24-Hour Vigil

by Don Johnson

From the time Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President until the Inauguration, there was extensive analysis and interpretation. The feelings and understanding of developments and their history varied greatly. For example, I had a much different understanding of what was taking place than did my sons. Maybe the simplest explanation is my age. When the folks on MSNBC began interpreting what was happening in relation to the Civil Rights movement, I was very alert because I had been a close observer and a “mild” participant in the movement. Feelings are heighten as this is the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Could there have been a successful Obama candidacy without the civil rights movement? Could there have been a successful civil rights movement without the church? David Brooks in the NY Times made the point (from David Chappell’s book A Stone of Hope) that the civil rights movement would not have succeeded as a secular force. It was the moral commitment of the churches that provided the spark of success.

My first personal exposure to the movement was in 1958. I was a high school junior in Patterson, California, attending a conference sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee at Asilomar on the coast. Andrew Cordier from the UN spoke about the French in Algeria, and Martin Luther King spoke about his experience with the bus boycott in Montgomery. I ran into King in the recreation hall and he asked me to shoot a game of pool. He cleaned my clock. In five years he’d be speaking at the Lincoln Memorial and in 10 years he’d be dead at the hands of an assassin.

I recall Chicago in the early ’60s. “Open Housing.” “Red-lining.” “Steering.” I remember Grandma Soneson (Mel’s mother) proudly wearing her “EQUAL” button on Sunday mornings at North Park church. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was introduced in June of 1963 in the midst of Kennedy’s struggle with Wallace.

James F. Findlay, Jr. in Church People in the Struggle, describes the organizational efforts of the National Council of Churches (NCC) in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The House passed the bill in February of 1964, and a battle was raging in the Senate. On April 29th, the NCC organized daily services at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation that continued until the bill was passed. Findlay wrote: “surely the most imaginative effort of this sort was a round-the-clock vigil initiated on April 19th by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish seminary students from all over the country. Held near the Lincoln Memorial and visible to thousands of motorists and pedestrians entering and leaving the city each day, the vigil continued uninterrupted until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in mid-June.” Findlay did not mention the counter-vigil held close by George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party.

I was there. Six seminarians from North Park participated in the vigil. I remembered some, and “mis-remembered” others and I thought it would be interesting to connect with my colleagues of 44 years ago. And so the fun began.

We made the trip in Dave Norling’s Chevy—I distinctly remember my seat assignment—the middle of the back seat over the drive shaft. I put Google to work and found a Norling in New England and made a cold phone call. “Yeah, I remember, you smoked a pipe,” said Dave. We discussed our trip companions and agreed on Alden Johnson and Wes Swanson giving us four of the six. I e-mailed Alden. True to character, he had pictures and the dates we had participated. Dave Norling, Alden Johnson, Wes Swanson, Dennis Glad, Dennis Erickson, and I made the trip on May 7-9, 1964. I e-mailed Wes Swanson and got a call from him from southern California on a Saturday night. Google was responsive for “Rev.” Dennis Glad—it sent me to a web page that listed retired Methodist pastors in Minnesota. I reached Dennis. He recalled an encounter with one of the Nazi demonstrators who “…was in my face. I thought he was going to hit or shoot me.” Dennis Glad also recalled that the President of the NCC stopped by to join in the vigil. Likely this was either Reuben H. Mueller or Eugene Carson Blake.

Dennis Erickson was harder to find. With the help of our Hebrew Bible Professor, Fredrick Holmgren, and the North Park Alumni Office I got an address and a phone number. When Dennis answered, I asked without introduction if he was the Dennis Erickson who had participated in a Civil Rights vigil in Washington in 1964. His “yes” closed the loop.

There were not a lot of memories among us of those three days 44 years ago. Dennis Glad put it succinctly, “the car ride was a bummer, but the Cause made it all worthwhile.” Participants have received digitized copies of the slides which Alden took, have the satisfaction of having participated in an event which made the front page of the New York Times, April 29, 1964, and, perhaps, had something to do with the last election.