“A President Is Like a Gardener”

These administrators assume that we’re savages and that it’s their job to civilize us.” This was the comment of one of my students at Spelman, an English major, on the lack of freedom at the college, the antiquated restrictions, the finishing-school atmosphere, the paternalism and control. And when “the Spelman girls” emerged from jail and returned to campus, they were in no mood to accept what they had accepted before.

Their rebellion came to a head in the spring of 1963, but it had been building up for years. Shortly after I arrived at the college, a star student named Herschelle Sullivan (later she received a doctorate from Columbia University and worked for the U.N. in Africa) wrote an editorial for the student newspaper, an allegory chiding the college for its tight control of students. One of the figures in the allegory was a lion guarding the gate, not allowing young people to explore the world beyond, and Herschelle used the phrase “benevolent despotism.” She was called in by President Albert Manley and chastised for writing the editorial. He also criticized the editor of the newspaper for printing it.

Manley, a courtly, handsome man, was Spelman’s first black president. His predecessors had been white New England women missionaries. He was cautious and conservative, obviously made uneasy by the new militant currents moving through black campuses. Also, he had to answer to the Board of Trustees, which included several Rockefellers and a number of white businesspeople from the North.

After the incident with Herschelle Sullivan, I felt she needed support and that I should not remain silent if one of my students, perhaps influenced by my classes, spoke her mind freely about what troubled her on campus. I wrote a long letter to Dr. Manley, saying that in my classes in American history and Western civilization I had been stressing the need for independent thought, for courage in the face of repression, and that any administrative effort to discourage freedom of expression was a blow at all of the values crucial to liberal arts education. I received no reply.

Five other faculty members wrote to President Manley expressing their concern that the intellectual and social growth of students at Spelman was limited by needless restrictions, and suggesting that students should be encouraged to develop self-discipline rather than have discipline thrust upon them. They too received no reply. But clearly a conflict was growing.

When the sit-in movement erupted in Atlanta in the spring of 1960, I wrote an article for The Nation about the participation of Spelman students and noted that the traditional Spelman emphasis on turning out “young ladies” was being challenged, that the new-type Spelman student was to be found on the picket line, or in jail. I learned that President Manley resented the article for its criticism of the college as it was.

In the spring of 1962, students were stimulated by the visit of Spelman alumna Marian Wright, then at Yale Law School, who spoke to them about young people becoming a force for social change. Shortly after her departure, a group of students addressed a petition to the Spelman administration. They respectfully acknowledged Spelman’s “productive past,” but said the college was “not preparing today’s woman to assume the responsibilities of today’s rapidly changing world.… The acquisition of knowledge is impaired by the conspicuous absence of an atmosphere conducive to intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of excellence.” They asked for “first steps” to create a new atmosphere, a liberalizing of the rules, modernization of the curriculum, improvement of library facilities.

A meeting was called to publicize the petition and there was a huge turnout. More than three hundred young women, over half the student body, signed the petition. An honors student named Lana Taylor chaired the meeting.

President Manley responded angrily. He called in student leaders, including Lana Taylor, and berated them for circulating the petition, saying they should have utilized “regular channels.” He said that if students didn’t like the situation at Spelman they could leave. He demanded that the student newspaper, which was planning to include the petition in its forthcoming issue, not print it. The editor later said it was “like a decree.… I didn’t feel I had any choice but to obey.”

That summer of 1962, Lana Taylor received a letter from the college informing her that her request for a scholarship had been denied on the ground of “poor citizenship.” (In May she had been elected president of the senior class.)

In the spring of 1963 matters came to a head. The Social Science Club decided to call a meeting to air some of the issues of campus life. I was the club’s advisor, but I did not initiate the idea. The topic for the evening was “On Liberty at Spelman,” and faculty, administration, and students were all invited. A dozen faculty came. Some administrators were there, but Dr. Manley said he had another engagement. The room, which usually held about thirty or forty students, was packed with over two hundred. The meeting was chaired by Dorcas Boit, a student from Kenya.

Student after student rose to denounce the administration forindignities they had experienced—surveillance, paternalism, authoritarianism—and to express their fears. “We are afraid that if we sign anything we won’t graduate. You’re afraid to say something. You’re afraid somebody might call you in.” Students told of not being allowed to leave their rooms because they did not attend a concert being given on campus.

