time, at the end of 2017, a year which for me has been very heavily shadowed, often deeply gloomy, and yes, dark, the full array became something of an encouraging signal for the year ahead. (Let’s hope!)
At State College Meeting, we were told that this custom had originated in Berlin, shortly after the end of World War Two, when the city was still devastated in the wake of bombing and and combat. I pass on the story we were told below, knowing it mainly as an oral tradition:
How the Christmas Candlelight Meeting Began
Berlin in 1945 was a devastated city, bombs had destroyed most of the homes and buildings and things were in terrible disarray – children without parents and homes, shortage of food and shelter — all of the terrible consequences that accompany war.
Ilse and Gerhardt were a Quaker couple with three small children who suffered terrible hardships during the war — she (a school teacher) because she defied the authorities ‘speaking truth’ and Gerhardt because he had a Jewish father.
They were homeless and spent many months searching for shelter for their family. While doing so, they were willing to have other homeless orphans join them simply out of compassion, but with the knowledge that with each additional child, there would be less to share among their own family.
They eventually found a bombed-out building that gave them some shelter from the cold winter days and nights. The children slept in Army blankets in the clothes that they wore during the day. Taking turns, Ilse and Gerhardt would search for food to feed the always-hungry children that grew daily in numbers.
Once in returning with a loaf of bread, a hungry soldier asked Ilse for a piece. With reluctance, she shared the bread, only to find upon returning to the children that a Quaker care package had arrived with nuts, dried fruit and chocolates.
On Christmas Eve, Ilse and Gerhardt felt terribly sad about having so little to share with their extended family, but they were determined to make the Eve of Christmas a joyful event for themselves and their children. It was then when they and the Berlin Quaker Meeting conceived of the idea of a candlelight service as we now know it.
By that time, the meeting had been assigned space in a mansion that had been confiscated during the war. Their large room had little furniture and, have course, no Christmas tree. However, nearby was a stand of fir trees and from these, they cut branches and carpeted the floor with green cuttings. They had a good supply of candles and gave one to each child.
They began the meeting for worship with a single candle illuminating the darkness of the winter night. One by one, after lighting the candle from each other, the children gave the best and only present that they could — they shared their talents that God had given them.
One little girl had just learned to whistle and tried her best at ‘Joy to the World’. An older child had composed a poem thanking Isle and Gerhardt for their compassion. Many shared memories of their own families, making everyone a bit sad and happy at the same time.
As more children lit their candles, Ilse said the room was turned into a carpet of light (licht teppich in German). After everyone shared their talents, they sang the wonderful Christmas songs that we still sing about God’s gift to us and the hope of Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward everyone.
That sharing became a tradition in the Berlin Quaker meeting that continues today. Years later, an American family visiting Berlin experienced it while living in Berlin and also introduced it to the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, TX. It has migrated to some other meetings from there.
It was only a matter of time before the current furor over sex harassment and misconduct by prominent people added Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the list.
And now his name has surfaced, by way of the FBI in the newly-released JFK assassination papers.
One of these documents, stamped “SECRET” is titled Martin Luther King, Jr. A Current Analysis. Itwas dated March 12, 1968, just three weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis.
This paper, or rather, one section of it, is the topic of a major article by Donovan Harrell, and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain, under the headline JFK files: FBI documents allege Martin Luther King Jr. had secret love child, orgies. It was reprinted in the Raleigh NC News & Observer, which is where I learned about it. And it’s been circulating more and more widely since. (The full text of the FBI paper is here.)
It’s a sign of the times — then and now — that these allegations, under the heading, “King’s personal conduct,” come last in the 20-page paper, and take up only about a page and a half. The sign then was that the FBI was far more concerned in what it considered King’s many ties to Communism, and to present and former U.S. Communists. Allegations about such ties take up the first third of the paper, and are scattered throughout much of the rest.
King was in fact connected to some persons with Communist associations in their past. One of his closest advisers over many years was Stanley Levison, a new York City businessman and lawyer who had once been a high-level member of the Communist Party-USA. But FBI files also state that Levison terminated his Communist associations in 1957, though that shift did not end FBI interest in, or surveillance of him.
No, the McClatchy article is interested in what’s hot now, and that is sex. And for those so inclined, it is not necessary to turn to the JFK files to find such assertions. Major biographies by top scholars include them, and Yale historian Beverly Gage, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that “King’s extramarital sex life, [was] already an open secret within the civil rights movement’s leadership.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once wrote that King was like “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges.”
In fact, Hoover evidently became convinced from wiretaps and other surveillance, that by 1964 the FBI had accumulated enough salacious material to force King to retire in disgrace from civil rights activism, or even drive him to suicide.
A notorious “suicide letter” was drafted by one of Hoover’s close aides, and anonymously sent, along with an audiotape full of heavy breathing and the like, to King in November, 1964. As dramatized in the movie “Selma,” King’s wife opened the package.
The letter was only one unsigned page (Full text here). Its punchline was stark: “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. . . . You are done. There is but one way out for you. . . .”
King decided to ignore the tape and the letter, as did the news reporters the FBI tried to interest in the tape. It appears that King continued with his extramarital activities until his death in April 1968.
All this is lurid enough; but the question of the moment today is one only implicit in the resurfaced FBI paper: was King a sexual harasser, or even a predator, who forced himself upon any of the many women he allegedly had sex with?
And a related question is, doesn’tthis behavior pattern call into question, or even discredit, his august moral standing? Does King deserve to be, say, enshrined in a statue on the tidal basin in the heart of Washington DC?
I can’t answer the first question, but can offer some perspective as a junior staffer for King’s group in 1964 and 1965. And I have some thoughts about the second.
First of all, though I have no direct evidence about King himself, I can say that sexual harassment of female employees and associates was rife in King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, even at high levels. My late wife Tish experienced it often when she worked in the SCLC office in Selma, Alabama.
Other women staff told me of incidents. And being a young male in 1965, I talked with other males in the group, and things were said that corroborated the other reports, and would not pass muster today.
Indeed, the atmosphere of the movement was sexually charged. This was due to many factors, no doubt, but one that ought not to be dismissed is the impact of charisma. Dr. King was a very charismatic figure; several of his top staff members also had quite magnetic personalities, based on their eloquence, personal bravery in the face of racist violence, and reflected glory by being close to Dr. King.
Such charisma is a fact. It occurs in many professions, and beyond a certain point has little to do with physical appearance. Henry Kissinger proves the rule, and offered one of its most apt summaries: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
I had one real and unsettling experience of this, at the height of the Selma, Alabama voting rights campaign led by Dr. King. It is described in my memoir, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.
I was very busy in the two hectic weeks after the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers and deputies on marchers attempting a peaceful walk from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. People from all over the country, shocked by the violence, came pouring into Selma. Coping with this influx was a nonstop challenge. And the role that fell to me for several days was that of chauffeur.
SCLC rented several cars, and I managed to commandeer one. I happily spent several days ferrying various notables, most of whom I had never heard of, back and forth to the airport.
The car brought more than a hint of luxury to my $25 per week standard of living: it was warm, new, and had a good radio. It also served as a useful stage: for a series of rapt, terrified passengers, I turned the journey down Highway 80 into an instant history tour,starting with the full-size John Birch Society billboard near the airport, which demanded that we Get the US OUT of the UN, and do it now. Then, a few miles west:
“Yes, this is Lowndes County, with a population thatis eighty per cent black, but where no blacks are registered; none. They say the last black man who tried to register there was shot dead on the courthouse steps; that’s what they say.
“And there–see that ramshackle old building? It’s a real, functioning one-room schoolhouse (well, three rooms actually), with holes in the floor and walls that let in the winter wind; that’s right, it’s all the public education available for Negroes in the county.”
Twenty or so white-knuckled miles later:
“And don’t miss that bank billboard there, the one that welcomes us to Selma as ‘the city with 100 per cent human interest.’ Look to the other side, and there’s another for the White Citizens Council (a pause for gasps); and they’re both located just about at the spot where the troopers attacked the march–they hid their horses behind that building over there.”
By then, eyes were wide, necks craned.
Once across the bridge, we turned right at the courthouse, where I casually mentioned my own three arrests and a close encounter with the sheriff’s possemen’s wielding electric cattle prods, cruised cautiously past City Hall, describing the two jails it housed, and then jogged again to get to Sylvan Street and Brown Chapel AME church, the movement headquarters.
There I dropped off my passengers, who by now were usually half-dazed with awe at the apocalyptic spectacle they were joining.
