Buchman’s Inspired Ideology for America
by Jarvis Harriman, Bob Webb and Dick Ruffin
Jarvis Harriman heard about Moral Re-Armament from his father, whose faith as a clergyman was renewed by Frank Buchman. After serving overseas in World War 2 Jarvis worked with MRA in the US and Canada, Switzerland and across Europe and the Asian continent. He and his wife now live in Tucson, Arizona.
MY father was an Episcopal clergyman; he was appointed to a key parish in the heart of Philadelphia, where the wealthy used the church for weddings and funerals, and supported it financially, and the white- and blue-collar working people in that neighbourhood came to worship. Dad was deeply discouraged, professionally and spiritually, with the state of ‘organized religion’. He felt it was running on empty.
Then one day he met Dr Frank N. D. Buchman and his ‘Oxford Group’. They challenged him to begin a revolution himself. He quit chain-smoking, cold turkey. He began to be real with his wife and his kids. He became a dynamic Christian. This interested me, at age 10, enough to join him some mornings in his study to ‘listen to God’. I wrote down a few thoughts - starting with confessing to the neighbourhood drugstore owner and his wife that I had stolen bits of candy from them, and paying them what I thought I owed. There were other similar things - I was in fact a thief, from my neighbours, from my school friends. I apologised and made what restitution I could.
Time went on. I tried living this quality of life in college; when war came, and a college-deferring program, I enlisted. Two weeks after graduating I was in uniform. Officer training was offered; I ‘listened’ to my inner voice, and decided to let the army do what it wanted with me. A commission, with the war obviously coming to a climax, seemed to me more of an ego-trip than a help to the army. I was sent to be trained as a medical laboratory technician and assigned to a pioneering unit in the treatment of battle fatigue cases, and spent a year on Saipan in the Western Pacific, until the war was over.
On Saipan three things struck me: 1) air-raids of a thousand planes at a time were coordinated on our island, a tremendous effort of industrial production and military precision; 2) there were 500 ships in our harbour in preparation for the anticipated invasion of the Japanese homeland; and 3) we were building on neighbouring Tinian Island a 10,000-bed hospital in anticipation of the casualties we would suffer in that invasion. My conclusion was: I want to spend the next years of my life working to see that this terrific capacity to produce, to coordinate, to go all-out to achieve a major objective - be used to build a better world. I decided to spend my time with Moral Re-Armament, which had become the programme of the Oxford Group.
This was an intellectual decision, although rooted in my inner being. I went to work with MRA out of a great mix of genuine convictions, for which I certainly thank God. I cannot however say that it represented a spiritual awakening, a road-to-Damascus revelation. It was a natural consequence of all that had gone before. In subsequent years, to see people like Irene and Victor Laure at work, to get to know individuals like Max Lassman (the French Jewish member of our Caux stage crew), and people like John Riffe and his family move forward in their new life - these things moved me to keep doing what we were doing to put this message before people where they could see and feel it. Events like working in Washington with the musical The Good Road to support the passage of the Marshall Plan through the US Congress; like staging it in bombed-out cities of West Germany and then in London; like taking Jotham Valley through America and then Ceylon, India and Pakistan; and working hand-in-hand with an amazing group of men and women from all over Africa to put their play Freedom on the stage; and then The Crowning Experience with that unique personality Muriel Smith and her white team-mate Anne Buckles, first on stage and then into a film - these have been worth anything I could do with my life, and without earning a penny out of it!
And now, we are in a different era. I'm 84 years old; life has moved on. The world is very different. What is the legacy of Frank Buchman in his own country, America?
AA stands as a pioneer effort at self-help, on how to tackle one's addiction to alcohol, and by inference, other addictions. It got its start from the work the Revd Samuel Shoemaker did with alcoholics as an outreach of his training with Frank Buchman. Their efforts are acknowledged especially by Dick Burns, a lawyer living in Honolulu, who has written extensively on the subject as ‘Dick B’.
It is to be hoped that this practical way to break the hold of alcoholic addiction will continue, as it has for some seventy years, to be a tremendous blessing to thousands of men and women across the world as well as in the United States.
