When he was a sophomore at Washington & Lee University, John David Maguire—who would later become a professor of religion at Wesleyan University—was just beginning to associate with the Civil Rights Movement. A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Maguire said in an interview with the University of Southern California’s Master’s of Social Work blog (MSW @ USC) that he grew up with many of the beliefs of his racist Southern environment.
“Up until I was 16 years old and a senior in high school, I did the same thing my friends did,” Maguire said. “We drove through the black side of town throwing pears at black guys and yelling racial epithets.”
Maguire’s opinions on race began to change when, in 1948, he attended a YMCA baseball camp at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where each camper roomed with someone of a different race.
Three years later, as a 19-year-old sophomore, Maguire attended a weekend conference at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he found himself rooming with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Maguire and King’s paths crossed again in 1961 when they participated in a Freedom Ride. By that time, Maguire had become a professor of religion at Wesleyan. He participated in the rides alongside David Swift, another religion professor at Wesleyan; Reverend Gaylord Noyce, an associate professor at the Yale Divinity School; George B. Smith, a Yale student; and two students from Johnson C. Smith University, Clyde Carter and Charles Jones.
Maguire and the rest of his group of Freedom Riders were arrested for “breach of the peace and inciting a riot” when they attempted to order coffee as an integrated group. The Freedom Riders took their case to the Supreme Court, where they eventually won.
As a result of his involvement with the Freedom Rides, Maguire was sent anonymous threats from Wesleyan alumni.
One alumnus wrote, “It is embarrassing for us older ‘grads’ to have you carrying on as you have been, bringing unfavorable publicity to Wesleyan. You don’t represent white folks. You’re a maverick and it would be appreciated if you’d get the hell out of Middletown.”
Maguire also received anonymous postcards with news clippings describing interracial rapes posted onto them.
While the Freedom Rides did not please many of the Wesleyan alumni, Wesleyan President Victor L. Butterfield stood behind Maguire and Smith’s involvement.
“Both men have deep moral conviction about the evil of racial segregation, which they regard as un-Christian and grievously harmful to America’s well being and stature in the world,” he said in a statement at the time.
Maguire and King became close as a result of the Freedom Rides. The digital archives of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change have several letters from Maguire addressed to King. In one such letter, Maguire writes of having called King, but only managing to talk with Coretta, his wife.
Maguire’s friendship with King resulted in the Civil Rights leader visiting Wesleyan four times in five years. Each time he came to Wesleyan, King delivered sermons connecting Christianity to the Civil Rights Movement. His 1963 speech, for instance, was entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” In his Freedom Summer Speech (1964), he compared the Civil Rights Movement to the story of Moses.
In a short piece published on Wesleyan’s website, David Griffith ’66 wrote of King, “He was a very nice guy…just that, a nice guy. He looked into my eyes and reached my soul, but still, he was a nice guy.”
The impact King had became especially evident in the Argus Archives following King’s assassination in April 1968. According to The Argus, about 1,500 people marched from the South Congregational Church to St. John’s Church. Edward McKenna, the pastor of St. John’s, delivered prayers inside the church following the march. The church, however, could not fit the capacity of the crowd: an estimated 200 people stood outside during the service.
Letters to the editor and columns filled the pages of The Argus following King’s murder.
R. Chiarello ’69 wrote the following in a letter entitled “He Would Not Break”: “Because Martin Luther King would not break, because he would not compromise his profound goodness, and bravery, this broken world has killed him.”
A student identified as “a black youth” wrote in “A Dream Deferred,” “Brother King died because he was black, because he was beautiful, obsolete characteristics that have become taboo for America.”
Maguire, too, responded to King’s death in The Argus. In his column, he questioned the extent to which the nation, which had proclaimed allegiance by that point to King’s message, really bought into the practice of nonviolence.
“We cheered when he called for non-violence, but in our hearts we believe in violence and practice it as a way of handling our hostilities—in our families, in our nation, as an instrument for international relations,” Maguire wrote. “How long America, how long will we praise non-violence but persist in practicing violence?”