The Duke Vigil
By Clyde O. Robinson, Jr.
It was about seven-o’clock when the telephone rang. I remember because the early Saturday morning Horror Show, featuring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, had just run the title screen, and I was settling in for a quiet two hours before mowing the grass. The caller, my grad student assistant, yelled into the phone “Guess where I am!” I muttered something about my movie, and he rushed on to say, “I’m sitting on the piano in Doug Knight’s living room.” That got my attention. Doug Knight was the president of Duke University.
“What in the world are doing in Knight’s house?” I asked frantically, Frankenstein completely forgotten by now. The story came tumbling out. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been killed the week before, and Duke students had been searching for some appropriate University response. Their leadership had quickly come to the conclusion that Duke should raise the wages of non-academic employees, many of whom were black, to the lofty level of $1.60 per hour. They had presented the proposal to the Administration who, of course, temporized. The students pondered ways of encouraging them to act. Flushing all the johns on campus at once to destroy the sewage system was considered; a night time march into the area where many Duke faculty lived to discuss the issue was finally decided upon. When President Knight realized what was happening, he feared the consequences, especially if some of the town’s red neck bullies learned what was taking place, and quickly invited the students into the President’s palatial home, where they proceeded to spend the night. Jamie Little, my colleague, had been with them, trying to encourage them to moderation.
Before the day was over, the students had transferred themselves to the main quadrangle and had grown in number to over 1,500. They camped there in front of Duke’s lovely Gothic chapel for the next two weeks, persistently insisting that Duke respond to King’s death by paying their cooks, cleaners and gardeners a living wage. Prominent faculty did not join their ranks publically but did press their case in the faculty senate with the Administration, and finally with the Board of Trustees. On Easter Sunday, James Cleland, Dean of Duke Chapel, unexpectedly swung open the massive Chapel doors, bread and wine in hand, and served the Lord’s Supper to the student encampment. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in what came to be called the “vigil,” occurred when the Chair of the Board, a corporate officer of a major automobile manufacturing company, arrived on campus declaring that he had come to fire the President for not expelling the students. Cooler heads prevailed, and that same corporate magnate was later to be seen, arms crossed, linked into a giant circle of students and faculty that surrounded the Quad. He was singing “We Shall Overcome” at the top of his lungs!
The trustees finally met the demands of the students and increased the wages of the “non-academic employees” to $1.60 per hour. The students broke camp and returned to their dorms and classes. It took those self- same employees days to remove the debris from the Quad and restore its manicured lawn. Two sleeping bags, my meager contribution to the vigil, were never seen again. The task remaining to some of us was to interpret the Vigil to a hostile community that included congregations and denominational agencies.
The Presbyterian campus ministries at NC State, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Duke had over the years sponsored symposia for North Carolina ministers and lay leaders. My colleagues, Don Shriver and Harry Smith, together with our ecumenical team at Duke, quickly decided to sponsor a day on campus for church folk who wanted to understand what the Vigil was all about. We arranged for them to visit with students in their natural haunts during the early part of the day, their task being to listen to what students had to say about what had taken place. We brought them back together to report their findings in the presence of a panel of students who then were given the opportunity to have the last word.
Genuine dialogue took place that day. Stereotypes were shattered literally left and right. One moment is engraved forever in my memory. Doug Adams, a senior that year and now a professor at Pacific School of Religion, expounded at length as he analyzed the Vigil economically, sociologically, politically, theologically and—as only a serious minded senior can do—tried his best to help us understand his motives. When he had finished, he bounced once or twice on the soft sofa where he was seated and said, “And besides it was Spring!”
It was my privilege to be a part of the religious community at Duke in 1968, when that community provided major leadership in helping the University respond to the social ills that had cost Martin Luther King, Jr. his life.
Walking to Work
By Clyde O. Robinson Jr.