From isolation to a world view
Buchman's work in America in the 1930s was enriched by the presence of dozens of men and women from across the globe. They tackled America's problems of labour and management disputes that threw roadblocks in the way of production of materials vital to the war efforts growing in Europe, so that ships, tanks, planes and guns could flow to Europe which badly needed them to fight the Nazi war machine. They helped to develop instruments to inspire the country to live in a threatening wartime situation - the musical review You Can Defend America, with its handbook of the same name, and the industrial drama The Forgotten Factor. These theatrical productions and the printed materials with them were used enthusiastically by the growing movement called Civil Defence Councils, which the federal government called into being in almost every community across the country. The presence of these overseas workers and the efforts that they put forth were a living bridge that helped America move from isolation to full involvement in the war.
Not to be forgotten in this legacy is the wartime book by Daphne du Maurier, Come Wind, Come Weather, in which she gives stories of similar effects of related shows and handbooks, You Can Fight for Canada, Battle Together for Britain, and You Can Fight For Australia.
I've really raised two points here: 1) the presence of Buchman's international workers during World War II in the United States helped to move the US out of its isolationist mood and toward its present stance as a global power involved in global issues. And 2) Buchman's work used musical reviews and drama - the theatre - to give a message that was enthusiastically accepted by cities and towns that needed a programme for strengthening a war effort and building teamwork in industry to make that effort effective.
Buchman's own personal message was deeply Christian - the experience he had in Keswick, in England's Lake District in 1908, was a powerful personal experience of the cross of Christ.
But his message, as Moral Re-Armament developed over the years, was much simpler and proved to have universal appeal. In the 1950s his appeal to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, Marxist-Communists was universal. The elements he stressed were:
1) If you want to see the world different, the place to start is with yourself. Look at your life honestly in the light of absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love; take time to see where you have fallen short of these standards, specifically; apologise for and if possible make restitution for the things you have done that have hurt other people.
2) Buchman felt, along with many men of faith in world history, that, as Abraham Lincoln once said, when the Almighty wants to let him know something, He finds a way to do it. To listen to the divine spirit can become as normal as breathing.
There is in human experience a conscience, an inner voice, a divine leading - it goes by many names - but when a person takes time to listen in an attitude of openness, willingness, or prayer if that is your ‘thing’, then thoughts come, whether dramatically or simply, which we can recognise as not of oneself. To share these thoughts with trusted friends, to check them against those absolute standards, can lead to new and fresh things happening. Some will call this divine guidance, some our conscience, but it can lead to remarkable results. It can also lead to disaster, as we see with pathologically delusional people, so it is a phenomenon that needs careful and honest handling!
Throughout his life, and in the world conferences in Caux in Switzerland and in other settings, Buchman found that his simple message of the four standards, honest apology, restitution, the inner voice in peoples' hearts - and projecting this quality of living on a world stage – ‘As I am, so is my nation’ - appealed to people of all faiths and none. They felt a common bond of humanity and purpose with him; they could stand with him, and work with him. He would be of great help to the evangelical Christians who alienate so many in a modern secular world and our internationally-derived nation. This could be the most significant aspect of Buchman's legacy in America today.
Labour and Industry
This is hard to deal with, because although John Riffe in one sense was the best example of a man going through a drastic change in his life, and of applying that to major problem areas involving labour and industry, MRA unintentionally worked against Riffe by trumpeting his work as the work of MRA. This alienated much of the labour movement.
But the fact remains: for many involved in industry, the simple concept of ‘Not who is right but what is right’ became a fresh entry into industrial disputes, and, coupled with the idea of the four standards and listening for the inner voice, became a fresh way of solving seemingly irreconcilable situations.
This is a key part of Dr Buchman's legacy in America. It can come into play again and again as time goes by, and needs to be cherished and nourished.
An economics of the spirit
One of the crying needs in the world today is for a fresh expression of one of Buchman's key thoughts: There is enough in the world for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed; if everybody cared enough, and shared enough, wouldn't everybody have enough?
This line of thinking could be America's great gift to the world. (It may fall to India, whose thinking people may well move out ahead of us in pioneering revolutionary economics like this.)
George W. Bush enunciated a policy of ‘compassionate conservatism’ in his run for the presidency in 2000. What a shame that he did not have the fortitude or imagination to flesh that thought out, as Buchman tried to do!
But it remains for some nation or people to do so. Think of what a concrete demonstration of compassionate conservatism could mean to the Chinese, who are caught between a concept of a planned society and the freedom of a market economy. What if they could see that a free market economy did not mean unbridled greed, and could mean instead a concern that every hand had meaningful work to do, every stomach had food enough, and every heart had an idea that really satisfied!