One trip turned out differently, though. At the Montgomery airport, looking for the Selma contingent, I saw a stunning blonde, dressed in demure but elegant black, coming toward me. She flashed a winsome smile, said something about coming from Michigan, and asked for a ride to the church.
With pleasure, ma’am, I thought, and welcome to the Southland.
She insisted on sitting up front with me, and listened to my tourist spiel with a semblance of interest. I had some trouble getting through it, though, because she was so good to look at; the black suit, despite its modest cut, only set off her full figure. Then as we approached the bridge, she interrupted to ask if I knew where Dr. King was.
I shrugged. Maybe at the church, maybe somewhere else, I wasn’t sure.
But she persisted. She wanted to see Dr. King. She neededto see him. That, she said, was why she came.
Well, let me think; it was midday, the mass meetings were probably in a lull, and Dr. King could be conferring with staff in the back of the church, or possibly resting somewhere – I knew of an apartment in the projects nearby where he often slipped away for some quiet. But he might be someplace else entirely, coming back later–
But where is he now? She insisted. I need to see him.
And all at once my guard was up. Who was this woman? What was she after? She did not seem acquainted with Dr. King or the movement. But the very elegance of her appearance, I realized, exuded an unspoken awareness of Dr. King’s fondness for female pulchritude. And her sense of mission reinforced my sudden suspicion. She seemed to presume he would want to talk with her, be with her; and she might well have been right.
But for what purpose? By now I was familiar with the steady stream of death threats that Dr. King received. Most were no more than racist invective; but some were serious. I knew at least one such firsthand:
A few weeks earlier, top Justice Department officials had called and begged Dr. King to stop a planned night march, because they said there was a KKK assassination squad ready to attack it, and him, in the dark, and they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Dr. King at first said no, we would march despite the threats. But he was finally persuaded to back off the plan by the pleas of top aides, who stressed the danger to others in the march.
I was there that night, with other staffers, and heard the calls, and the debate, listening and scared out of my wits. I’d also seen postcards declaring murderous intentions toward King.. Other threats, less dramatic, kept coming.
And for a serious, skillful assassination plan, there would be more than one way to get close to him, to bait a fatal trap. A beautiful woman could be just the thing.
As the memories of the planned night march came back, my responses to my passenger’s queries became suddenly vague; the tour guide banter subsided into bumpkin monosyllables.
I managed to creep through the crowd milling along and into the street, quite close to Brown Chapel, pulled up, and pointed toward the back of the church.
“The offices are there.” I strongly doubted Dr. King was inside; but if he was, he’d surely be surrounded by staff, with dozens of reporters and photographers close by.
She thanked me, snatched up her small travel bag, and was gone, pushing her way into the crowd swirling around outside the building.
That was that; I never saw or heard of her again, and whatever happened, Dr. King survived for three more years.
But I was thoroughly rattled. Even if she was no more than a celebrity stalker, the trip showed how magnetic charisma could be. (Less than two years later, I was part of a similarly convincing demonstration, at Shea Stadium in New York. There I watched nearly 50,000 girls and women shrieking their lungs out for two hours at four complete strangers trying to play music in center field. I saw the Beatles with them that night; and though I couldn’t hear a note the band played, the experience was unforgettable.)
But now let’s return to the other question: does the sexual adventurism of Dr. King and some of his associates along with the atmosphere of sexual harassment this fostered undermine his legacy, and moral stature?
To get at this, I’ll return to Eating Dr. King’s Dinner and note another encounter from 1965 It was in September, several months after the successful march to Montgomery, and passage of the Voting Rights Act, which (for some decades at least), changed the politics of the south, and the U.S.
I was invited to an SCLC staff retreat at the Penn Center on the South Carolina coast. The Penn Center is the successor of a school founded and long operated by Quakers from the North, to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. It’s now a cultural center and national monument for the rich Gullah culture of the area; it also hosts small conferences. Dr. King held many retreats there, during the years when official segregation made it difficult to find locations for integrated meetings.
At the 1965 retreat, there were momentous issues on the table: should Dr. King take the movement north, specifically to Chicago? (The answer was yes, in an ill-fated campaign the next year.)
And should Dr. King come out strongly against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War — and thereby defy many powerful people who were warning him to stay away from “foreign policy.” (That answer was yes, too, but it took longer, until early 1967, for Dr. King to take a bold antiwar stance.)
But these big issues of the day are not what is before us now. Instead, what comes to mind is an entirely informal encounter there, between the plenary sessions.
In fact, it happened while we were all standing in line for a meal. I heard Dr. King talking earnestly ahead of me, and tuned in, as by degrees, did most of the rest.
King was talking with James Bevel, his Direct Action Director, and one of the most insightful tactical thinkers, and electrifying speakers, in Dr. King’s inner circle. They were talking, debating really, about sex and marriage.
How the topic came up, I don’t know, but there they were. Bevel, in his tenor staccato, was making the case for what were known euphemistically as “open relationships,” marriages in which the partners were explicitly allowed to seek sexual pleasure with others.
To this Dr. King sounded a baritone bass note of dissent. He had no faith in any such couplings, he said; the right way was the traditional one: monogamy and fidelity.
This was a friendly argument, like a college bull session; voices were not raised, no personal charges were hurled, and Dr. King did not attempt to pull rank. But it was still evident that their positions were deeply felt, and the colloquy was riveting to the listeners.
Surely all of us present knew, by regular hearsay if not personal observation, that neither of these men was exactly a model of monogamy. I would thus have expected Dr. King to go along with Bevel, at least to some extent, if only to provide himself with moral cover for what we all assumed was his habitual practice.
But no. Bevel argued skillfully: love was expansive; possessiveness outmoded, and jealousy a bad habit. But Dr. King refused to budge: one man, one woman, forsaking all others–given the fallen state of human nature, that’s the way it had to be. It was also what the Bible said.
Looking back, this exchange, finally interrupted by the arrival of the food, revealed a great deal. In Bevel there was the spirit of the times, pushing the limits and opening things up, trying to be ethically and situationally inclusive, and to see good in what he, and many others of the time, were doing.
I don’t recall if he did, but he could have parried Dr. King’s biblical references with one of his own, the Apostle Paul from First Corinthians, proclaiming that “All things are lawful for me,” a verse which conventional exegetes are anxious to diminish or ignore.
Dr. King, on the other hand, was tipping his hand as the more orthodox Christian: the standard is there, was his argument. He didn’t say, but the implication was obvious, that his and our failures to live up to it didn’t mean we should redraw the lines, but rather admit that we are sinners. We don’t need new morals, was his point; we need the old remedies: forgiveness and grace.
Put into a gloss on their own, reputedly similar behavior, Bevel was insisting, “I’m not doing anything wrong,” while Dr. King was admitting, “I am.”
At the time, standing transfixed in that dinner line, I was mostly on Bevel’s side, or at least I thought I was. A part of me still is, too, a bit; but time and my own misadventures have lately edged me more in Dr. King’s corner.
Are all things really lawful to me? Maybe more than some people think should be; but even so, there are limits. And do I need grace and forgiveness?
Do I need to breathe?
Suppose for a moment that the bullet at the Lorraine Motel had missed Dr. King thatevening in April, 1968. Suppose he had continued with the campaign there in support of sanitation workers — and then gone on to lead his planned Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington that summer.
Besides these boiling issues (along with the continuing Vietnam War), there were others waiting to ambush him, and one of these was sex.
The male chauvinism embedded in much of his and others’ behavior was corrosive to the cohesion of the movement’s key cadre: marriages were broken up; colleagues parted ways; many rank and file supporters backed away. These patterns were not “victimless.”
Further, it had practical effects: it split the movement between those who were “in the know” about the private recreations of King and others, and the many who did not, or only suspected. That fed an elitism which ultimately generated deep and persisting distrust of exalted “leaders” among many. It also exposed King to continuing, unnecessary risks: of blackmail, exposure in the press, or retaliation from a cuckolded spouse.
Who better to signal some of this internal cost than the movement’s most sophisticated and sardonic chanteuse, Nina Simone, in her 1964 recording of “Go Limp”:
“Oh Daughter, dear Daughter Take warning from me And don’t you go marching With the N-A-A-C-P. For they’ll rock you and roll you And shove you into bed. And if they steal your nuclear secret You’ll wish you were dead. . . .”
Four years later, back to Dr. King: how much longer would his wife Coretta have put up with his frequent philandering? By then the “second wave” feminist movement was taking off, and challenges to male dominance and sexual consumerism were rising, inside the movement as well as outside. King & SCLC were thoroughly male chauvinist; a reckoning was likely.