People sometimes chuckle when they notice that a staff person for United Ministries in Education lives on a rural mail route. “How can a person live in the country and relate to the sophisticated intricacies of the church’s interface with higher education in urban America?” they query. And my answer says much about who I am discovering myself to be.
Week in and week out DC-9’s, Holiday Inns, university campuses and issues in higher education, and church buildings and ecclesiastical politics outline my life and consume my energy. Planning, evaluating, consulting, developing organizations, listening, intervening, newsprint, magic markers—they are my world. Weekends, holidays, hunks of the summer and whenever else I physically can, I get back to “Route 2, Box #340” to the land and blood that nourish my roots and restore my soul!
The Steele Creek farming community where we live is some ten miles and twenty minutes from the heart of Charlotte where Louise works as a counselor in a large, urban community college. It is three miles and six minutes from the Charlotte airport so that I can almost walk to work. But the meaning of living here lies far deeper than convenience.
Living on Whispering Pines Lane has to do with family, earlier generations of whom lie buried in the old church yard a half mile away and dozens of whom are within a few minutes’ drive from our home. It has to do with three acres of oak, cedar, gum and hickory; with firewood, sawed, split, stacked and with blisters to prove it; with a compost pile and a garden that awaits it; with camellias, nandinas, rhododendrons and even Monkey Grass destined to grow naturally and not to be coiffured; and it has to do with living with people in the space of the house.
There’s a living room fireplace, lit with wood we cut and surrounded by big soft chairs for reading theological tomes, personnel and guidance periodicals, and contemporary novels. The stereo offers a little bit of everything from Loretta Lynn, to the Goose Creek Symphony and Three Dog Night, to Beethoven and Purcell. But the chairs are mostly tor talking, talking, talking—and keeping our worlds in touch. There’s a big kitchen that sees lots of pinto beans, turnip greens, cornbread, raw vegetable salads, soups and strews (some of which often simmer in the iron stew pot that sits by the side of the living room hearth). There’s a shop off the garage where bottles are cut into glasses, lamps are repaired, lumber is sawed and sanded, furniture is refinished, and Christmas gifts are made. There’s a special room for the friends, colleagues and family who delight our lives by their frequent visits.
Off our bedroom, there’s a study with a dictating machine, an airline guide, a telephone answering machine, some file cabinets and a huge oak roll top desk where I now sit. Corita prints, an Arizona landscape, a Jacques Brel quotation and pieces of newsprint catch my eye. Sitting here today, I have played consultant to a community college counselor who wanted help in designing a training event for his local church, I’ve been pastor and political strategist for a key figure in a UMHE state commission, I’ve helped a colleague develop an instrument through which our Eastern Regional Team might come to use our skills and resources more effectively. Today I’ve read about the current attitudes of Black students, I’ve discussed a continuing education event for campus ministers in the area, and I’ve opened a pile of mail and shed some tears over the next three weeks’ travel.
But what I’ll be doing out there from San Francisco to Florence, Alabama, and Gainesville, Florida, I like to do. It uses my skills in areas of work I care about. I’ll be looking for models of ministry in community college settings in the hope that they may be shared throughout our network; I’ll work on planning for a more effective strategy for relating the church and Black higher education. I’ll do a workshop to help a university develop its helping services for students and others; I’ll visit a new city to open conversations about an ecumenical ministry; I’ll see bunches of judicatory officials who have responsibility for ministry in higher education; and I’ll be eager to get home again!
Clyde O. Robinson was PCUS Campus Minister 1963-1966 at Duke University with Harry Smith @ UNCH and Don Shriver @ NCSU “who helped me understand that the purpose of ministry in higher education was to bring the church and higher education together for the benefit of the community.” He then served as UMHE Regional Secretary for 14 Southeastern States 1966 to his retirement in 1994, from Southeastern Regional Secretary to Executive Administrator of national UME upon the retirements of Verlyn Barker and Bill Hallman. He is currently retired and living happily with Louise in Rock Hill, SC.