The Reverend Malcolm Boyd, the Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the 1960s and 1970s
Michael B. Friedland, History Department, Boston College
This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
Along with several other priests, Boyd took part in nonviolent workshops with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after which time the Episcopalians traveled from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson authorities arrested fifteen of them when they tried to integrate the city’s bus terminal; the Reverend Layton Zimmer, chaplain of Swarthmore College, and Boyd were not in clerical garb and were therefore not arrested. Both traveled to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, founded by the Episcopal Church, where with five other Episcopal priests they tried to receive service at the university’s Claremont Restaurant. The proprietor refused to serve the integrated group, whereupon the priests threatened to hold a hunger-strike and a sit-in until the school’s regents agreed to pass a resolution desegregating the restaurant the following month, which they did. 35
The conclusion of the pilgrimage proved to be somewhat anticlimactic; after a Mississippi jury found one of the ministers not guilty of disturbing the peace after a trial in May 1962, charges against all the others were dropped. Most of the ministers facing imprisonment or a long, drawn-out appeals process were both relieved and troubled by the impression that they had received special treatment due to their profession. 36 While it is impossible to determine with any exactness the influence white clergymen had on the eventual outcome of the Freedom Rides, it is clear that the publicity engendered by their participation kept the issues alive once the violence inflicted on the original Freedom Riders had ceased to be news. The example of Protestant ministers (as well as rabbis and Catholic priests) 37 willing to risk injury and imprisonment by involving themselves in a fight that many felt was not their own indicated that individual clerics were trying to make their religion relevant by addressing racial problems facing society.
Boyd’s participation in the events surrounding the Prayer Pilgrimage did not end upon his return to Wayne State University. The trials were yet to be held, and bail money was needed, and so the Episcopal priest turned to his earlier vocation, that of scriptwriting, and wrote a series of plays about race to be performed in coffeehouses and campuses by college students, civil rights and religious groups across the country: Boy, Study in Color, They Aren’t Real to Me, and The Job. 38 Boyd described the theme of his plays as an “affirmation of humanness in the face of the powerful, sophisticated forces that try to break a person, compelling one to settle for less than personhood, and become a stereotype, a ‘nigger,’ ‘boy,’ ‘queer,’ a thing.” 39 While the plays were popular among university students, television and radio producers often found themselves criticized for broadcasting what many viewers and listeners considered to be inflammatory material, and there were instances when the plays were closed or banned outright. 40
Civil rights were not Boyd’s sole concern while at Wayne State University, 41but by the spring of 1964, the struggle for an end to racial discrimination began to take up increasing amounts of his time and attention, in much the same way it was affecting the entire nation–especially the white religious community. 42 When the Civil Rights Act was passed in the summer of 1964, irate southern senators singled out liberal white clergy and sympathetic laypersons for criticism because of their support of the legislation, telling evidence of the strong moral influence the churches had on its passage. Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia complained that because the clergy had “failed completely in their efforts to establish good will and brotherhood from the pulpit,” had turned to the “powers of the Federal Government to coerce the people into accepting their views under threat of dire punishment”–a “philosophy of coercion” that he likened to the doctrines of Torquemada “in the infamous days of the Spanish Inquisition.” 43 Liberal white clergy were not content to lobby on Capitol Hill, however. The summer of 1964 found many of them involved in the Mississippi Summer Project, a voter registration and education campaign coordinated by civil rights groups working together under the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). In late March, representatives of the National Council, teachers, and sociologists met in Manhattan to discuss the establishment of “freedom schools” in Mississippi to give black children as well as adults the well-rounded education denied them in impoverished segregated schools provided by the state. 44
To read this article in its entirety, click here.