Oscar, you might not remember me. It’s been many years — 1964 to 1965, to be exact. But I cannot forget you or the time I betrayed you, not meaning to in any way. Yet I did exactly that, and for all the decades since I have carried the burden of that night in Durham, N.C. So, if you are still alive, perhaps you will see this — or someone you know will get this message to you.
We both arrived at Duke Divinity School at the same time. I think we first met at some kind of orientation. I do recall we were standing in line together. There were not many African American students at Duke in those years. You were a minority of a minority. “Oscar Johnson,” you said, and out went your hand to mine. It felt good to connect.
Perhaps you knew that the school you entered that fall was far from racially open or welcoming. Being a Midwesterner, I was somewhat surprised to discover that racism was not only in the divinity school but among the other graduate students and in our graduate dorm and beyond. I recall sitting at a table for lunch one day with a mixed group of students and cafeteria workers when I said something negative about the KKK. The reaction around the table was palpable.
One cafeteria worker looked at me to ask: “Have you ever been to a KKK meeting?” I admitted that was true enough that I had not. “Well then, you should not make a statement against it if you have never been to one” I was informed. I got the point and finished my lunch in silence.
It also was early in that first semester that I found myself in a group of divinity students when the discussion of race came up. One of our professors had evidently participated in a sit-down demonstration in a nearby city. The professor’s witness was not lauded by most in our circle. Finally, one of the chaps from South Carolina declared with evident emotion: “Some of these professors think you cannot even be a Christian unless you are for integration!”
The one making the protest was older than I, and perhaps that’s why I kept my silence once again. My history of silence is not something I am very proud of.
Martin Luther King showed up at Duke not long after we began classes. The auditorium on campus was filled with a lot of white people that afternoon. King stood before us without a single note and reminded all of us of our shared history. For a long time, it was a history of master and slave but then it was followed by much blood and Jim Crow.
In 1964 it was very much Jim Crow in America. And very much a time of blood. Just a year before, a bomb had gone off in a Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four little girls in Sunday School. The bomb was meant to kill little girls dressed in their Sunday best. It was meant to kill children. An unspeakable horror.
King was scheduled to speak again that night in a Black high school in Durham. Oscar, you and I teamed up to attend together. It was a much different audience that night as hundreds packed the gym. I think I might have been the only white person in attendance. But I had you, Oscar, next to me and I was perfectly at home.
But what an unfortunate evening. The public address system never got working, and King had to preach without amplification. We couldn’t hear a single word.
Afterward, you and I made our way to the stage. You wanted to shake King’s hand. And you did shake his hand in the midst of a crowd all around us, positioning to get close. Your face, Oscar, your face beamed like sunshine. Your smile was as wide as the world. You asked me if I wanted to get a handshake too, but I declined. Just seeing your joy was gift enough for me.
Not long after, another famous person came to Durham, a man by the name of George Wallace, who was governor of Alabama. Wallace was then running to be president of the United States. Just a few days before the bombing of those little girls in an Alabama Baptist church in 1963, Gov. Wallace told the nation’s leading newspaper: “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals.”
Four of us, all Duke Divinity students, went to hear Gov. Wallace that night. It was almost amusing to watch Wallace and his aides talking among themselves and taking quick glances at us — at you — as plans were being made to make sure we didn’t steal the show in some way. We clearly made them nervous.
Eventually, the moment came that I cannot erase, the moment that I regret and carry with me like a wound that will not heal. When Wallace finished speaking, the three white students to my right all rose for the standing ovation for the governor. And without thinking — just as a reflex that happens without plan — I stood with them.
And then I looked down at you, still sitting. Looking ahead but not at me. And your face was not beaming like the night we saw King. This is my painful memory and one I cannot escape or forget.
You were never the same with me after that night. I tried to rekindle a spark, but you had dropped a curtain. Of course you had. I should have taken you aside and talked this all over with you, but I didn’t. I was too young, too immature, too stupid to make that effort.
Halfway through Duke, I decided to get married and transferred to another school — Crozer Theological Seminary. The irony, of course, is hard to miss. It is the school where Martin Luther King studied after college, a seminary that proudly boasts of sending many of the nation’s leading African American ministers to the work. My ethics professor, Kenneth Smith, taught King ethics.
“For a brief moment, I played the coward and the idiot next to you long ago.”
So that’s my story, my painful memory, Oscar. For a brief moment, I played the coward and the idiot next to you long ago. I am retired now. I cannot say that I have distinguished myself in some special way. I have many regrets — many, many — but none deeper than my stupid and unthinking betrayal of you.
I do want you to know that the very first person who welcomed me at Crozer was a Black student from Baltimore who remained my friend until his early death. I do want you to know that some of the deepest friendships I had through the years were African American pastors. I do want you to know that I have been challenged and spiritually fed by the preaching and writing of African American leaders in ways that I could never repay. I do want you to know that I spent 10 years as a seminary president, often preaching in the Black church and that those occasions have never been bested as times of joy and celebration. I do want you to know that I tried my best to lead my congregations to the light and love of people who don’t look like us.
I never went to jail because of my witness. Yet, perhaps there is still time and I might still make it there; I haven’t given up on jail as my next big journey. When I was in college, a busload of Freedom Riders went right past my house, headed south out of St. Louis, and I was not on that bus. I should have been on that bus. I should have gone to jail. John Lewis will always be my hero.
“If you are still alive, Oscar, I ask for your forgiveness while we both walk this earth.”
Maybe there is still time for me. Heaven knows the struggle is not over and in these past days watching state-sponsored violence against Black citizens and fuming over widespread voter suppression is evidence enough for action, not just outrage.
I ask God’s forgiveness on a daily basis for many sins, for the many times I failed to live by faith. I take great comfort in the Psalmist’s words: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
If you are still alive, Oscar, I ask for your forgiveness while we both walk this earth. Or else when we walk the streets of gold. That would be OK too.
Tom Clifton was born in St. Louis and graduated from William Jewell College. He attended Duke Divinity School and Crozer Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) and received the doctor of ministry degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He served as an American Baptist pastor for 25 years and as president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years. He is retired now in Pittsburgh and is active in interim ministry work in Missouri and Pennsylvania.