The Early Days: 50’s and 60’s by George Gunn

George Gunn has spent most of his adult years in and around ministries in higher education.  He received his B.A. from Davidson College (1943-47) and his M.Div. at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (1947-50).  He served as Minister to Students at the University of Georgia (1950-54) and University Pastor at the University of Arkansas (1960-73).  He headed the Office of Higher Education, Presbyterian Church, U.S. (1973-76).  In between these posts he served a pastorate in college and university communities.  He was one of the founders of NCMA in 1964 and its third President (1969-71) and he and his wife Sally were Editors of the NCMA Newsletter (1991-96).

Sitting on the Bus with Rosa Parks

The year was 1950.  The month was April, a month filled with decisions, chiefly who and when to marry and where to begin my ministry. The place was Five Points in downtown Atlanta.  I walked there from Terminal Station, where I had deposited my suitcase.  My destination was suburban Decatur.  I had a late afternoon appointment to meet Paul Garber, a Bible professor at Agnes Scott College.  I would return to Louisville that night on the train.

My mind was on the events of the previous two days in Athens.  I had come by train from Louisville to interview for the Minister to Students position at the University of Georgia.  All had gone well and I left Athens with the position offered and my acceptance all but assured.  I would graduate at Louisville Seminary in late May and come by early June to begin my ministry in higher education in Georgia.  The stop in Decatur was to visit with a member of the Synod Student Work Committee who could not be in Athens the previous day.

My bus sat at the curb in front of F. W. Woolworth.  It was surrounded by diesel fumes and hurrying passengers, homeward bound.  I boarded the bus, its destination, clearly, “Decatur.”  I paid my 15   cent fare and looked for a seat.  Only one space appeared to be vacant.  It was in the first double seat past the parallel bench seats nearest the front.  I sat and waited for the bus, now full, to depart.

We sat.  One of the men seated in front of me leaned toward me.  “The driver is talking to you,” he said forcefully.  I looked up to the front of the bus.  The driver was turned in his seat, facing me now.  He stared directly at me and spoke each word slowly and for all to hear, “Hey, buddy, you are sitting by a nigger!” “Buddy?” His tone did not sound very friendly in the context.

I did not move.  Finally, after a very long pause, I rose to my feet.  I turned to my embarrassed seat mate.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  I looked down into the brown face and tired eyes of my new found buddy and prospective fellow Georgian.  “Thank you.” she said, in a whisper.  I was caught by surprise, even though I had ridden busses and boarded trains in every southern state and city in which I had lived.  I knew about arbitrary color lines and segregation.  I knew too that to refuse to move would create a crisis in which there would be only one victim, this quiet woman.  Her calm and confident demeanor reminded me of my mother.

One of the white men on the bench seat moved over to make room for me.  It was 1950, too early for non-violence and peaceful protests and freedom rides.  Perhaps, by that very corner, past Five Points and Woolworth’s, and down Auburn Avenue, a 19 year old Martin Luther King, Jr., had walked two years earlier, on his way home from an afternoon class at Morehouse College.  I believe I passed him there, as I boarded the bus, but I couldn’t call his name.

We rode in silence, rumbling down busy Auburn Avenue, passing “Daddy” King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.  I studied the faces of the white men seated directly across from me, trying to fathom their fears.  I was a color-blinded Saul, stumbling down his Damascus road, on the brink of receiving a new name and a new calling.  I was a persevering Jacob, wrestling with a heavenly messenger before dawn, and like Paul, being given, by God’s grace, a new name and a new mission.

This day, two voices were raised– the white man’s who called my attention to the bus driver, and that of the driver who delivered a loud judgment and ultimatum on behalf of the State of Georgia: “Hey, buddy, you’re sitting by a nigger!”  Only two voices responded, both whispers:  “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.”  The voice of hatred thundered.  The voice of peace whispered.  Would the day come, I wondered, when I would hear the voices of justice thunder in these streets and see hatred and fear reduced to a whisper?