This is speculation. But in another case, there is, sadly, more: James Bevel was notorious in the movement for his many sexual exploits. By 2005 he had been married four times and had fathered sixteen children by these and other women.
I thought highly of Bevel in my days in the Selma movement. But over time his behavior and political alliances came to seem bizarre and we lost touch.The last time I talked with him was in the 1990s, and he then expressed regret for his behavior in the 1960s, and said he had changed his ways. He wanted me to help him write an autobiography. I demurred; keeping a distance felt safer.
Then in May, 2007, Bevel was arrested and charged with committing incest with one of his daughters in the 1990s. The alleged incident happened in Virginia, which has no statute of limitations on such charges. Three other daughters later said Bevel had had sex with them too.
He was tried and convicted in April 2008, and the testimony included statements of his that resembled the outlook I heard him express that day at the Penn Center, extended across generations. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released in November of that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died the following month.
In midsummer, while Bevel was awaiting sentencing, his wife emailed me, to ask that I write to the judge, requesting a reduced sentence.
I agonized about this. There was no defending or mitigating what he had done to his children. I didn’t want anything to do with it. Yet it was also true that Bevel had made signal contributions to the civil rights movement: the whole Selma-Montgomery march, which became the key to the Voting Rights Act,was his idea. This and his other best work had benefitted millions.
What do you do about people who are a mix of good and evil?
Ultimately my resolution was this: I wrote to the judge, but offered no brief for the actions he had been convicted of. Instead I told him of the substantial positive, even historic work I felt Bevel had once done. And I asked the judge to weigh this in a spirit of mercy. I doubt it made any difference, but it felt truthful, if difficult.
I’ve had more time to consider Dr. King. And I find his legacy still endures;Dr. King as a sinner makes sense.And no children were involved, so far as I know. The impact of his charisma, as shown by the episode of the blonde in black in my rental car, was pervasive.
For me his flaws, his sins were dwarfed by his larger witness, and the sacrificial courage he showed facing death threats daily — including the “suicide letter” from the head office of the FBI — until one of them succeeded.
That witness stands, with no need to disguise or dismiss the shortcomings. Is it noteworthy that almost fifty years after his death, there have been to my knowledge, no “women coming forward” in print or other media, to take down his reputation, as, say, Bill Cosby’s or Harvey Weinstein’s has been? Despite the personal and family costs, could there be more to this than meets the judgmental eye?
We’re probably not going to hear much about that in news articles based on the FBI papers released about the JFK assassination. It may be true, I believe it was important; but it isn’t sexy. Or for that matter, even Communist.
Is There Life after Death in Quaker North Carolina?
[A long read]
Several years of intense struggle in North Carolina Yearly Meeting culminated in August 2017 by the YM going out of business, after more than 320 years. [Its “Concluding Minute” is online, and when we wrote this, copies printed on parchment were available. ]
So, in standard American fashion, the question arises. Who won, who lost?
No doubt there could be long debates about answers, especially over who lost, and what.
But as to the other side, the answer is quite clear. Who was the winner in the demise of North Carolina Yearly Meeting?
Why, it was North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
That’s right, NCYM is still alive and, as far as can be determined, well.
Someone will quickly point out that I’m referring now to the otherNorth Carolina Yearly Meeting, the one that adds “C” for “Conservative” to its name. And maybe shrug: “Ah, but that’s different.”
Is it? This NCYM lays an equal claim to the “apostolic succession” of Friends in the Tarheel state going back to the same origins, not long after George Fox visited the area in 1672. Further, it has been much more careful about retaining several features of that earlier heritage.
These features were once thought to be inviolable Quaker traditions, but were long since discarded by the counterpart; and these, after all, were what NCYMC was created to “conserve.” In fact, its 2017 annual session, held in Wilmington NC on July (err, Seventh Month) 13-16, was listed in its minutes as the 320th— the same number as that of the other, now deceased NCYM-FUM.
Which means, it’s the only North Carolina Yearly Meeting left standing.
Thus, this summer also brought to a successful close the exodus they began, quietly but firmly, in 1904.
The “Conservatives” were the Friends from meetings which resisted what they called “such departures [from previous Quaker practice] as hired ministry, congregational singing, instrumental music, pre-arranged ‘prayer meetings’, testimony meetings & etc. …”
And there’s more. They also formally objected to the adoption of the creedal Richmond Declaration of Faith and the so-called “Uniform Discipline” of the new Five Years Meeting (now FUM) which was built around the Declaration, only to see their objections ignored and silenced.
No wonder the Conservatives minuted that that they were “persuaded that such . . . can only tend to lead us farther and farther from the desired unity of faith and practice . . .”
Which is to say, the Conservatives didn’t think they were leaving NCYM, but rather that the body, under misguidedofficers, was leaving them and the tested old ways, in favor of foreign, imported notions and practices.
So they not only “conserved” these ways, but claimed the NCYM name and history as well. And now they’ve got the name back, all to themselves.
To be sure, the current NCYMC officers are not going to gloat about this, and will likely be peeved at me for even mentioning it. NCYMC long ago let go of spending energy on that old controversy; “to each their own” fits well with their contemporary Quietist ethos.
This NCYM has always traveled light: no pastors, no pastoral committees, no paid staff; no health plans or pensions; no office; no real estate. Its investment funds total in the low five figures. In many ways it is more a cycle of regular events than an institution.
And from their perspective, even to ask whether this denouement amounts to a fulfillment of Matthew 5:5 (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”) will be thought in very poor taste. Besides which, the “Conservative” part of their culture has also evolved considerably over time (and that’s another story).
All this is very irenic. But again for the record, next summer in 2018, session #321 of North Carolina Yearly Meeting will beconvened on schedule (as way opens), but there will be only one Recording Clerk writing this number in a minute book, not two.
The end of NCYM-FUM left two successor groups to define themselves and chart a future for their segments of programmed Quakerism in North Carolina. During the closing phases, the larger, more evangelical bloc was provisionally dubbed the “Authority Group,” because it wanted to exercise top-down disciplinary authority to purge a handful of “liberal” meetings, particularly for their reported friendliness to LGBTs.
These targeted meetings were provisionally named “The Autonomy Group,” because they denied that NCYM had any such top-down disciplinary power.
The “Authority Group” wanted to use the NCYM Faith & Practice as the basis for the purge; but the Autonomites pointed out correctly that the current edition contained no such provision, and moreover it did not mention LGBTs anywhere.
In late 2015, someone in the Authority group reported that the1967 edition of NCYM’s Faith & Practice did have a top-down rule provision (as, indeed, most YMs’ books once had); but this had “somehow” disappeared then, and was absent from half a dozen subsequent approved revisions of the volume over the next 48 years.
Charging that this change had not been authorized, the Clerk declared that a shouted “voice vote” at a 2015 Representative Body directed that this “disappeared” section be reinserted forthwith. Protests of this maneuver by the Autonomists were ignored.
This was for many the turning point toward dissolution. Yet the Autonomites did not simply walk out. They resisted the continuing charges of inauthenticity and heresy, and declined to abandon NCYM to the other group.
At this point, enter the lawyers.
Thus, in the end, the “Authority Group” leaders came to agree that to rid themselves of the liberals, NCYM itself had to go, and it did.
Also in the end, there were two concrete items left to haggle over: Quaker Lake Camp, and NCYM’s endowment of around $12 million dollars.
The camp was given a shove toward independence, but left with an evangelical-tilted board for the meantime. The endowment is in the care of a new corporation, NCYM, Inc, called “The Inc” for short. This is essentially a foundation, whose sole function is to manage the endowment and pass out the earnings.
Friends were told that under state law, The Inc is definitely not a church. Its board is drawn 50-50 from the two groups, but the fund’s earnings will be distributed based on membership, which means the Authority Group will get about 75 per cent, the liberals 25 %. Both groups agreed to help support Quaker Lake Camp for several years: $60,000 per year from the larger, $30,000 from the smaller.
Once the “Closing Minute” was adopted on August 5, the two groups went their separate ways.
So far, this is all necessary background, which (except for the parchment suicide note) has been reported before. What has happened since then is of more interest, and can be put in the form of another query:
Is there life after death in NCYM-FUM territory?
The answer is not so simple. We’ll look at one side, then the other.
“Authority” & “Autonomy” were only temporary designations. So one of the groups’ first tasks was to pick an official name. The Authoritarians had gathered on June 24, 2017 at Cedar Square Friends, for a general organizational meeting. By far the longest discussion in their minutes was on nomenclature.
