Opposition from Outside Campus
The marches and demonstrations also stimulated reactions from the public at large. There were many letters to the administration threatening to withhold donations: “Neither the citizens of Richmond nor the Presbyterians of Virginia approve of your behavior … and this is going to prove a great handicap when we again attempt to raise funds to subsidize your education.” Some letters, however, were supportive. One woman wrote: “We cannot find sufficient words of thanks for the brave stand that each of you have taken in a cause we all feel to be just.” George Conn and the others received death threats and insults. Conn recalls:
On one particular day when I had just received and read a particularly seething letter, Dr. Leith met me in the hallway of Watts, and reading my face, asked what the problem was. I gave him the letter to read and he responded, “Only a damn fool would write a letter like that and only a damn fool would pay attention to it. Go to your room and read some theology.” So I did.43
Later, the student government called for students to vote on a resolution supporting the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The resolution passed 45 to 24. Then, 25 students and four wives signed up to stand vigil in Washington to press for passage of the act.
A march to pressure Congress to pass civil rights legislation was organized in Selma, Alabama, leading to violent confrontations between marchers and police. The Selma March riveted the country and Union Seminary responded. On March 15, 1965, 300 people in Richmond marched from Virginia Union University to the state capitol to show their support for the Voting Rights Act, their sympathy for the death of Rev. James Reeb (a white Unitarian minister who had been murdered in Selma during the march the previous week) and nine others, and “to protest [the] brutality and senseless violence in Selma, Alabama.”44 Newspapers identified one of the leaders of the demonstration as “Dan West, of Dallas, Texas, a white Presbyterian student at Union Theological Seminary.”45 All but two faculty members and most of the student body participated. Glenn Bannerman recalls, “It was a glorious celebration of God’s people in support of all God’s people having equal rights.”46
Again, reactions to the demonstration and student involvement were immediate and strident. “The phones rang off the hook in Watts Hall, and the secretaries were targets of considerable verbal abuse.” Union Seminary President James Archibald Jones, by all accounts, was “gracious and wise.” He supported the students by telling them they were free to march if they desired. And he tried to placate enraged donors by reminding them that the march was not sanctioned by the Seminary.47
Professor James Luther Mays (B.D. 1949), together with three students—John D. Turner (B.D. 1965, Th.M. 1966), Dan West (B.D. 1965), and Louis Weeks (B.D. 1967)—joined the Alabama demonstrations on March 21, going into Montgomery on March 24, where marchers were confronted by 2000 soldiers, 1900 federalized National Guard troops, as well as scores of FBI agents and Federal Marshals.
Mays had been involved in civil rights throughout his parish ministry. As a Seminary professor, however, he was a more public person. Right after Mays returned from Selma, Second Presbyterian Church in Petersburg sent a delegation of two elders to him and told him he could not preach there anymore. He had been scheduled to preach at the church in the near future and was hurt because he had been their student minister for two years. Union President James A. Jones supported Mays, but there always was pressure on Jones to “do something” about his wayward professor.48
43. Sweetser, 325. All quotes in this paragraph are found in the same source.
44. The Student Body of Union Theological Seminary, A Christian Witness of Conviction and Sympathy (March 15, 1964), 1.
45. Allan Jones, “700 March in Four Cities,” Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), 16 March 1965, 1.
46. Bannerman correspondence, June 26, 2018.
47. “A Century in the City,” 7-8.
48. Interview with James Luther Mays, UTS Video History Project, 2009.