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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Nelle Morton, June 29, 1983. Interview F-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Realistic goals and strategies

In this excerpt, Morton addresses the "realism" of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, citing their efforts to strive for realistic goals while not losing sight of the overall objective of promoting racial integration. In so doing, she offers a telling anecdote regarding Reinhold Niebuhr's address at the Duke Chapel sometime during the 1950s. Because school officials would not agree to full integration of the audience, local members of the Fellowship worked with student groups and with Niebuhr to devise a strategy that would ensure at least partial integration at the event.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Nelle Morton, June 29, 1983. Interview F-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I just wondered . . . some of the liberals I've known in my period in the 50s and 60s, seem to operate out of that same image themselves always fighting lost causes or always losing causes, but I don't get a hint of that with the Fellowship. Did they lose on any significant things?
I guess there was something of that sort . . . one person who was secretary of the Fellowship . . . her husband was getting his Ph.D. in history and he went later to teach history at Princeton and then later at Cornell . . . she said she wanted a job with the Fellowship more than anything . . . she liked the Fellowship people but she said I get you to understand I am not religious . . I just do not go along with the religion in this. And then there was a strong student communist group on the campus at that same time, and she said I'm much closer to where they are than where the Fellowship is from a religious stance. And then out of the clear sky, . . why she was a beautiful typist and she was a historian of Erwin Bright. And then out of the clear sky she said one day, "The one thing that has convinced me that I'd rather work with the Fellowship than any other group I know is that if you go into a project and it fails, it doesn't ruin you." You are able to look at it and examine wherein you did things prematurely, and this goes with every project, that you evaluate every . . what it was . . and the other group, they just go to pieces . . . " And this may be a little of what you're talking about.
A little of it. I guess it goes with Neibuhr's hard nosed realism. You know, that you don't expect . . . that you're not Messiahs . . you're not going to solve all the world's problems, so a little bit of failure is not tragic. Also what I was trying to point out is more like Jim Peck where people create failure, and I don't get the feel of that with the Fellowship.
Do you want me to tell you an incident about Reinhold Niebuhr working with students to integrate Duke Chapel? Reinhold Niebuhr was invited down to . . the students were trying to integrate Duke Chapel and had . . two or three had been able to get in . . I mean a black and a white one week, and then maybe another week, you know, a few more, and so forth . . . but . . when this was . . . and I'm guessing this was a university chapel . . . because they were expecting this enormous crowd to hear Reinhold Niebuhr so they suddenly said it would have to be segregated. And here after the students had been working all this time and in a lot of ways . . so they decided they couldn't possibly go and accept the segregation. They got in touch with Niebuhr and this was that intercollegiate inter-racial student group in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham. I got in touch with Niebuhr and had a lunch with Niebuhr to talk about strategy . . what do you do in a case like this . . do you just crash, you know, the place. And so they talked and talked right through the whole Saturday afternoon, he was going to have the thing next morning . . the lecture . . . and it was obvious that it was going to be very crowded and everybody wanted to go, of course, the students . . . and Niebuhr was right in there trying to work out things with them. They had been to the administration and they didn't get anywhere. Oh they just thought of all kinds of things they could do. And then finally, Niebuhr suggested this list, which, it was enlarged, you couldn't give them credit for the whole thing . . he said, well now let's see. . suppose they would say that the blacks would sit on one side and the whites would sit on the other . . and that the students would go in . . would go very early . . and the white students would sit on the white side, and the blacks students would sit on the black side, but would scatter themselves out all over so maybe there would be room for 5 or 6 between them. And so they decided to do that, and went early, and of course . . the crowds . . . they went very early, and the lines were beginning to form early too, and people were so anxious to hear Niebuhr that they . . the whites just rushed in and sat between the blacks. It was all mixed up. And by the end it was all mixed up . . they didn't know what to do . . I mean, it was completely integrated in a way, and it was so satisfying and had such meaning that they never segregated again. Which is part of the realism too.
The integrated student group . . Did the Fellowship organize those students to start with?
Yes, there were 13 of them in the South, and I was reading in one of those . . I couldn't think of where all of them are, and I'm sure I couldn't now, but I know one was in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, one was in the Greensboro area, one in Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta, Louisville, Kentucky . . and you see there were Fellowship members in all of these places who were supportive of the students and these things just began to happen, all kinds of things the Fellowship didn't know anything about and they would just go ahead and I think a lot of people grew up having their experience in that sort of thing . . working through strategies.