Buchman and his teams worked to heal the wounds of World War II in Europe, in offering a hand to bring Germany back into the family of nations, and by lifting labour-management relations to a new level in Europe and in the US. And despite the deliberately- stated intention of the Communist International to take over the means of production in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, they found MRA's creative ideas trumping them in cities and factories and labour halls all over Europe. These things today go by the widely recognised phrase ‘conflict resolution’, and institutions of higher education are offering degree courses in it across the world. Buchman spotlighted the price of such reconciliation, that someone had to start by accepting what it meant in his/her own life. It was not free; it had a real cost for the one willing to begin.
Irene and Victor Laure were a prime case study in this. They were lifelong socialists, and labour leaders, and fighters in the French Resistance against the Nazis. What it cost Irene, in particular, to stand in front of groups of labour people, management, politicians, and just plain individuals, to admit to the hatred of the German people that had consumed her, and of the managing class - and what it meant to ask forgiveness for those tremendous feelings as her part in building a new tomorrow - no one will ever know. Those who lived alongside her could see it, though. It was real, it was tangible. It was not done on the cheap.
And so it will always be, if it is to be genuine. It requires a surrender of self, of pride, of my own will, of all temptation to blame, and a total willingness to take responsibility for my own part in divisions. It cannot be faked.
We must see that the world does not go blithely along with ‘reconciliation’ on the cheap. It is our legacy, to pay this price ourselves and to hold others to it who would go this way.
* * *
Robert Webb, born and reared in Mississippi, is a former Washington Bureau chief, news editor, senior editorial writer and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Earlier, he was associate editor of the State Times in Jackson, Miss. and on other newspapers in the South.
FOR years I ignored the brute evil of the ruggedly segregated society around me. As a child of the Deep South, born and reared in Mississippi, it hadn’t bothered me that schools, rest rooms, water fountains and neighbourhoods were segregated, that blacks were supposed to ‘know their place’ and stay in it. It hadn’t bothered me that most jobs of consequence were denied them. The ‘Southern way of life’ was my lifeblood, but I sorely needed a transfusion.
Small wonder that as a journalist there in the mid-1950s I succumbed to the siren voice of those militantly opposed to the US Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954 decision outlawing segregated schools. As associate editor of the State Times in Jackson, Miss., writing editorials and columns, I was the eager conduit of the region’s traditional views on race.
All the while I considered myself Christian. But the transformation I so badly needed came after I accepted an invitation to attend a Moral Re-Armament conference in 1957 at Mackinac Island, Michigan. There I heard stories of lives revolutionised when men and women listened to their inner voice and measured their past and present by the absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. I was deeply moved. These people had something I wanted.
One afternoon I saw the film Freedom – written by Africans – that was to drive a stake into my racist heart. As the film ended, I knew I had to apologise to the first black man I saw for the way we in the South had treated his race. As it happened, the first such man was an African of middle age. He had a face that spoke great wisdom. I apologised and will never forget his response: “After the apology, what?” I have been trying to answer that question ever since.
Before leaving Mackinac Island, I sat down with those four moral standards. A host of wrongs I’d committed sprang to mind. Among them: cheating in high school, cheating on my expense account as a reporter for a New Orleans newspaper, and misuse of the darkroom of my hometown weekly where I’d worked one summer. Moreover, I’d maliciously attacked in print the aged editor of the competing afternoon newspaper in Jackson. I’d even committed offences I thought violated federal law. I made restitution as best I could.
When I confessed my cheating to my high school principal, she invited me to speak to a student assembly. After a glowing introduction by the school superintendent I stood up and said, “I’m here because I cheated in high school,” then discussed the answer I’d found. I reimbursed the New Orleans newspaper which, in turn, donated the funds to MRA.
One of my toughest chores was the confession I had to make to the US Attorney in Jackson. Thankfully, he didn’t prosecute. And wonderfully, each act of restitution brought an inner liberation of indescribable joy. With this experience, I knew God would always guide me if I listened and obeyed. One of the first thoughts I had after leaving Mackinac Island was to write a fellow Southerner – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. He replied quickly with a beautiful note.
Clearly my life changed radically. I tried to give readers the vision of an America forging a model for all the world of how people of every race and background could work together. I spoke and wrote to heal rather than hurt, to unite rather than divide. I reached out to African-Americans as never before. The unexpected closure in 1962 of the State Times led me in 1963 to Cincinnati and a crucial new front in the battle for a new world.