Marie Thomas, who had won Spelman’s award for artistic achievement and was one of five theater people suspended for a semester because they had attended a cast party “after hours” (she went on to a successful career on the New York stage), sent a letter to be read to the meeting. It spoke passionately against “our traditional, antiquated, medieval, and aged standards, rules and regulations.… What do they mean to a modern girl growing normally and learning in our modern world today? Times have indeed changed. God give us the strength, knowledge and understanding to change with them.” The students greeted her letter with tremendous applause.

At a faculty meeting chaired by President Manley, I proposed that he and my colleagues listen to a tape of that student meeting to get a sense of their grievances. Manley refused. It was becoming clear that he saw me as an instigator rather than simply a supporter of the protests. When students begin to defy established authority it often appears to besieged administrators that “someone must be behind this,” the implication being that young people are incapable of thinking or acting on their own.

After that faculty meeting I went to see Dr. Manley, hoping to ease the tension between us. Our house on campus was near the Manleys’, we’d had dinner several times at their home, and our relations had been friendly if somewhat formal. The following is drawn from the journal I kept that first half of 1963:

Conference with Manley. I had asked for it to try to generate some cordiality in face to face encounter after tension of last meeting. No cordiality, perhaps slight easing of tension, but absolutely no agreement on anything. On the Social Science Club meeting. “You should have cleared it with me first.” I said that was intolerable—that on a democratic campus any group should be able to meet any time on any subject without clearing it with anyone. He said, as he kept saying throughout—“that’s where we disagree”.… He said, “Why do you keep bringing up these things? Why aren’t you interested in other things, students cheating on exams, students stealing in dormitories, things missing all the time? Aren’t you interested in these things?” Not very much I said. Yes, I said, I’m interested in everything, but some things are more important. He said at one point: “I have never been a crusader and I am not now.” At the end of the meeting I said, you put your finger on the heart of it when you said you aren’t a crusader. Perhaps I am somewhat. But whatever we are, shouldn’t we want to turn out students who have something of the crusader in them? No response.

I felt a certain sympathy for President Manley—he was under pressure from all sides, the Board of Trustees, other college presidents, perhaps important people in the black community—I didn’t really know. But I was moved by the students, their courage in finally speaking their minds. One student, who had resisted an attempt by an administration person to censor a speech of hers, said, “Spelman is like a coffin. You have to fit it exactly either by stretching or shrinking. But nothing must stick out—not a toe, not a hand, not a hair.” Another student, who left in her senior year, wrote back explaining her departure: “I just got tired of being agitated and locked up.… I like the girls at Spelman, but I will never have any real love of the place, because it offers me nothing to love.… To me, college is a place where the student grows. But how can one grow any way but warped when one lives under warped conditions?”

In late April there was a testimonial dinner in honor of Dr. Manley’s tenth year at Spelman. I walked over to the dining hall with Charles Merrill, a Boston educator who sponsored scholarships abroad for outstanding Spelman students. He was perhaps the lone voice for liberalism on the Spelman Board of Trustees. We had been on friendly terms for years, and he joked, “Should I walk with you? … Will they put you at a table by yourself?” The main speaker at the dinner was the chairman of Spelman’s trustees, Lawrence McGregor, a New Jersey banker, who gave a hint of what was coming (this is also from my journal): “A president is like a gardener—he must make sure things grow in their place—and if anything grows where it’s not supposed to grow he must get rid of it.”

Two months later, in June of 1963, with the semester over, students gone, and the campus empty, my family packed the old Chevy to go north for the summer. They got into the car, and I asked them to wait a moment while I went to the mailbox to pick up the mail.

There was a letter from the Office of the President. “The College does not intend to renew your employment at the end of your present term, and you are hereby notified of that fact.… Accordingly, you are relieved of all duties with the College after June 30, 1963, and you will be expected to vacate your apartment by June 30, 1963. The College’s check for your termination pay is enclosed.” There was a check for $7,000, one year’s salary.

It was a shock. Despite the conflict, which had become intense, I had not expected this. It was clear now why everyone’s letters of reappointment for the next year had been held up for two months, with various excuses given—Manley was waiting until all students were off the campus and this could be done without an uproar.

I walked back to the car, told Roz and the children that we had to talk before leaving. We reopened the apartment and sat down in the living room, where I read the letter to them. Roz was stunned. Myla and Jeff were indignant. Myla had been campaigning for years for us to move from Atlanta, but now she said, “We won’t leave!”

Staughton Lynd, our campus neighbor and my departmental pal, seeing our car still there, walked in. Staughton and his wife, Alice, had just returned from visiting the hospital to see their little boy, who had been seriously injured in a fall.