A Naming Committee reported that ten names had been suggested, and their recommendation was to call themselves the F. O. C. U. S. Church of Carolina, with the initials standing for “Friends Obedient to Christ and United to Serve.”
Some liked it, others didn’t. Advocates stressed that it was pointed ahead, toward the new, and said it was time to “let go of holding to things of the past.”
(This was not a new refrain: in an earlier meeting, on April 4, pastor Mike Wall told the group, according to the minutes, that “he does not feel [the] Traditional [term] Friends has any modern appeal, that anything with Quaker or Friends in it has not had a positive image for the last 25 years, that if we are facing a new day we should have a new name, that our name should denote a new direction, that our name should be new and vibrant.”)
But others were not pleased that F. O. C. U. S. seemed to be leaving the Quaker heritage behind. And one Friend noted dryly that, “we already have a Ford Focus.”
When the Clerk asked for approval, it wasn’t there. So the issue was discussed further: the periods in “FOCUS” were dropped, but views were still mixed, “with many Friends commenting and several offering that if we weren’t able to unite on this it didn’t bode well for our future.”
Ultimately, though, the group approved calling itself “FOCUS Church of Carolina–Friends Obedient to Christ & United to Serve.”
But, then — no, not done.
When sixty or so FOCUS Friends arrived for their next “general meeting” on September 30, 2017, they were welcomed with documents headed with the name, “Friends Church of North Carolina.”
What or who was that? The group’s new Clerk, Roger Greene, attempted to explain. But what was disclosed was much more than a name: it was the opening example of how the new group worked.
Greene said that the day after the June 24 general meeting, he had googled “Focus Church,” and found there was one near Raleigh. He added that “one meeting” had then expressed opposition to FOCUS Church. So then he consulted with lawyers and some other weighty persons, and in short order, FOCUS was dumped.
Then a new set of possible names was compiled, and from this was selected the “Friends Church of North Carolina” (FCNC), very retro, but recognizable. (Evidently Mike Wall’s plea to dump “Friends” in favor of something “new,” which he repeated four times, did not reach the right ears.)
Greene registered the revised name with the state in August. And only now, at the end of September, more than three months after the group’s first major decision was unilaterally & summarily overridden, was this change announced to the body.
Greene admitted all this was “probably a little departure from normal process,” and asked for belated approval of the change. A rather subdued mumble was heard.
This was, I think, arather revealing incident. It shows that from the jump, in FCNC, the group’s decisions are subject to in-group after-hours veto; even a single meeting, which had as much chance to raise concerns at the general session as any other, can still, ex post facto, torpedo an approved formal decision without even having to be identified. (No doubt, it must be the “right” meeting; one suspects that means a large one, which could be expected to have substantial “input” into the group’s budget.)
The reception of this report also indicates that those who show up for the general sessions are prepared to accept such “leadership” passively, with scarcely a murmur.
The next major item was the establishment of what could be called the Pastor Protection Program: the rolling over of several committees from the old NCYM into FCNC, which together will keep pastors and their perceived welfare at the center of attention. These included a Recording Committee, a Pastors Association, a Pastoral Care Committee, a Pastor-Meeting Relations Committee, a Christian Vocations Committee, a procedure for issuing pastors certificates and ID cards, signed by some official, plus the transfer of all those who were recorded as pastors in the old NCYM into FCNC with the same status.
There was also comment from the floor lamenting FCNC’s lack of a paid Superintendent, whose major priority would be to manage and protect the pastors’ interests. (The reason for dropping the post was money: salary, benefits, etc.) Many of these committees had been non-functional in the old NCYM for some time, and many as yet unidentified volunteers will be required to staff them; but their reconstitution, at least on paper, was agreed to.
Then the matter of authority soon came up again, in the form of an “Unpaid Askings Policy.”
“Askings” are what the old NCYM called its head tax for members, collected from monthly meetings. It’s not clear how long the term had been used there, but some seemed to think it was as old as George Fox (it isn’t. In many early Disciplines, it was called, plainly, a quota. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting it is a “covenant.” In Baltimore Yearly Meeting an “apportionment.” There are other names.)
One of the Authority group’s grievances against the liberal meetings was that some had withheld part of their “Askings”, either in protest of various grievances, or from applying different bases for calculating the amounts due.
Such selective tax payments are, of course, a direct challenge to yearly meeting authority; and the FCNC leadership was determined to put a stop to it.
So: “To ensure integrity, fidelity and unity,” a draft “Unpaid Askings Policy,” was passed out. It specified that in FCNC “The only acceptable reason for unpaid askings will be financial hardship.”
Further, a meeting may not simply claim hardship, it must apply for the status, like an indigent applying for welfare. A committee of FCNC will then investigate and determine if the meeting is deserving.
If the meeting is denied, but still doesn’t pay, this
“will result in the meeting being inactive for 12 months, for a period of reflection. During this inactive period, members of this local meeting will not participate on any FCNC committees or any other leadership capacity.”
Following the 12-month suspension, “if a resolution has not been reached (i.e., complete payment of delinquent dues) it will be deemed that said meeting has resigned its membership from the FCNC.” [Quotes from the printed draft.]
In discussion, someone pointed out that the term “Askings” didn’t fit this new policy, because the sums assessed were by no means “Asked” for, but mandated, under penalties of suspension and expulsion.
Alternative terms were proposed, and “Financial Obligations” was settled on, then substituted throughout the draft, which now became the “Unpaid Financial Obligations Policy.”
The rationalehere was clear, yet the policy initially had the air of slamming the barn door after the horses have run off. After all, the main targets of ire about unpaid “Askings” in the past three years were some of the “liberal” meetings.
But now they were all gone, out of reach. So was this hardline policy really necessary?
Perhaps it was. Later, in discussion of the FCNC budget, Michael Fulp, Sr. rose.
Fulp was the last Clerk of the defunct NCYM, and was no shrinking violet in that post, but spoke now in a much more truculent tone. He charged that there were as many as “a dozen” meetings on the FCNC roster “who have paid none or minimal dues,” and “didn’t seem to care if they were in or out of the group.”
A dozen, out of 30 or so total? (For that matter, nine more meetings, nearly a third, were absent from the session. These are not very hard data, but they suggest something less than high morale.)
Well. Maybe there’s trouble bubbling in the purified FCNC paradise? Fulp went on to say that there were even representatives from some of these scofflaw meetings sitting right there in the room. “You all got to pay up!”he scolded.
The possibility of new internal unease came up again, when pastor Eric Morrison asked about procedures for inviting meetings that left NCYM to return. He said he had talked to people from a couple of those meetings, and they first wanted to know if there would now be definite procedures in place for disciplining meetings that “don’t follow Faith & Practice or Scripture.” (Remember, the existing Faith & Practice, for fifty years, has said nothing about such top-down rule, or homosexuality.)
Clerk Roger Greene did not rise to the bait: he quickly deflected this sally, replying vaguely that it would be referred to a committee to “develop.”
And along with holding back funds, maybe even new doctrinal troubles could be simmering: after all, there are dozens of intra-evangelical controversies about the Bible & various doctrines; they don’t stop just because you bounce all the “liberals.” We already saw what happened to the group’s first officially-approved name.
Some readers may even recall that from one of the larger meetings that left, there had been a serious proposal for a compulsory doctrinal “audit” (aka Inquisition), by which every single NCYM meeting would be interrogated for its doctrinal soundness on various points, with expulsion as a penalty for stubborn “unsoundness.”
This might sound extreme, but the proposed process for dealing with those out of doctrinal “compliance” would have been quite similar to the suspension/expulsion mandated by the newly adopted “Financial Obligations” enforcement policy. It sounded as if only something similar about the Bible and theology would mollify some of the departed dissidents.
A first step in that direction was soon taken, again by Eric Morrison when the budget was considered. A barebones tally, with only $170,800 in “Askings”/obligations, it included a list of “affiliated organizations” to which FCNC would make token donations of $100 each, from Friends United Meeting, to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, to the Quaker Earthcare Witness.
Morrison said there were two groups on the list he had problems with, and couldn’t approve donations to them; he did not name them.
The Clerk took a suggestion from the floor to withhold all those donations and refer them to a committee, which will take comments and review the groups, reporting sometime in the spring.
How much further will this housecleaning go? Well, my deep sources in the body have indicated that there are those in FCNC who, for instance, harbor deep doubts about the rigid homophobic views that have been spread around like toxic coal ash during the recent years of struggle. And these leaks are corroborated by poll data about how evangelical groups are losing appeal to young adults.