Answering deep despair
My vision broadened quickly with that personal transformation. At Mackinac Island I’d glimpsed a new world extending far beyond the South with all its turmoil. But that wider vision also made clearer my vision for the South. With Mississippi friends similarly committed, we began to seek that inner wisdom for what to do. How could we make a difference? For one thing, we brought to Jackson the film – Freedom – which had so transformed my heart and mind. As well, we enlisted the help of others, including Bremer Hofmeyr, a former Rhodes Scholar, and his wife, Agnes, from South Africa, long a part of Buchman’s work. We arranged a private showing of Freedom for the then governor, James P. Coleman. Bremer introduced the film with the compelling story of how Agnes’ father, a farmer in Kenya, had been buried alive by the Mau Mau then rebelling against the colonial government and how she had overcome her deep despair, vowing to work all the harder to answer bitterness and hatred wherever it exists.
Coleman was impressed by Hofmeyr as having had ‘something to say’ the moment he opened his mouth. He joined Bremer, Agnes and their friends for lunch after the film and asked that it be shown to members of the state legislature. So it was.
But strong winds of resistance to the 1954 high court edict were blowing in 1957. Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital, became the storm centre when on September 25 President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the Army to escort nine black students through an angry crowd into Central High School. Earlier, a federal judge had ordered their admission but on September 20 Governor Orval Faubus used National Guard troops not to ensure their entry but to keep them out. Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann sent a telegram to President Eisenhower four days later asking for federal troops to maintain order.
Compared to some parts of the South, Arkansas had been a relative oasis on race. As early as September 1949, for example, the University of Arkansas School of Law was racially integrated. In January 1951, the Little Rock Library board opened its doors to blacks. So it was not too surprising that the Little Rock School Board said, five days after the Supreme Court’s de-segregation decision, that it would comply.
But Faubus placed himself squarely against the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and its Arkansas division president, Mrs L.C. (Daisy) Bates, to join those strongly opposed to integration. He called a special session of the legislature in August 1958 to pass a law enabling him to lease public schools to private corporations to escape the federal mandate. The next month, Arkansas citizens voted 7,561 for and 129,470 against de-segregation. Public high schools in Little Rock were shut down, leaving 3,698 high students to fend for themselves.
Little Rock quickly gained global attention as a bastion of defiance. But some few from the city found their way to the MRA centre on Mackinac Island. They returned determined to bring a fresh spirit to the city and state. But if Little Rock became a symbol of defiance it was also the spark for a rising tide of hope in America, as catalyst for a play The Crowning Experience, and subsequent film with the same title.
“The crowning experience of my life”
British author Michael Henderson sets the stage in his 1996 book, The Forgiveness Factor. He recalls black leaders beginning to attend the Mackinac conferences in the 1950s. “Then in 1955 an international conference was held in Washington, D.C.,” he writes. “More than a thousand people from 41 countries attended. A new dimension of racial unity was one of the themes. Among the blacks present from the United States was Mary McLeod Bethune, the 17th child of a family of former slaves, founder of Bethune Cookman College and a former advisor on minority affairs to President Franklin Roosevelt.
“She said on that occasion: ‘There are 16 million people like me in America who have been dreaming, praying, working, toiling, sacrificing, forgiving for an hour like this. Only a basic change of heart in men and women of all races can handle the present integration program in the US Law and law enforcement alone can never do it. The task of morally rearming the nation is the greatest job to which any of us can apply our energies and talents. To be part of this great uniting force of our age is the crowning experience of my life’.”
Out front in a wheelchair sat Mrs William P. Wood of Richmond, Virginia. Her parents had been slave owners. “She asked if she might speak,” Henderson writes. “Rising from her chair, Mrs Wood apologised for the racial prejudice she had felt. ‘I am glad to take this opportunity to shake hands publicly with someone of your race, because I helped to build racial bitterness. I have decided to commit the rest of my life to building bridges between the two races’.” That historic encounter was captured in The Crowning Experience, based on the life of Mrs Bethune, which then led to the film being shown in theatres in America and elsewhere.
“The impetus for the creation of the musical was an explosion of violence in Little Rock …in the autumn of 1957 over the integration of black and white schoolchildren,” Henderson recalls. Thus ironically, what happened in Little Rock led to a historic breakthrough in Atlanta when The Crowning Experience opened with two performances there in June 1958 in a civic auditorium with de-segregated seating for the first time.
