There’s so much history and so little time to learn it

I just learned about this guy today, and he died two days ago.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960’s from his position as chaplain of Yale University, then reveled in the role of lightning rod thrust upon him by officials and conservatives who thought him and his style of dissent dangerous, died yesterday at his home in Strafford, Vt. He was 81.

Dr. Coffin, a believer in the power of civil disobedience to bring social and political change, was arrested as a Freedom Rider early in the 1960’s and was an early admirer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, he embraced a philosophy that put social activism at the heart of his clerical duties. In the late 1970’s, when he became senior minister of Riverside Church in New York — an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Courage, he preached over the years, was the first virtue, because “it makes all other virtues possible.”

But it was as the outspoken chaplain at Yale in the tumultuous years when the Vietnam War was escalating that Dr. Coffin’s name became known across America. While he questioned the wisdom of the war almost from the start, he came only slowly to a decision to apply to this cause the same tactics of civil disobedience he had already engaged in on behalf of the struggle for integration in the South.

Yet when he did, the spectacle he created — the chaplain of an Ivy League university counseling students that they were right to resist the draft, and accepting their draft cards to be turned in to the Justice Department — so infuriated the Johnson administration that Attorney General Ramsey Clark, himself a prominent liberal, sought to imprison him.

Heroes are hard to come by when one is a cynic. I wish I had known about Dr. Coffin sooner.


  1. Sadly, that happens a lot. I only ever heard of MFK Fisher after her death, for instance. Not a hero in the same way of course; but still someone whose writing I very much admire.

  2. My Googling about Freedom Riders showed your blog. Here’s some info about a song I’ve written that is making something of splash online at

    Forty-five years ago the Freedom Riders of 1961 were travelling on buses,
    trains, planes throughout the south peacefully battling violence and hatred.

    Bryan Field McFarland’s new song – “Lyrical Freedom Riders” – tells the story of these brave souls. During June 2006, the song can be heard in the
    month-long Open Mic Contest: Be sure to register (it is free & painless) to vote in this month-long contest.

    Folk Alley’s Open Mic showcases unsigned, under-exposed artists giving
    listeners a chance to rank and comment about Folk, Celtic, and World music
    from around the world. Chosen from over 750 song entries, the June contest
    features songs by writers hailing from Israel, England, and the US.

    When Bryan learned that some of the Freedom Riders would be attending the
    conference (and perhaps his concert) he wanted to know who they were and what
    they’d done. An internet search about the Freedom Rides revealed much, but
    not a song chronicling the pivotal chapter in American civil rights history.

    While writing the song, Bryan interviewed Freedom Rider, David Fankhauser
    AND obtained permission of and GA Congressman, John Lewis’ office for
    use of the soundbyte to introduce “Lyrical Freedom Riders”.

    “Lyrical Freedom Riders” is intended as an educational song effectively
    telling this pivotal story in the struggle for civil rights.

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