I told Staughton that he had enough on his mind, should tend to his family. But he, indomitable as always, immediately got on the phone to spread the word and round up help. The reaction seemed to split along generational lines. Veteran faculty were hesitant to speak up. The younger black professors rushed to my support—Lois Moreland, in my department, an NAACP activist; Samuel DuBois Cook, political science professor at Atlanta University and a former Morehouse classmate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Shirley McBay, a new and therefore especially vulnerable and especially brave young math teacher. (Later, Moreland would remain at Spelman; Cook would become a college president in New Orleans, McBay a dean of students at M.I.T.)

A few white colleagues from the English department joined the campaign to annul my dismissal—Renate Wolf, a German-born novelist, Esta Seaton, a poet. But President Manley was adamant. To visiting delegations he gave the reason he had not put in the letter. I was “insubordinate.” (It was true, I suppose.)

I wanted to fight the dismissal and was sure I was on good legal ground. I was chair of the department, a full professor with tenure, and by all the rules of the profession I could not be summarily fired. When I called Don Hollowell for legal advice, he was confident that Manley had broken my contract with the college. And yes, he said, he would take the case. When I called the American Association of University Professors in Washington they were sure my tenure rights had been violated, and they would set up a committee to investigate.

But by this time I was acutely conscious of the gap between law and justice. I knew that the letter of the law was not as important as who held the power in any real-life situation. I could sue, but the suit would take several years and money I didn’t have. The A.A.U.P. would investigate, and some years later would issue a report citing Spelman College for violating my academic freedom, but this would mean little. I soon concluded that I did not want to tie up my life with this fight. In doing so, I was reluctantly bowing to reality. “The rule of law” in such cases usually means that whoever can afford to pay lawyers and can afford to wait is the winner, and “justice” does not much matter.

The students were gone and scattered for the summer. But the news spread. Several who had become our close friends wrote or called to offer help. One was Betty Stevens, the student-body president, cool and indomitable (but she wept when she heard I was leaving); she would become the first Southern black woman to enter Harvard Law School. She wrote to President Manley: “Dr. Zinn’s competence as a professor is unquestionable.… Dr. Zinn is admired, respected, and loved by all of the Spelman students.… This man is not just a teacher, he is a friend to the students. He is someone that all students feel free to approach.… No person is insignificant to him.” She ended her letter, “Disappointed in mankind.”

(Being fired has some of the advantages of dying without its supreme disadvantage. People say extra-nice things about you, and you get to hear them.)

Another student who immediately gave her support was Alice Walker. I had first met Alice at an honors dinner for freshmen. We happened to be sitting next to one another at one of those long tables. I remember my first impression of her: small, slender but strong-looking, smooth brown skin, one eye silent, the other doubly inquiring with a hint of laughter. Her manner was polite, but not in the directed way of a “Spelman girl,” rather almost ironically polite—not disrespectful, simply confident. We talked, and liked one another almost immediately.

She took my course in Russian history, was quiet in class but very attentive. I tried to liven the history by having students read Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. Their first written essays came in, and I read with wonderment the one by Alice Walker, on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Not only had I never read a paper by an undergraduate written with such critical intelligence, but I had rarely read a literary essay of such grace and style by anyone. And she was nineteen, from a farm family in Eatonton, Georgia.

When Alice arrived at Spelman, a third wave of sit-ins and demonstrations was about to take place, and soon she was in the midst of it all.

Alice was a frequent visitor at our home and developed a wonderful rapport with our children. Her writing continued to dazzle me. When my letter of dismissal came in early June, Alice had already gone north to spend the summer with her brother in Boston. But someone called her with the news and she wrote to me immediately: “I’ve tried to imagine Spelman without you—and I can’t at all.… Last night I was far too upset to finish my letter.”

Roz and I went to Greenwood, Mississippi, that summer, where I was talking to movement people for my book on SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). By fall we were in Boston, where we had rented a house for the year, and I was weighing a job offer from Boston University.

Alice Walker was already planning to leave Spelman. She wrote to us from Atlanta: “There is nothing really here for me—it is almost like being buried alive. It seems almost a matter of getting away or losing myself—my self—in this strange, unreal place.”

Sometime in October we took a trip back to Atlanta to arrange for the shipment of our belongings up to Boston and to see our friends. We visited the SNCC office and found it jammed with over a hundred Spelman students who had shown up to express their support. It was an emotional reunion.

It was those students and so many others who made the Spelman years, with all that turmoil—even with being fired—such a loving, wonderful time. Watching them change in those few years, seeing their spirit of defiance to established authority, off and on the campus, suggested the extraordinary possibilities in all human beings, of any race, in any time.

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