Spring Awakening

Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on campus and students and faculty picketed downtown Madison businesses, Drew thrust itself into America’s Civil Rights Movement. 

By Kevin Coyne

May 1964: The scene inside Dalena’s Barber Shop in downtown Madison, with Drew picketers marching outside. The picketer at far right is Tom Beveridge T’65.

May 1964: The scene inside Dalena’s Barber Shop in downtown Madison, with Drew picketers marching outside. The picketer at far right is Tom Beveridge T’65.

Down the hill from the campus they came, just past noon on a Wednesday in May 1964—six white faculty members and six black students, headed for the barbershop where they hoped all of them would be served but expected half of them would not. The shop on Park Avenue, like four of the other six barbershops in Madison, refused to cut the hair of black customers. More than a year of attempted persuasion and more than a month of picketing had failed to change any minds. The semester was nearing an end, and students wanted a resolution.

Madison had 25 police officers, and 22 of them were on duty that day, braced for a confrontation that had been building for weeks. The sign-wielding picketers marched their usual ellipse in front of Dalena’s Barber Shop. Cables from TV news crews snaked across the sidewalk and into the shop. A crowd of about 200 whites, many from outside town, had gathered along the street and in front of the war memorial in James Park.

“Go back to Africa,” came a voice from the crowd.

In the spring of 1964, just six months after the assassination of President Joh n F. Kennedy, Drew had emerged as an unlikely front in the civil rights battle that many Northerners dismissed as a problem of the distant South. Just three months earlier the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had told an overflow crowd in Baldwin Gymnasium that “some things [are] so eternally true that they are worth dying for.” Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, had addressed a civil rights rally on campus in April. Some students were already making plans to travel south to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, and they rotated half-hour shifts, 10 hours a day, five days a week, in front of the barbershop, holding hand-lettered signs that urged “Civil Rights for Madison Too.”

Barbershops in Madison were usually closed on Wednesdays, but on this Wednesday Dalena’s was open for “Barber’s Benefit Day.” Barbers from other shops had come in solidarity, manning the six chairs and charging $2 for haircuts, up from the usual $1.75, with all the proceeds going to the legal defense fund for the newly formed Barbers Association for the Preservation of Their Civil Rights. Some of the Drew dozen squeezed into the crowded shop, took numbers and waited to be called to a chair. Bill Gray T’66, a 22-year-old Theological School student from Philadelphia who would later become a U.S. Congressman, took the first number. But the Rev. James Sessions, who had taken a number after the black students, was called first.

“I said, ‘No, no, it’s not my turn. It’s their turn,’” recalls Sessions T’62, who was 32 at the time and in his second year as Drew’s chaplain. “He said, ‘No, no, it’s your turn.’”

When Gray asked why he hadn’t been called, he got from John Dalena, who was 75 and had owned the shop for 30 years, the same answer the protesters had long been hearing—that the barbers had not been trained to cut the hair of blacks.

“You’re a barber licensed by the state of New Jersey, which says you can cut the hair of human beings,” Gray told him. “The only other thing I can see is you think I’m not a human.”

Three students and the university chaplain were arrested in a case that went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor.

Three students and the university chaplain were arrested in a case that went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor.

Tempers and voices rose. “Everybody from Drew outside,” ordered Albert Dalena, the barber’s son, who had a law office next door and was representing the barbers. “Your only purpose here is to create an incident.”

Shouts, shoves and scuffles ensued, the sternest test yet of how firmly the protesters could adhere to the principle of nonviolence Dr. King had preached three months earlier. Gray was escorted out by the police. Some of the Drew dozen were outside the shop, some still inside. The police made their move.

“Arrest them!” came the shouts from the crowd outside.

That de facto segregation in some forms persisted in Madison in 1964 was not a revelation suddenly visited upon the Drew campus by King’s visit. As in many Northern towns, blacks in Madison, who made up about 4 percent of the city’s population, had until recently been shunted to the balcony of the movie theater, barred at certain restaurants and denied service at most of the barbershops. In March of 1960, Drew students had picketed the two Woolworth’s stores in town to protest the national chain’s policy of not serving blacks at the lunch counters in its Southern stores. The town had not always been particularly friendly to Italians either, as the mostly Italian barbers pointed out in their defense.