On the bus to Decatur, I was on my way to receiving a new name and, perhaps, the blessing I sought was to be found both in my wounded spirit and in the confirmation of my calling, to be an agent of reconciliation and a proclaimer of God’s peace and justice.  I believe now, looking back, the bus to Decatur was taking me toward who I was called to be and to the place I was meant to be.

On to Athens: The Classic City      

 In early June of 1950 I drove my new 1950 Plymouth from Louisville to Athens, Georgia.  I had graduated from Louisville Seminary in May, finalized the purchase of my new car at George Byers, the Plymouth dealer across Broadway from the gothic quad, and had driven to Cincinnati to meet Sally.  She was en route from Lynchburg, Virginia, to her home in Salem, Oregon, at the end of her junior year at Randolph-Macon Women’s College.

I was putting Sally on the train in Cincinnati and then returning to Louisville to load my earthly possessions and to move them to Athens, where I would begin my first job as Presbyterian Minister to Students at the University of Georgia. I would also be finding an apartment to rent and to return to after my drive to Oregon in August and our return as “Mr. and Mrs.”

I have related my early encounter with the customs of the deep south in my bus ride from Atlanta to Decatur two months earlier.  In the fall of 1950 I was to be confronted anew with the politics of segregation and the reality of racial injustice.  I went to the Clark County Court House, across Hancock Street from First Presbyterian Church and my office.  My purpose was to register to vote.  As I waited my turn, I witnessed the exam being given to a colored citizen twice my age.  “African-American” was a term destined to come into usage some twenty years hence, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act by the U.S. Congress.

An oral exam included details of the U.S. Constitution and of American history, facts which could not reasonably be known.  It was quickly apparent to me that the State of Georgia had no intention of registering this fellow citizen to vote.  The sham of the exam was clear when he was denied and no exam was mentioned when I presented myself as the next in line.  I did have to pay a Poll Tax.

My four year tenure in Athens and on the campus of the University provided ample and frequent occasions to reflect upon the injustices present in the deeply divided culture of a segregated society. In both the university realm and in my relationships within the religious institutions there, I was confronted daily with challenges to my growing sense of the immorality of racial segregation and the complicity of “good people” in its perpetuation.

“The Varsity” was, and still is, a time honored and student frequented hamburger joint, then on the corner across from the main campus of the University of Georgia.  This corner is a short three blocks from First Presbyterian Church and the office of the Minister to Students.  Early on I walked over for my first taste of a Varsity burger.  I entered and stood at the counter, getting a “what are you doing here?” look from the counterman.  Only then did I recognize that I stood between two young black customers.  There was no sign to distinguish it, but this was the counter at which any consumer of color stood to order and receive his “take out” from “The Varsity” The color of our money was the same, but the color of the sit down customers was not the same as those who had to find another venue in which to do lunch.

All this came to my mind when Atlanta journalist Harry Golden wrote a piece for the Atlanta Constitution.  He proposed that integration of Georgia restaurants and other eating establishments be accomplished by removing all tables and chairs!  His “stand up” integration plan was judged facetious, but as “sit in” protests and demonstrations in college and university communities like Athens were soon to be initiated, the role of activist students came to personify the moral integrity present in the civil rights movement, a movement which would flower in the 1960s.

Campus Ministry: Student Work Revisited

The campus of the University of Georgia in 1950 was typical of most “flagship” campuses in the U.S.  The G.I. Bill, in the first years following the end of World War II, had resulted in the rapid expansion of every college and university.  Major denominations moved to strengthen their higher education mission presence in both public and private institutions. “Student Work” took on a revival, and this oldest “special ministry” of the Presbyterian Church in the United States began to flower with new forms and faces across the South.

The campus at Athens was no exception.  The Women of the Church of the Synod of Georgia made a statewide appeal to secure funds to support the   ministry to students at Athens.  The Synod named a Student Work Committee and the allocation of designated funds and the naming of personnel to lead this effort was initiated.  Congregations in the college and university communities took a fresh look at how they might provide “a home away from home” to resident students.  Each saw the need to go beyond welcoming students to corporate worship and the opportunity present to engage them in study and service.