One who attended was the Jewish owner of the Tower Theatre, in Atlanta, who was so moved he invited MRA to bring the play to his theatre for performances with no colour bar. The play, starring Muriel Smith, the American mezzo soprano, as Mrs Bethune and British actress Phyllis Constam as Mrs Wood, ran five months. Ralph McGill, then editor and publisher of The Atlanta Constitution, was reported to have said that to assess fully all it meant to the city would have required several pages in his newspaper.
Clearly Atlanta was on a new road. “Atlanta will never be the same again,” said Colonel A.T. Walden, a pioneer black lawyer quoted by the Atlanta Daily World. “The atmosphere throughout the city, the shops and buses changed and was the talk of the town.” Atlanta, setting for the Civil War movie classic, Gone with the Wind, escaped the violence that devastated other cities in the civil rights era.
Muriel Smith’s personal story and how she came to play Mrs Bethune was extraordinary in itself. An African-American from Harlem, she was a stellar performer at or near the peak of her career when she attended in 1957 her first MRA conference on Mackinac Island, the one where her life was to take a new direction. She’d created the role of Carmen Jones on Broadway in the 1940s, starred in South Pacific and The King and I and rejected Sam Goldwyn’s repeated efforts to land her for Porgy and Bess, feeling it demeaned her race.
But for all her mounting fame and overtures from Hollywood and London, Muriel abandoned her career to help bring a new spirit to the world through the plays and films of MRA. So as her voice rose in song and conviction in The Crowning Experience, she brought that new spirit to the country: “The world walked into my heart today, black man, white man, red and yellow, the statesman yes and the ordinary fellow, they all walked into my heart…” With its marvellously upbeat rhythm, ‘The World Walked Into My Heart,’ especially as sung by Muriel, doubtless opened many hearts.
“The end of a hundred years’ civil war”
Meanwhile, the film Freedom made its way to Little Rock with a group from various African countries. One who saw it was Mrs Bates, the NAACP president and nemesis of Governor Faubus. Afterward, she and a group of Arkansans from both races went to MRA’s Mackinac centre. It was there she decided to visit Faubus. In his book, Henderson says, “Unknown to her, he had also seen Freedom”. Their meeting resulted in a handshake between them that Henderson said moved a CBS radio commentator, reviewing 1959, to label it “possibly the most significant news event of the year which marks the end of a hundred years’ civil war in the United States of America.” While racial tensions remained and violence had not ended, there were glimmers of a new dawn.
With Dr King’s non-violent Gandhian crusade for racial equality well underway, a new young president, John F. Kennedy, took office in 1961 with an inaugural address in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” King got to know him and with others of like mind impressed on him the urgency for new civil rights law. They convinced Kennedy, but an assassin’s bullets in 1963 took him away before he could get Congress to act – a challenge left to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Clearly the face of America has changed since the 1954 school decision, with African-Americans not only voting but also helping run their cities, states and the nation as officeholders. They occupy key positions in business and industry, education, mass media and other sectors of life. As well, they mix and mingle with people of all colours and from many backgrounds as America becomes increasingly diverse racially, ethnically and religiously. But divisions remain.
As the African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, 91, told a crowd at the 2006 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., “We are trying to become a nation of equals but we haven’t got there.” If often subtly expressed, racial discrimination remains. Many, if not most, African-Americans experience it to some degree. So do Americans of other colours and creeds.
That’s why the American civil rights era, in reality, is not over. And that’s why another Buchman legacy, Richmond, Virginia-based ‘Hope in the Cities’ (HIC), was launched in 1990 by the city’s political, business and community leaders. Its mission was to bring racial healing to the city that was capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But it became a national network in 1993 when those leaders organized the Healing the Heart of America conference, chaired by Richmond Mayor Walter T. Kenney, which drew a thousand participants from fifty US urban centres and twenty foreign countries. Racial issues at the centre of many of the toughest urban problems – in housing, education, policing, community relations and public policy bearing on families – were examined. The Richmond Times-Dispatch gave the event heavy, prominent coverage.