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“Lucy D. Anthony School was for many years a segregated school in Madison, being predominantly a school for Italian children living on North Street, South Street, East Street and Park Avenue,” Albert Dalena wrote in a letter to the mayor and borough council, who declined to act in the dispute. No one had protested that then, so why protest this now? “We believe that present picketing backed by some organizations which we believe to be subversive is creating a race problem which never existed in Madison and is presenting Madison nationally as a hot bed of racial discrimination.”

Drew itself had only a handful of black students half a century ago. “It was pretty shocking for most of us who were black when we got to Madison to realize how racist a town it was,” says Arthur Jones ’67, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. Today Jones is a psychology professor at the University of Denver, but in the spring of 1964 he was one of only six black students in Drew’s freshman class.

As he walked off campus with a white female classmate in his first month at Drew, Jones recalls, “Somebody opened up a car door and spit at us.” Another time, walking across campus with a white male classmate, he was mystified by a banner he saw hanging from a dorm window: “S.P.O.N.G.E.,” it read. His embarrassed classmate explained the acronym: “Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything.”

The barbershop issue had become glaringly public a year earlier. At commencement in 1963, Drew’s president, Robert F. Oxnam, told a brief story near the end of his speech.

“We are honored to have pastors studying here from Asia, Africa and Latin America,” Oxnam told the audience. “My friends, I am chagrined to report that a member of that group went to a barbershop in this village and was refused service. A bit ago I apologized to him personally before this group. Now I would like to do so publicly as president of this university and as an American citizen.”

Oxnam didn’t name the pastor or the barbershop, but the Rev. Tom Beveridge T’65 recalls that it was a visiting Methodist minister from India whose skin was dark but whose hair, Beveridge says, “was as straight as mine, and mine had no curl in it whatsoever. It was a patently racist refusal to serve anyone of color.”

Others tried and were also denied at Dalena’s (“Drew’s Favorite Barber Shop,” its weekly ads in The Acorn proclaimed) and at other shops. Appeals were made, protests lodged, but the barbers stood fast. By the fall of 1963, the Dalena’s ads had stopped appearing.

King with Drew President Robert F. Oxnam. At left is George D. Kelsey, a professor of Christian ethics at Drew and King’s former mentor at Morehouse College.

King with Drew President Robert F. Oxnam. At left is George D. Kelsey, a professor of Christian ethics at Drew and King’s former mentor at Morehouse College.

King spoke generally about racism in the North in his speech on February 5, but not specifically about the barbershops of Madison. His theme was larger: “The American Dream,” his speech was titled, an expansion of the ringing message he’d delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the previous August. He came to Drew at the invitation of the only black faculty member at the Theological School, George D. Kelsey, who had been his mentor at Morehouse College and who taught a class at Drew called “Race Relations 432.”

“It really opened my eyes to the prejudices and the source of the prejudices and the stereotypes that existed in the country up to that point,” says Lane McGaughy T’65, who had taken the course and was chosen to greet King at Newark Airport. He rode there with a professor, Howard Clark Kee, in a limousine driven by the black owner of a local car company who had decided against sending one of his regular white drivers. “When he learned that we were picking up Dr. King,” McGaughy says, “he assigned himself to be the driver because he wanted to meet Dr. King.”

Five thousand people came to Drew to hear King, but only an estimated 1,600 could squeeze into tiny Baldwin Gym (the rest listened on audio hookups in Great Hall and the University Center). McGaughy sat on the stage behind King, closer than he had been in August when, as national president of the Methodist Student Movement, he led a delegation of 39 students to the March on Washington. The speech McGaughy heard in Baldwin was different in tone from the one he heard in Washington, pitched more to an academic audience. King spoke for nearly an hour without notes, pressing for passage of the Civil Rights Bill (“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless”), quoting Shakespeare and John Donne from memory, building to a crescendo with a repeated refrain: “We will still love you.”

“And so throw us in jail, and we will still love you,” he said. “We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory.”

“‘We will wear them down with love’—that’s the kernel of what he had to say that jumped out at us at the time,” says Beveridge, who was in Baldwin with the young woman he had recently begun dating, Amy Anderson ’65, and whom he married a year later.

The speech ended with a standing ovation and many stirred hearts. “It further inspired me, as I know it did others, to get more involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” says McGaughy, who later abandoned his original plan to return to his home state of Maine as a Methodist minister and instead became the George H. Atkinson Chair of Religious and Ethical Studies at Willamette University in Oregon. While at Vanderbilt studying for his PhD, he traveled to Memphis and marched with King two weeks before King’s murder. He still treasures the gift King gave him after the speech: an inscribed copy of Strength to Love, a collection of his sermons. “It shaped my life,” McGaughy says.

