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On March 17, 1965, students Paul Cobb, Will Battles, Fernando Canales and Milton Hare crammed into a two-seater Karmann Ghia with the goal of driving 2,300 miles from Oakland, California, to Selma, Alabama. The objective was to join the third attempt at a march for voting rights. It was a risk; not only did the Seventh-day Adventist Church, at the time, shun the notion of political activism, but the bloodshed during the second Selma to Montgomery march served as an ominous reminder of what might await.
In the face of physical, verbal, and emotional threats, the men, three of whom were Pacific Union College students, moved forward in hopes that by doing so the nation would move forward also.
Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, the flagship journal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, shared this little-known story at PUC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Colloquy program on January 10, 2008. Knott was joined by Milton Hare, now an Oakland, California resident and social activist. Hare, who attended PUC before transferring to UC Berkeley, received a standing ovation from the audience, which packed the large PUC Church sanctuary.
The morning program also included an official apology, by the college administration, for racial inequities in the college’s past. “Today we officially apologize to the many African-American students and from other ethnic groups who have attended PUC for our actions which hurt these students, either overtly, officially, or more subtly, and pledge that we will continue in our efforts to make sure that we model the values of an inclusive community,” said President Richard Osborn on behalf of the administrative council.
Osborn’s statement refers to past policies that did not permit interracial dating or dorm assignments, and the relegation of minority students to only menial campus jobs, among other prejudiced rules and attitudes endorsed at PUC. “Our apology will mean we will become even more intentional in our effort to make this a true community based on equality composed of the beautiful rainbow of students and employees we will see in Heaven,” he said.
Forty-four hours after departing from California, Cobb, Battles, Canales, and Hare arrived in Selma. But on the way, the group stopped at Oakwood Adventist College in Huntsville, where they were both welcomed for their courage by students and warned against participation by the administration. Oakwood students were not allowed to go to Selma on threat of expulsion. On Sabbath, when the men tried to attend an all-white Adventist church in Huntsville, they were ridiculed and rejected; one church member literally shoved them out of the church. On March 21, the students joined Martin Luther King Jr. and 3,200 marchers in Selma on the journey towards the state capitol. By the time the marchers reached Montgomery four days later, the number of participants had grown to 25,000 people.
Three weeks after the historic march, the church leaders at the General Conference Spring Council voted to issue a recommendation for the desegregation of churches and schools and other Adventist institutions. Less than four months later, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Knott, whose article about the students was published in the Review in 2005, expressed disappointment at the obscurity of these types of stories. “What troubled me about this story is that it took me 40 years to hear it. Why is it that we tell stories primarily of one kind?” said Knott. “Unless we tell the stories of the people who are standing on the front lines, doing the hard work committed to the justice that God calls us to implement on society, unless we tell those stories now it will be another generation before broken things get fixed.”
Knott added, “I want to encourage you as you think of the meaning of Dr. King’s life. As you think about the connections between where you sit and events that happened 40 years ago, I want you to think about the fact that it is your Adventist faith that calls you to involvement in your society. It’s part of the vision of being a biblically grounded and socially conscious Adventist in the 20th century.”
Aubyn Fulton, professor of psychology and an alumnus of PUC, closed the morning’s gathering. “I’m deeply moved by what’s happened this morning,” said Fulton, who is African-American. He recalled his own days at PUC and the underlying, and in some cases overt, racism on campus. He felt that the college’s recognition and apology for the racial tension was a good beginning, though “on the other hand, we have a long way to go still.”
“It made me wonder, who are the people that I am oppressing, that I’m not aware of. I think we all have to ask ourselves, who are the people that we are drawing barriers against and putting on the other side?” said Fulton. “Is it African-Americans, is it Hispanics, is it Muslims, is it Arabs, immigrants, homosexuals? Who are the people that we are making the ‘other,’ that we are making to feel outside the family of God? Maybe in a small way we can spend some time thinking about ways we can change that.”
Republished with permission from the PUC Web site.
Julie Z. Lee is vice president for marketing and enrollment at Pacific Union College.