Integration was for many largely a myth
The genesis of Hope in the Cities was the conviction of Rob and Susan Corcoran, long a part of the work Buchman initiated, to move their family from Britain to Richmond 26 years ago. They chose a home in a largely African-American neighbourhood where they soon made warm friends who joined them in their mission. Among them were Collie and Audrey Burton, community activists who became an integral part of HIC. So was Mayor Kenney. The Corcorans and their friends recognised the racial divisions remaining in their city long after the Supreme Court’s landmark school de-segregation decision and passage of two major federal civil rights laws.
They were divisions typical of most cities in the North as well as South. The most obvious indications of those divisions were the suburban rings, fed by white and some middle-class black flight, around core urban centres. Integration was for many poor black families largely a myth. While de-segregation was the law, de-facto segregation, largely from racially segregated housing, remained. This flight of more affluent families to the suburbs left many core city governments and school systems perennially short of funds. Richmond was not exempt from these demographic forces.
But with the arrival of Hope in the Cities, Richmond began to feel more hopeful! HIC leaders soon saw the needs there were not confined to the city proper but extended into three suburban counties. White flight had taken much of the city’s taxable wealth to the suburbs. Where needs were greatest – in the inner city with its concentration of poverty and crime – resources were far from adequate, as failing schools and ailing social services attested. So with HIC taking the initiative, an annual Metropolitan Richmond Day was established to bring city and suburb together to explore the area’s needs in hopes of forging solutions on an area-wide basis. The event brought 500 participants from the city and its three-county suburban area together on November 12, 2004 in the fiftieth anniversary year of Brown vs. Board of Education.
In an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch at that time, Don Cowles, then HIC co-chair, wrote, “Thousands of citizens have mobilized through hundreds of initiatives and have invested tens of millions of dollars each year to mitigate the damage caused by our segregated society. These heroic measures are making a difference, but they are inadequate. A new way is required.” He said the current system creates loser and winner schools at a time when “we must find a way to make all of our children winners.” Cowles was with Alcoa/Reynolds Metals Co. as chief legal officer, chief human resources officer and president of one of its business units in 2002 when he took early retirement and began his involvement with IofC.
Corcoran, as national director, and Cowles, as executive director, became in 2006 co-leaders of Initiatives of Change, HIC’s parent. “In asking us to lead the organisation, Initiatives of Change has affirmed its mission to work for hope, healing and transformation in America’s increasingly diverse national community,” Corcoran says. “We are developing a focused and cohesive strategy which makes better use of our human and financial resources…Building trust and new vision across the divides of race, religion and class is a vital part of our work. We will continue to promote dialogues and collaborative citizen action. Offering leadership formation and skills building to individuals and groups who are attempting to address key issues in their community is a priority.”
If indeed the Supreme Court’s 1954 school decision inaugurated the modern civil rights era in America, that era, as historian John Hope Franklin makes clear, is by no means over. Buchman’s work clearly played and will continue to play a key role in the extent to which that era leads finally to genuine equality for all Americans.
* * *
Dick Ruffin is a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities, and a former Rhodes Scholar from Virginia. At Oxford, he encountered the ideas of MRA and applied them in his work on the staff of the US Secretary of Defence. He later served as executive director of Initiatives of Change in the United States for 23 years and is now executive vice president of IofC International.
I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, part of a large extended family steeped in southern lore. My father, a lawyer, was particularly proud of his great-grandfather, Edmund Ruffin, a noted agriculturalist whose ideas helped restore lands exhausted by the over-cultivation of cotton. He had five plantations around Richmond, Virginia, and campaigned ardently for the preservation of the institution of slavery on which the plantation economy depended. His fame led the Governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, to invite him to fire the first shot of the Civil War at the federal fort in Charleston Harbour.
Unconsciously, I absorbed much of that pride, and also some of the prejudice that accompanied it. However, being at the same time embarrassed by the lionising of my slave-holding forebear and the constant idealisation of the ante-bellum south, I convinced myself that I was somehow above the raw prejudice that I saw around me. I became blind to my own deep-seated prejudices. This blindness was unexpectedly reinforced by the extraordinary decision of the State of Virginia to adopt a policy of ‘massive resistance’ to the US Supreme Court’s order to integrate its public schools. This defiance led to the temporary closure of Norfolk’s public schools, and provided my mother the opportunity she wanted to enrol me in a northern school. So I took my last two years of high school at Choate, a distinguished northern prep school in Connecticut. It was but a small step from there to Yale University, breaking the long family tradition of going to the University of Virginia.
