Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Ago

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28

The summer before my freshman year in college I received a letter from Wesleyan University asking whether I would mind having a “Negro” roommate. At the time, I was insulted by the question. What would make them think I was a racist? I rewrote the response card to indicate that I would not mind having a black roommate, but I did object to the question.

Looking back, the experience seems surreal. Did I really grow up in a time when we thought that white people needed to be asked whether they could share a room with a person of another race?

To be fair, Wesleyan was embarking on a new and precedent setting path. They were the first of the elite, private, traditional liberal arts colleges to actively recruit and admit a large minority population to the student body, and they were understandably nervous. Looking back, I am proud of Wesleyan’s leadership in that historic endeavor.

And I ended up with a great roommate; Stewart Malloy, a young black man from North Carolina. At a recent reunion we had a group discussion about racism and racial issues while we were at Wesleyan. I recounted the story of the letter I received before freshman year. When I said I was pretty sure that Stewart had not received a similar letter, he just laughed. But I was surprised to learn when I questioned the other folks at the reunion that no one else remembered getting a letter like that. Stewart was amused by what he thought was my naiveté. “Well, Trench,” he laughed, “I guess they wanted to put the poor black kid and the poor white kid together.”

As our freshman year unfolded, Stewart and I found ourselves living through a time of great racial tension and upheaval. The Wesleyan vision of integration was continually under attack from the larger white community, which wanted “more time” to do this more “gradually,” (that was before we had even reached “all deliberate speed”) and from the pressures of the growing Black pride and Black separatism movements on campus. Our room was, at least in our minds, like the eye of the hurricane. Stewart and I talked often about racial issues, but we never had a single argument on the subject. We listened to each other, and we learned. And like many other young people, we were busy thinking about how we could change the world.

Then one night, as I sat at my desk, Stewart came back to the room in tears. “They killed him,” he said. And immediately, I knew who the “him” was. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet of non-violent change, had been murdered. On campus and around the country, racial tensions increased dramatically.

A few weeks later, after a meeting with the Black student group, Stewart told me that we could no longer be friends in the same way. Nothing would change in our room, but outside we would not speak to each other. It was not personal. It had nothing to do with us. It was all about larger issues in the Black student community as they related to the racism in the country.

Freshman year ended and we went our separate ways. I don’t believe we spoke again until our twentieth reunion. Stewart was sitting on a stone wall in front of the College of Letters. We hugged and laughed and talked for a long time. It was as if our conversation had only been briefly interrupted.

A lot has happened in the fifty years since Dr. King died. We have made great progress. But racism remains a major issue for us as Christians and as Americans.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


  1. My parents received a similar phone call just before I started college in 1966. He was a 19 year old from Dallas and I was a 15 year old from a rural part of Missouri. He would go on to prominence in the Bush (43) administration and I would go on to earn a doctorate from the University of Iowa. Sadly, we have not spoken in a number of years because of those latter political differences.

  2. Thank you Bill.