So will there be a rush among the meetings which had quit NCYM to join (“rejoin”?) FCNC? Who knows? Wait and see. Greene, however, did not sound sanguine about the prospects.
But never mind: some of the longtime pastors said they had a remedy: outreach & evangelism. They asked that endowment funds in the budget targeted for church extension be allowed to accumulate for about three years, to finance a big church planting project. And to start the process, they proposed to bring in a “church multiplication” expert from Barclay College in Kansas to do an intensive, inspirational “kickoff weekend” next spring.
Clerk Greene was for it: “If we don’t grow, we die,” he said. The outreach work, he added, may be the FCNC’s most important mission: everything should support it. He asked for approval for the plan. He got it, but it was another subdued murmur.
Indeed, the mood that morning deserves closer attention: if the doors had burst open then, or at any point in the three-hour session, and a SWAT team rushed in, to arrest anyone showing signs of enthusiasm, they would have gone away empty-handed. If there was any excitement and exhilaration among this group, they left it at home.
And now to the Autonomites.
Most of the new yearly meetings in the U.S. are the result of a convergence of interests among independently growing localmeetings, looking for wider fellowship and connections to national/international Quaker bodies. Folks get together, tentatively at first, then finding the connections congenial and useful, grow them into something formal.
That is not what’s happening to the post-NCYM Autonomites. Their experience was more like this:
Some folks went to a meeting of a club they were members of; several were descendants of generations of club members.
But at the door they were met by a large, redoubtable doorman, who put up a big hand, the flat palm blocking their way. He said, with an effort at an apologetic tone that didn’t quite ring true: “I’m sorry, but you can’t come in here. You’re not part of this club anymore.”
They reacted with consternation; some were indignant: “But I’ve been a member here all my life; my parents & grandparents too!”
The doorkeeper shook his head. “Yes, I know,” he said, “but that’s all over with.”
Then he smiled. “But don’t worry — we’ve arranged for a new club just for you. It’s down that side hallway, third door on the right. You’ll be fine there. More, er, at home. Really.”
He wasn’t budging, so the folks, after some hesitation, started down the hall, and opened that strange third door.
Inside, they were surprised to find some other folks, who also turned out to be newly expelled members of the old club.
Some in the room were acquainted, others not. Of those who knew each other, some were close, others not so much. And they were all looking at each other in a state of confusion.
A man tapped his spoon on a glass, and got their attention: “Friends,” he announced, “we’re here to organize the new club.”
We are? That’s not what we came here for. Whose idea was this? And what’s this new club are you talking about?
Forgive this little fable. But it does evoke the uncertainty that the ex-Autonomites are grappling with: they didn’t want a new club. They preferred to stay in the old one, patch it up, work things out.
Yet here they are, and there’s no going back: the old club has folded.
In real life, a few have drifted away; others still might. But those who chose to stay, at least for now, are confronting a whole new list of unanticipated questions. Even though they come from somewhat similar backgrounds, all they really have in common is that they’ve been forced out of the old club, against their will. That’s not nothing; but such solidarity is strictly negative. Now they need to find out how far it extends, and decide on some positive steps:
But what kind of club are they to make, these who didn’t want to start a new one at all? How? On what basis? And what will they call themselves? (They did agree early on that nobody liked “Autonomites.”)
With considerable discussion, but not rancor, they settled on a name: the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends (NCFF); and they have stuck with it.
They have also held several general meetings since last spring, in which they considered what kind of body they wanted to be. Numerous issues remain to be worked out.
Their Clerk is Frank Massey. He was once General Secretary for Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and more recently on the staff at Guilford College, in addition to being pastor at Jamestown, one of the meetingstargeted for purging from the old NCYM.
Massey insists that he doesn’t seek anything like the top-down structure that the “other body” is pursuing. Even though NCFF rejected “autonomy” as part of their name, he believes the group wants to maximize autonomy of member meetings as a key principle.
This aspiration pervades a draft “Identity Statement,” which was presented on September 23, briefly discussed, and then sent out to local meetings for discussion and feedback. Its main thrust is here;
North Carolina Fellowship of Friends is a non-creedal, cooperative fellowship of Friends meetings rooted in traditional Quaker teaching, gathered under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and guided by our vital practice of seeking God’s presence and activity today. While our meetings differ in many ways, we do the best we can with the Light we have today to be open and inclusive to anyone who would like to journey with us. While our meetings differ in many ways, we do the best we can with the Light we have today to be open and inclusive to anyone who would like to journey with us. Our mission is to affirm the autonomy of each member organization to pursue God’s peaceable Kingdom on Earth as put forth in their individual mission statements. . . . [Emphasis added.]
No sooner was it read, than a sticky question popped up, namely — which “traditional Quaker teachings” is NCFF rooted in? Consider that for 200 years, traditional Quaker teaching in NCYM flatly forbade paid pastors; but most of the NCFF group have them. Same goes for music in meeting: once strictly verboten. And there’s a long list of other longstanding, aka “traditional” Quaker “teaching” which have been discarded by the meetings starting this new group. So what is this “traditional” Identity, exactly?
There was no answer to this, except to hurry up and buck the statement to the local meetings for review. But the query underlines the group’s plight, as suggested in our opening fable: NCFF members are not here because they developed a common plan based on mutual understanding; they were pushed. Now they’re feeling their way.
There was no “trouble” over this question in the NCFF sessions; but as was soon clear, there is still lots to sort out. In fact, the next effort at a common stance has likewise proved stickier than one might have thought:
One of the main charges against the “liberal” meetings in the recent troubles was that they have affirmed LGBT persons and relationships, including same sex marriage. And indeed, some have, and have said so in public.
But not all, and not all in the same way. Still, now that they were out from under the purge effort, it was proposed at an early meeting, last May, that they adopt an anti-discrimination policy which would cover issues of sexual preference and identity.
It seemed that everyone was for this. And yet, as of the end of September, no such statement had been settled on.
First, there was a jurisdictional point: in keeping with the principle of autonomy, any such policy would apply only to NCFF corporate actions, committees or staff. Otherwise, it would override local meeting autonomy and thus open the door to top-down rule.
A draft was brought in to the September 23 session. It stated:
“The North Carolina Fellowship of Friends (NCFF) is committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all member monthly meetings, churches, affiliated organizations, and individual members. NCFF will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities, ministries, or employment. Additionally, NCFF will take affirmative action measures to ensure against discrimination.”
But rather than approval, this was met with a request that it be redrafted, and put in the form of a (Traditional Quaker?) query. Behind such moves, there are typically unspoken questions and hesitations. What might those be here? One could easily think of several:
First, there could be meetings not entirely on board with the idea.
Something similar happened way back in 1827, when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting divided into Hicksite & Orthodox factions. Many of the new Hicksite leaders, branded “liberals” by opponents, were no such thing; they were actually quite traditional Friends, who were simply fed up with the domineering behavior of the entrenched Orthodox establishment. Otherwise, they wanted to keep their new group almost exactly the same, but with different faces (mainly theirs) at the top.
When it soon turned out that a growing number among the Hicksite rank and file actually did harbor some “liberal” ideas about theology and practice, these leaders were generally horrified, and much internal turmoil ensued.)
There’s no question that among some meetings in NCFF, there is a definite libertarian streak, which led them out of the authoritarian camp. But this does not necessarily mean they share all the culturally progressive social attitudes of the more openly liberal groups.
Further, even for those who agree with an anti-discrimination stance in principle, there are questions of how best to state it, what it should include, and how, if at all, it is to be enforced.
Again, there was not exactly controversy about this proposal, but the draft will be tweaked some more and another version is supposed to be offered in a January session.
The extended discussion over the “Identity” and “anti-discrimination” statements underline the reality of diversity within the NCFF constituency in yet another way. There are those in the group who seem to imagine that NCFF can be more or less a duplicate of the old NCYM, only with some softer edges, and friendlier to LGBT people. (Remember the traditionalist Hicksites!)
This old model comes down to corporate-style evangelism: the YM collects money (and some volunteer labor) from members; hires and trains staff to be pastors, and to organize and run “ministries”, which center on “missions,” some far away, some nearby. The goal of all is multiplication: new members, new pastors, new “ministries,” new churches, new YMs. And the mode is top-down.