A shoulder-to- shoulder crowd gathered inside Baldwin Gym to hear King speak. Those who couldn’t get in listened to the speech inside Great Hall and the University Center.

A shoulder-to-shoulder crowd gathered inside Baldwin Gym to hear King speak. Those who couldn’t get in listened to the speech inside Great Hall and the University Center.

The speech had a similar effect on Roger Martin ’65, a sociology major who had befriended Kelsey and was also chosen to meet King. “Meeting him—and his speech—just really transformed my life,” says Martin, who became president of two colleges: Moravian and Randolph-Macon. “He said we need to do something now. That probably jumped out at me at the time most—that this was an urgent issue that needed to be dealt with.”

And so when the pickets started at the barbershop in April, Martin—“a convert to the movement,” as he says—soon joined, wearing a jacket and tie, as all the male protestors were encouraged to do.

“We were going to do this the establishment way, and we did,” says John Greco ’65, then a rugby teammate of Martin and co-chairman of the Civil Rights Action Committee on campus, and today the retired city manager of Tempe, Ariz.

Sycamore Cottage—with Chaplain Sessions’ office downstairs and his residence upstairs—was a command center for the protest. “Everybody was talking about racism in Alabama and Mississippi, but not in New Jersey,” says Sessions, who has spent the last 40 years as a minister and activist in Appalachia. “We didn’t have to be summer soldiers going off to the South. Right here at home we could be involved in fighting racial discrimination.”

The first weeks of picketing were mostly peaceful, except for the “carloads of rowdies from Newark” shouting racial slurs, as Sarah Gordon Weathersby ’67 remembers. “I think it was more frightening for the white students because they weren’t used to being called ‘nigger lovers,’” she says.

Until May 13th.

As the crowd outside Dalena’s Barber Shop had urged, Sessions, Arthur Jones and two other black students were arrested for disorderly conduct. A procession of 45 students followed them to Madison Borough Hall. Twenty of the students squeezed into the lobby, linked hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” The dean of the college posted a $50 bond for each of the four. President Oxnam issued a statement of support that drew a stack of letters and telegrams, ranging from execratory to celebratory.

“And we all kind of triumphantly walked back up the hill to the Forest,” Sessions says. “Everybody was very jazzed by the whole thing.”

King spoke at Drew five months after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and just one month after Time named him “Man of the Year.”

King spoke at Drew five months after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial and just one month after Time named him “Man of the Year.”

But then a post-midnight bomb threat emptied a men’s dorm, and cherry bombs exploded in six cars parked at a Madison church where human rights leaders were meeting to discuss what The New York Times was calling “a civil rights crisis that had turned this quiet, suburban college town into a strife-ridden community.”

“I had the air let out of my tires,” says Eleanor Selfridge-Field ’62, a former editor of The Acorn who was teaching music at Drew, stringing for The Associated Press—she covered both the King speech and the barbershop protests—and whose upstairs landlord was one of the barbers. “Every so often he’d come to me and knock on my door, and he’d say, ‘Look, I give you a place to stay, but I don’t know why your friends are so mean to me.’ I don’t even know that he harbored himself any particular grudges against blacks, but I think he didn’t like being told what to do. He had always done his job a certain way, and he had never gotten any criticism for it, so why was he being criticized now and forced to do something else?”

FBI agents warned John Greco that death threats had been made against him, and offered to assign him police protection, which he declined. “We all got very careful,” Greco says. “There was a bit of paranoia that crept into this when it got ugly.”

Picketing stopped the Saturday after the arrests. Final exams were nearing, and the state Division of Civil Rights had stepped in to investigate. It was a question of law now, not just morality. “We backed off after the legal process started, and then there was no further point of causing disruption just for the sake of causing disruption,” Greco says.

The barbershop four were acquitted in a brief trial, and when students returned in the fall, picketing did not resume. By Christmas, the state had ruled that the barbers “had neither the legal nor factual justification for refusing to serve the complainants.” The barbers appealed, and the legal odyssey lasted until February of 1966, when the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that a state-licensed barber “cannot discriminate against a prospective patron who seeks his service, be he Negro or any other race.”

Arthur Jones was a junior by then, but the ruling did not change his tonsorial practices. “I would just wait until I got home to get my hair cut,” Jones says. “I wasn’t going to go to those guys.”

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