My time at Yale was during the Kennedy years of the early 1960s. It was easy then to suppress or ignore unacknowledged attitudes of superiority and to adopt the liberal ideals popular on campus. These influences, plus guilt about my southern heritage, led me to become active in the civil rights struggle. It was not long before I had the privilege of spending an evening with Martin Luther King, Jr. I also took up other liberal causes at Yale, consciously turning away from my southern heritage. What I didn’t realise at the time was that while my politics had changed, deep-seated prejudices remained.
These only began to come to light during my post-graduate years at Oxford University in England, where I went on a much-coveted Rhodes scholarship. An encounter there with another American Rhodes Scholar led me to question my motives and attitudes more deeply. “How can you make a better world,” my friend asked, “if you insist on remaining the same yourself?” At the time I was deeply involved in public challenges to the Vietnam policies of President Johnson. Our complaint was about Johnson’s so-called ‘credibility gap’. My friend, one of several new friends influenced by the ideas of Frank Buchman, calmly asked whether there were such credibility gaps in my own life.
With a little reflection, the gaps gradually came to mind. I held high principles, but lived quite differently. I campaigned against the exploitation of blacks, but was quite prepared to exploit women for my pleasure. I thought of myself as an honest guy, but withheld many truths about myself from my parents and from many of my friends. I said one thing to one group of friends, but something quite different to others. Slowly, I began to understand why one college roommate had called me “bluffing Ruffin”. So I began to face these gaps and to do what I could to close them. In the process, I saw that my liberalism masked hidden prejudices and was unconsciously a defence against facing uncomfortable truths about myself. The process was like peeling the layers of an onion. The more I was honest with myself, the more I saw of the hypocrisy and deception in my life. And the more I faced these truths, the freer I became to be true to myself.
Why so patronising?
A few years later, after completing my military service, I joined forces with a multi-racial team led by Richard Brown, a black American professor who had also been deeply influenced by Buchman’s ideas. We were visiting nine prominent individuals who were making significant contributions to ending racial discrimination across America. Brown’s aim was to support their efforts and to inspire them with our own stories of change. In our group was a South African black, the son of a courageous organiser of African miners and currently a post-grad student at Columbia University. One day when we were preparing for a visit, Peter turned to me and asked, “Dick, why are you so patronising?” I was dumfounded and angry at what seemed to me a wholly unjustified accusation. But I had learned to reflect on such personal challenges rather than to hit back. A simple thought came into my mind. “You treat black people as if they are less knowledgeable and less responsible for this country and the world than you feel yourself.” I shared this insight with the others and another layer of the onion was peeled.
Later still, I began to see yet deeper levels of prejudice. The context was a major conference in Richmond, Virginia, led by Richmond’s Mayor Walter T. Kenney, an African American. The conference, organised by Initiatives of Change, the movement inspired by Buchman, called the nation to honest conversations on matters of race, reconciliation and responsibility. Its aim was to start a process that could heal the deep wounds caused by three and a half centuries of racial discrimination. This caused me to reflect more deeply on my own heritage and on the unconscious attitudes that had come to me as part of the legacy of Edmund Ruffin.
I recognised, for example, that in thinking about the Civil War–what was called the ‘War between the States’ in my family - I was far more conscious of the humiliation suffered by white Southerners at the hands of the North than of the far deeper pain and loss suffered by the enslaved Americans. They simply did not figure in the narrative. Their reality was ignored, their true feelings denied. Preoccupation with the perceived arrogance of the North had blinded me, and millions like me throughout the South, to the emotional toll of slavery and of the long history of continued discrimination in its aftermath.
At a deeper level, I also recognised that a more persistent legacy from Edmund Ruffin was a minimalist concept of the potential of African-Americans. I had little vision for what black Americans would contribute to American life and culture and political life. While undeniable black accomplishments had forced some revision in my thinking, I saw that I, and many others like me, needed nothing less than a revolution in our expectations for what African-Americans could give to our common country.
It has taken me many years to peel the layers of unseen prejudice, and the journey continues. In the same way, it may take years of painful, honest conversations between black and white Americans to identify and remove the barriers that even now prevent African Americans from making their maximum contributions to American society. There is no more important task before the American people, for our capacity to help heal a broken world depends finally on our ability to heal the deep wounds embedded in our own nation’s history. As we make real progress in this task, I believe that we will unleash powerful forces for reconciliation that will have impacts far beyond America.