But others in NCFF with their strong libertarian streak, staunchly oppose anything like a clone; they want a bottom-up rethinking of the structure. Their model, though more intuitive than clearly laid out, is flat, non-corporate and congregational — meeting centered and volunteer-staffed. The central structures would be minimalist and non-directive, as described in the Identity draft: cooperative, driven by leadings and concerns, not by a hand-me-down roster of standing committees from the old NCYM Faith & Practice. (Most of the liberal YMs in the U.S. follow this pattern; so, to a large extent, does NCYM- Conservative.)
Let common NCFF efforts, they argue, arise, be financed and driven by the active concerns of those at the bottom, and be project-centered. Let local meetings handle their own affairs to the maximum degree. Let NCFF focus on facilitating (not leading) grassroots initiatives and cooperation. (Really, it’s not a new idea.)
NCFF is likely to be best at promoting fellowship among the meetings and members. It will make its first attempt at that with a day-long “All Friends Gathering” on November 11 in Greensboro NC, on the theme, “Recognizing the New.”
But what about pastors? Here some very tricky issues emerge: for more than a century, the old NCYM was a pastor-centered structure, both in its central activities, and in the monthly meetings. As can be demonstrated by a comparison with NCYM-Conservative, the church culture and institutional paraphernalia is quite different without pastors.
Furthermore, there can be little doubt that the centrality and activity of pastors fed much of the old NCYM’s pathologies, and chronically exacerbated points of conflict. For instance, most pastors withseminary training obtained it in evangelical or even fundamentalist institutions, with militantly anti-liberal outlooks.
Further, in the past several decades, a succession of abrasive controversies in NCYM centered in the Recording Committee, substantially undermining its credibility. Factions there repeatedly attacked pastoral candidates for purported heresies, particularly anything that could be put under the headings of “liberalism: or “universalism.” (A sample of one of the uglier persecutions, that of the late pastor Willie Frye, is here. )
But at least one former member of the Recording Committee suggested that one could now be run efficiently and tolerantly by NCFF, presumably because the militantly evangelical sectarians wouldn’t be there. And this message was heard in the “temporary committee” on the Recording (and Care) of Gifts Ministry,” which reported discussion of the idea that
There may be a need for a standing committee in NCFoF. It was noted that NCYM had four committees: Recording, Pastoral Care, Pastor-Meeting Relations, and Christian Vocation, and that a NCFF Committee, possibly under the name of “Ministry and Vocation” could provide resources to Monthly Meetings in all four areas formerly covered by NCYM committees.
But there was strong pushback against this idea (and some, to be candid, came from me.) The counterclaim was that the NCYM Recording Committee’s problems were less individual than systemic, and NCFF would be better served to have no such committee at all.
Why not? Because there would always be potential points of difference about pastors; personality clashes could be (and have been) as divisive as doctrinal differences. Further, the very role envisioned for this new committee, overseeing “vocational discernment, accountability groups, continuing education opportunities, mentor partnerships, and counseling resources,” etc. would make it a key steppingstone to, and element of, top-down rule.
Instead, it was proposed to make recording a congregational matter: those meetings which want pastors can have them. And they can record them, hire and fire, and provide pay and benefits. The pastor is their employee; let her or him be their business. And let pastors who want “accountability groups” and the like organize them informally.
Yet this shift of emphasis was very new in this group, maybe shocking to some. Most of their meetings have had pastors for generations; most of those have been vetted through the old NCYM Recording Committee (some with scars to prove it).
And many Friends sensed a truth here: moving pastoral matters to local meetings will alter the congregational and associational culture. Pastoral yearly meetings, as is evident in FCNC, are pastor-centered. If pastoral relations move to meetings, that system will be, to some extent, de-centered. Some may not like that. The discussion is far from finished.
But the issue is important, and I would contend, crucial. If NCFF’s operating principle is indeed to be congregational autonomy, this is where the rubber will meet the road. Those familiar with the non-pastoral, unprogrammed yearly meetings can testify that the group culture is different without a guild of full-time paid “professionals” at its center, whose paychecks and job tenure are in the body’s hands.
Moreover, the membership base for supporting Quaker pastors is shrinking, in NCFF, FCNC, elsewhere in U.S. Quakerdom, and in many other American denominations. More and more congregations will soon be obliged to give up pastors, at least as a full-time proposition. (In the old NCYM, both a YM-sponsored insurance and pension plan collapsed due to this shrinkage.)
How different can it get? In the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest U. S. Protestant denomination), “bivocational” pastors — pastors who work a full-time secular job, and do ministry work “on the side” — are already the “new normal,” i.e. a majority. For that matter, the American Catholic church has seen a sharp decline in the number of priests as well, even while attendance has been increasing overall.
Pastoral-nonpastoral: I don’t insist that one system is intrinsically better, though I have my preference. The key point, rather, is that NCFF is setting out to encompass what is likely to be a growing variety of arrangements; some meetings with full-time pastors; some part-time; some without. In which case, the main responsibility for meeting staff ought to rest in the meetings which will be paying them and making the personnel decisions, including recording.
As noted earlier, propping up that old pastoral system is alreadythe top operational priority for the Friends Church of NC, and frankly, it looks like an uphill slog. Since its pastors’ jobs are subject to the same erosion as the Baptists and those in other larger denominations, it’s easy to imagine that the burden on the central structure will grow over time.
As tensions fed by these changes increase, internal stress will also deepen. Indeed I believe something like this has just played out in the fracturing and disappearance of NCYM. For the health of NCFF, this dynamic should be kept off its agenda.
The morale in NCFF sessions has so far been more upbeat than the torpor of FCNC. But it’s early; and just as FCNC is vulnerable to internal differences even without the despised liberals, NCFF’s discussions could run into crosscurrents of rancor. And my guess is that the fate and centrality of pastoralism will be the most ticklish item for it to figure out.
What’s the alternative? We have just witnessed it: last year there were two NCYMs; one had long carried the burden of the pastoral system at its center; the other didn’t.
Not long ago, over a friendly lunch near a progressive college, I told the story below to a rising young academic.
As he listened, his eyes widened. Then he shook his head, and put down his fork.
“You could never do that now,” he said quietly.
Did I hear regret? Maybe even a touch of apprehension? (Was it: You couldn’t do that now, because “they” wouldn’t let you? Or, “they” (maybe a different “they”) would stop you from doing it, by force if need be?)
I wasn’t surprised at this reaction. Not today. But then, and there, we would have thought it outlandish, even absurd.
“Then” was the fall of 1963; “there” was Colorado State University, or CSU, which was spreading out along the front range of the Rockies, an hour or so north of Denver.
And “we” were Dennis Lone, editor of the Collegian, the campus paper, and me, a budding writer who produced a widely-read, pot-stirring weekly column for his pages.
On a Saturday morning in September, Dennis and I were hanging out in the Collegian office. It was otherwise deserted: the paper didn’t print on weekends.
We were bored. Our social lives were nothing to brag about. The CSU football team was on a record-setting 28-game losing streak. Culturally, CSU was then a backwater, deep in what would one day become “flyover country.”
From a far away Outside World, faint echoes could be heard of civil rights protests and political struggles, but most were shrugged off in what a few of us decried as our “hotbed of apathy.”
I slouched; he smoked. When Dennis, who had been paging through a thick weekend issue of the Rocky Mountain News, said, “Hey, listen to this,” I only half-perked up.
“It looks like James Meredith is coming to Denver.”
I sat up straight. “What?” I said again.
He read a brief notice, announcing that Meredith, who had desegregated the University of Mississippi in September of 1962, was to speak to the Denver chapter of the NAACP.
“Wow, that sounds exciting,” I said.
Meredith’s arrival on the Mississippi campus had set off riots that killed two, and required federal troops to quell. Until he graduated in August 1963, he had federal marshals as constant bodyguards when attending classes.
As Dennis read, I grew wistful. “I wish he was coming to speak here, too,” I said. “But you know this place. . . .”
Dennis looked up. “We could ask him,” he said, with an offhand practicality.
“Could we really?” I said. “How?”
Dennis was a reporter, and he was thinking like one: a former Collegian editor now worked at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Dennis called him, got an NAACP contact, who gave him an address in Mississippi. But no phone number.
“Oh no,” I fretted, “There’s not enough time to write him a letter.”
Dennis was undaunted. “We could send him a telegram.”
A telegram! I’d never sent one. Didn’t they cost a fortune?
Not really, it turned out, if one kept them brief. And ours was: would he come speak at CSU while he was in Colorado?
I was excited, but still skeptical: A living specimen of that distant Outside World — here, at Apathy State U, up in Backwater County? It seemed very unlikely. But what the hey? The worst he could say was “No.” Worth a shot.
And two days later, Dennis was waving a pale yellow telegram reply in my face: “Meredith says yes!”