It was this Synod Student Work Committee with whom I had met in Athens on that fateful day in April.   The Committee members represented ministers and lay leaders of campus related congregations, both men and women, and faculty members of public and private colleges and universities.  The Committee Chairs, during my tenure, were Senior Pastors of congregations in these communities: Dr. Kerr Taylor at First Church, Milledgeville;  Dr. Dickson Phillips, First Church, Thomasville; and Dr. Wade Huie, Vineville P.C., Macon.

Students from the various campuses composed a statewide “Westminster Fellowship,” and they gathered throughout the year in both conference and retreat settings for worship, Bible study, and inspiration.  The presidents of each state organization also attended a higher education conference at Montreat in June each year.  Art McDonald, an active University of Georgia student, began an illustrious career in higher education and the arts as president of the Georgia Westminster Fellowship!

This P.E.A.S. Conference (Presbyterian Education Association of the South) was the occasion in the 1950s when the students took an action in response to Montreat’s exclusion of one of their number, an African-American student, denied the privilege of swimming in Lake Susan.  They moved their conference out of Montreat and over to the campus of Warren Wilson College!  It didn’t take courage, one student observed, just common sense.  Another asked, “Why is there a problem?  In the cold water of Lake Susan everyone turns blue!”

Another incident along the racial justice journey came when the ritual of Sunday Night suppers at First Church was interrupted after I invited Lawrence Bottoms, a well- known black Presbyterian pastor, to speak and, of course, to engage in conversation with students around the dinner table.  When I learned that I was judged to be out of order and that I needed to withdraw the invitation, I countered that I could not do that, and if hospitality at the Church was not available, Sally and I would entertain him in our apartment and come to the Church for time with the students.  When that was also vetoed, I realized the stakes were getting higher by the hour and that I needed to fashion some compromise.

My fellow campus minister and director of the Wesley Foundation saved the day by giving me the name of a local A.M.E. pastor who graciously issued a supper invitation to his church for our visitor and the dialog with Presbyterian students took place after the dinner hour without incident.  Years later, after Lawrence Bottoms’ election to be Moderator of the P.C.U.S. General Assembly, Sally and I recalled that incident in our shared history and voiced our abiding deep regret to the new Moderator, evoking from him only the most kind and gracious words of understanding.

Montreat’s history in regard to race and inclusiveness was spotty at best.  The conference center and Montreat College were under the same administration and the buildings and their use governed by the same Board.  The fact that the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) met alternate years at Montreat required appropriate accommodation of ministers and elders on the grounds of Montreat, a private association since its founding in 1908.  Until it became an incorporated town in the 1950s and elected public officials and taxed its citizens and property owners, Montreat’s Board, made up of representatives of the 17 Synod’s of the P.C. (U.S.), governed its internal affairs.

In its early years as a Conference Center, Dr. R. C. Anderson was Montreat’s President and its visionary Builder.  The center pieces of that vision were the spacious Auditorium which bears his name and the Assembly Inn, both built to his design and under his daily supervision.  Smooth river rock went into both exterior and exterior construction and reconstruction.  An addition to the Inn’s dining room was a small private dining room, accessable by a flight of external steps from the Assembly Drive parking lot.  In the early years, African-American Commissioners to the General Assembly were advised to find their way to this site for their meals, These Commissioners were also seated in the rear rows of Anderson Auditorium, virtually invisible to the rest of the assembled commissioners gathered to worship, to break bread, and to do the work of the Church.

As these barriers were removed and new leadership of Montreat emerged the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and the reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took its rightful place in the vanguard of those faithful to the call to “love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly.”

In the early 1950s, the University of Georgia was the site of major denominational expansion of campus ministry.  Along Lumpkin Street, from the downtown churches out to its intersection with Milledge Avenue, and back to Prince Avenue, properties were being purchased for religious centers. For generations antebellum homes along these tree lines avenues had been transformed into both fraternity and sorority houses.  Now mixed with them were substantial residences owned and adapted for the ministry to students.

Presbyterians initiated conversation and speculation about joining the movement, but it was not until the 1960s that property on south Lumpkin was secured, at 1250 Lumpkin Avenue.


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