That is, James Meredith said “Yes,” he’d be happy to speak at CSU–for $500. (About $4000 in 2017 cash.)
It was a reasonable price. But there was a hitch: we didn’t have it.
But we got past this hurdle: after some pleading, the student legislature reluctantly agreed to underwrite the fee, and we agreed to collect admission of fifty cents each ($4 in 2017 money) to help recover it.
Then Dennis and I shamelessly exercised our media influence to hype the talk: I wrote a column, he published articles, the buzz spread, our hopes were high.
Sure enough: something like 1300 students and faculty filled most of the Student Center’s big ballroom, likely a record. The turnout meant we not only covered Meredith’s fee: the student legislature — to their amazement– actually made a profit.
Further, Meredith’s speech hit the mark. No stemwinder, he didn’t try to compete with Dr. King or other eloquent movement orators. Instead, he calmly told of growing up respectably poor, joining the Air Force, and wanting to use his veteran’s benefits to become the first in his family to attend college, at a state-supported university.
The room was pin-drop quiet as this basically undramatic story unreeled. That’s because, apart from the riots which it evoked, it was very familiar to many of those present: CSU was not an elite school, with generations of legacy admissions. Many listening were likewise among the first in our families to go beyond high school. Veterans’ benefits after World War Two and Korea –and low public college tuitions –played a big part in opening those doors; the same was true for many of the CSU faculty.
So even though Meredith was speaking to a virtually all-white crowd, across unimaginable cultural gaps of slavery and segregation, the basic arc of his aspirations was something many in this CSU audience could relate to at a deep level. The fact that Meredith’s path became a death-defying quest gave it depth without the need for soaring rhetorical flourishes. And among the many who were moved by his words was me.
I was also moved before the speech by an unexpected behind-the-scenes shock: to save on expenses, I had invited Meredith to stay at my fraternity, called FarmHouse. Members were permitted to do this, occasionally, and I hadn’t done it before.
What I had done, though, before I joined FarmHouse, was check its Bylaws, to see if they included discriminatory membership clauses (still common in those days). They didn’t. Their motto, “We Build Men,” was okay too.
Further, in those years FarmHouse regularly won the trophy for the highest grade average of any frat at CSU.
All good. But personal attitudes, unspoken til now, were something else. When word spread around the house about what I had done, I was pulled into an impromptu chapter meeting, and was stunned to hear several members declare that they couldn’t accept having a black person stay in the house. Before I had absorbed these comments, a vote was taken and my invitation to Meredith was overruled.
I staggered out, wondering if I had been teleported to Mississippi, and began writing a resignation letter in my head.
But the next morning, word of this decision had somehow reached the CSU administration. Our chapter president was summoned, and reportedly read the riot act. I don’t know what was said, but expect it went something like this:
“Do you know what will happen when this hits the press? A man who had to have the army escort him into a public university was turned away by a group at CSU? Do you want that spotlight pointed at FarmHouse? And your alma mater? Do you expect us to put up with that?”
The fraternities were private groups, but were chartered by the university; and what CSU gave, CSU could take away.
After lunch that same day, another emergency chapter meeting was convened. The officers told us the house and its reputation were on the line; news of the refusal would be devastating.
Two or three of the hardliners against inviting Meredith stood to agree. They said that “somebody” (sneering in my direction), had snitched to the authorities and betrayed our brotherhood. Now we all had to swallow hard, bite the bullet, and save its good name from the traitor.
Another vote was taken; the invitation was sullenly, reluctantly revived.
Meredith did stay at FarmHouse, without incident. While with him at dinner that evening, I noticed a few absences; no doubt a number of the hard core took shelter elsewhere. But as we left the house for the student center, he never suspected a thing.
No word of this incident leaked out (until now); the FarmHouse reputation was saved. But it ruined my relationships there; I did resign a few months later.
And my conscience was clear. I hadn’t called the administration. My guess was a conscience-stricken officer had done it, or someone else was bragging too loud where somebody outside heard him. Instant karma, even then.
The morning after his speech, Meredith returned to Mississippi; Dennis and I basked in the afterglow of our successful debut as accidental undergraduate impresarios.
A couple of days later, we held an open discussion where students and faculty could talk about what Meredith had to say. Following the meeting, a student came up to us and said, “So you’ve presented one side of the issue. Are you going to present the other?”
Light bulbs appeared above our heads: if we could do this once, why not do it again?
Soon Dennis was back on the phone.
He called the office of Arizona’s Republican Senator, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was running for president and was an opponent of the civil rights bill then in Congress ; but no dice. I think they figured conservative Colorado was in the bag (if so, they were very mistaken: Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 23 points in his 1964 landslide. But that’s another story.)
However, two pro-segregation insurgents were eager to visit CSU: one was Ross Barnett, at that time the governor of Mississippi who had vowed to keep Meredith out of “Ole Miss”; the other was George Wallace, the sitting governor of Alabama. Both came in January 1964.
By the time Barnett got to CSU, he was out of office, so he traveled on a commercial flight sans retinue. Barnett was fascinating, in a repulsive way: he shouted more than spoke, and in his ranting we could imagine him stumping his mostly rural state, exploiting the fear and rage of a poorly-educated white electorate. But as he finished, I understood much better why it took federal troops to get Meredith enrolled at “Ole Miss,” and a continuous bodyguard detail to keep him alive there.
But Barnett was old news compared to George Wallace who, as a sitting governor, traveled on an Alabama state aircraft with an assortment of aides and bodyguards. Where Barnett voiced the racism of yesteryear, Wallace was preaching an updated racist gospel for 1963–and, we now know, for decades to come. He too was running for president, but as an insurgent Democrat, and would soon be shaking up primaries in seemingly enlightened states like Wisconsin.
Wallace was slick and smart. He fenced deftly and often humorously with our questioning local liberals. His speeches were peppered with attacks on intellectuals and “pinkos,” loud calls to “Send Them a message” about “law and order,” mixed with populist promises of raising Social Security payments. His themes and memes exposed deep veins of rhetorical ore which was to be refined into winning campaign messages by his rightwing populist successors for a half-century to come (and counting). And we got to watch him do it.
After that busy January, Dennis and I were on a roll. We had brought voices from the Outside World into our backwater, and they were stirring the pot, waking us up. Both Barnett and Wallace brought out protest picketers (peaceful), a new thing at CSU. But did putting racist reactionaries like Wallace and Barnett allow them to peddle their political wares, influence students, recruit followers?
Good question. And for sure, the two influenced me. Not to become a supporter; just the opposite. But they, along with Meredith, showed me the reality of forces and ideas that were previously only occasional headlines.
Yet who knows, maybe some among the large crowds we gathered bought into parts or all of their platform. (After all, in 2016, 52 years later, 43 per cent of Colorado’s voters cast ballots for a racist populist, one of George Wallace’s direct heirs. No question: ideas have consequences.)
But after three speeches that had happened almost accidentally, we decided to take a more thoughtful approach. Political and social extremes were becoming more apparent in the country, underscored by the national trauma of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963.
So why not present a series of speeches on the theme of extremism? We had been on both sides of civil rights; what if we next went with a right-wing extremist, followed with a left-wing extremist, and wound up with Attorney General Robert Kennedy talking about the impact of extremism in the country.
(RFK? “Hey,” as Dennis said, “if you’re gonna dream, dream big.”)
We didn’t get Kennedy. And neither of us was particularly political. But like all red-blooded Americans in 1963 and 1964, we knew Communism was The Enemy. So what about a Communist?
Now this, we dimly perceived, could in fact be controversial; while we were vague on the details (I knew nothing of the Hollywood Ten, and little of McCarthyism), we knew that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still warning us that they (or their dupes) were everywhere — even if, in fact, actual Communist speakers often had great difficulty getting a hearing.
Yet we had listened to Wallace and Barnett, and the sky didn’t fall. So why stop now?
But things weren’t quite so easy this time around. Dennis gave it his best shot. But in 1963, after years of hysteria, the American Communist Party barely existed. Its membership had been decimated by years of government persecution and FBI Infiltration. It had also lost credibility with many former members, disillusioned by the party’s unshakably loyalty to the repressive Soviet regime.
The U.S. party leader, Gus Hall, was based in New York. He did give speeches on college campuses, but was an early denizen of “flyover country,” and we failed to tempt him to add a stop in Colorado.
While we worked on finding another suitably notorious Communist, we also set out to get a right-wing spokesman. This one was easier.
What was the most right-wing organization in the country? The Nazi Party, of course. And George Lincoln Rockwell, its flamboyant leader, was only too happy to talk to anyone who would listen. One telegram and he was set to go.
When Rockwell came, we moved to a smaller theater space in the student center, where it was still standing room only. Rockwell’s speech was a bombastic stream of bizarre sociological and anthropological “facts” that added up to, “they’re bad and we’re good.” I remember him saying that there were “breeds of people, just like breeds of dogs.” Dennis and I did not sit on a platform with him, as we had the others; the front row was close enough.
Rockwell caused lots of talk. A few days after his speech, some sociology professors held an open discussion they titled, “Is George Lincoln Rockwell a Closet Homosexual?”
While many dismissed Rockwell as a kind of evil clown, and he was murdered by own of his own in 1967, he remains a cult figure for sectors of the rightwing which are still around.
Meanwhile, after he left we didn’t have any luck booking more speakers.
Which in some ways was a relief; I was a senior, preparing to move on from CSU, and Dennis still had a newspaper to put out. Then one day Dennis got a call at the Collegian office from CSU’s President, William E. Morgan. Morgan, who was genuinely respected by the students and faculty (and by us), told Dennis he had just talked to an alumnus, who referred to our speakers and wanted to know who was going to appear on campus next, Mao Zedong?
Dennis couldn’t resist: “If I thought we could get him,” he said, “I’d send him a telegram today.”
President Morgan said he supported what we had done and still would if we wanted to continue, but wanted us to know that some people outside CSU were taking a dim view of our activities.
He didn’t say anything about our speaker series in public; he didn’t have to. But would Morgan really have stuck with us if we had found a Communist? I believe so, although he would likely have taken some more heat. And as a political appointee, answerable to the state legislature for budgets, it could have gotten difficult for him.
So, given our problems with lining up speakers, the apparent decline in interest among the students, and our own distractions, our series quietly petered out, after what still seems like a pretty good run.
Looking back from half a century-plus, Dennis and I have somewhat different feelings about our season of applying the First Amendment. For Dennis, never one to be burdened by gravitas, it was all a fun adventure, on a par with the time he sent Collegian reporters (including Chuck) to infiltrate the local American Legion stag show and report on which city officials attended. He would have been incredulous if anyone had suggested we couldn’t or shouldn’t bring the speakers.
For me (Chuck) It was also a lot of fun, notwithstanding my frat house ordeal. Yet I also took much of it to heart. And it still seems like something close to what college is supposed to be about, even the difficult parts: hearing and grappling not only with unwelcome and even offensive ideas, but also the people who advocate them.
One more time, I agree with those who say today that speech has consequences: I left CSU after the summer sessions of 1964, and within six months was in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama.
I was planning to ignore the NFL protests. Why? As regular readers will know, I despise the NFL and pro football, considering both to be mainly a fiendishly successful ongoing racist plot to find and destroy many of the best and most promising youths of color year after year. and persuade too many other persons of color to cheer it on.
You ask me, the KKK couldn’t have cooked up a more thoroughly and successfully racist scheme.
I’m not surprised that millions of whites cheer themselves hoarse watching so many strong young back men bashing their brains out on live TV. But really, why should anyone who believes “Black Lives Matter” join the shouting?
Well anyway, in the midst of this orgy of youthful self-destruction, the kneeling, fist-raising & other athlete protests are clearly a great thing, maybe the only positive contribution I can see the game is making to our society today. Even if Colin Kaepernick never plays another NFL game, he’s secured a place in American history.
And the power of what he started is undeniable: when it gets the goat of the jackass in the White House, and exposes (yet again) the racist underside of his attitudes — what’s not to like, even for a curmudgeon like me?
The obnoxious, vulgar character of so much of the opposition reminds me of nothing so much as the segregationist assaults on the similarly dignified sit-ins at segregated lunch counters which began in Greensboro NC in 1960, They too were polite, peaceful, and — yes — patriotic.
And like the Greensboro protests, the NFL-spawned movement is spreading, to the most unlikely places. No, not the NBA — well, yes, the NBA, but that’s not really a surprise; we already knew those guys could talk some smack.
More stunning, it’s even jumped the whitewashed wall that surrounds Major League baseball, with its nearly all-white fan base. Hats off to Oakland’s Bruce Maxwell: today he’s a lonely hero; I hope his solitude does not last long.
But even more stunning to me is that one of the biggest voices in NASCAR has now joined this chorus. NASCAR’s roots are sunk about as deep as you can get in the white South, and Confederate regalia is still widely seen in its precincts. Further, its rulers have taken a hard line against the protests.
But Dale Earnhart Jr., son of NASCAR’s most famous early driver and a multiple-championship winner himself, has defied the NASCAR barons by tweeting support for the protests.
Earnhart has said 2017 will be his last season, and he’s reported to be worth $300 million, so he’s beyond the disciplinary reach of the other NASCAR overseers. And as he was crowned the Most Popular NASCAR Driver for 14 seasons, his opinion can’t help but be influential.
The late great comedian Dick Gregory once joked about the Woolworth protests that, “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
For that matter, both lunch lunch counters and Woolworth’s are pretty much history now. But as Gregory well knew, the protests that started there were about a lot more than a sandwich, and their impact reverberated far beyond the aisles of old-time department stores.
I’m figuring this athlete’s protest movement is, or soon will be, about a lot more than variously-shaped balls, or driving around a track a few hundred times. Plus, the bad-tempered shouts from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will only add fuel to their peaceful but blazing fire. And if, like the old lunch counters, NFL football (and NASCAR) are on the slide today, boosting this struggle for justice could be one of the best swan songs such bigtime sports could offer the country that made them what they have been.
So drop to that knee, then play ball, and let’s roll.
We wrapped up the gathering on Sunday morning June 11, after fourteen lively presentations, with a brainstorming session on research we’d like to see about American Quakerism in the last century.
We had already accumulated two flip chart pages of suggestions. And in two more hours, we filled several more sheets. Only the fact that it was time to head home brought the intellectual jam session to a close.
This should not be surprising. Both the energy and the curiosity had been running high since . We had learned a lot in the fourteen formal presentations since Thursday evening. But there was so much more to explore.
Back home after this extraordinary long weekend, the ideas are still echoing, and calling.
There was a lot to like at the Quaker History Roundtable,, at least for me. Here are several things in particular:
The mix of elders and rising talent. Our lineup included some of the most distinguished senior Quaker historians still active, and several young researchers and archivists who are just entering the field.
In addition, we did pretty well elsewhere on the diversity front: there were participants of color, LGBTQ, close to parity male/female; various branches were represented, and at least one was a registered Republican.
This variety was not the result of a planning committee checking off boxes. Presenters stepped up, and brought papers as their ticket of admission. So active interest in what has happened among American Friends of late is found on numerous points of the spectrum.
There was a sense of immediacy and connection. Many events that presenters wrote about, some of us had lived through, or had personally felt the reverberations. And in some cases, though the “history” goes back many decades, it is far from over yet.
Willingness to open up tough questions: Does FUM have a future? Was there militant segregation, war fever & homophobia in a large southern yearly meeting? (And how much still lingers?) Communists working with AFSC?
Other socialist influence among Friends then?
Archives are exciting! Staff from four major collections (Lilly Library at Earlham, Haverford, Guilford College’s Quaker Historical Collection & Swarthmore’s Friends Historical Library) showed that their stacks and vaults are not only rich treasure troves of insight and answers for seekers, but also arenas for some of today’s most contested questions, and magnets for talented younger Friends.
It was no accident that the Roundtable was opened by two very articulate archivists, focusing on such issues. They voiced plenty to ponder & work on here, both in and out of the stacks.
A supportive setting. Major kudos are due to to the Earlham School of Religion, from Dean Jay Marshall to its office staff, for unstinted support and active hospitality to the Roundtable project.
The facilities were comfortable and compact (no need to wander a sprawling campus, unless one wanted to). Meals were ready on time; and staff & volunteers were ready to help ease the many details; the video cameras ran quietly and continuously.
Media to share the event: by autumn, there will be a book of papers, which will include the Research Agenda notes as well.
And in the meantime, videos of the presentation have just been uploaded by ESR’s intrepid videographer, Ryan Frame, You can find them, in nine segments, by clicking here.
Watching is freeand no registration or other data sharing is required. (But comments are welcome!)
What can become of a venture like this? My hope is that it stimulates & encourages more research and reflective presentations on these and the many other remarkable events, personalities, troubles and accomplishments that marked Quakerism’s 20th century in the U. S. These can show up in many venues; keep an eye out.