Coffin’s legacy shows evolution of activism

Shortly after the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56 returned home to New Haven from Alabama in 1961, he received a letter marked “Confidential” from Yale provost Norman Buck. Coffin, Yale’s chaplain, had been arrested for leading “freedom rides” protesting segregation, and Buck was not happy.

Coffin, wrote Buck, owed Yale his resignation. According to Coffin’s autobiography, when the young chaplain came into the Provost’s Office to discuss the letter, Buck accused him of “dragging … the name of Yale” into the debate over segregation — even though Coffin had never claimed to speak for the University.

“You know perfectly well that the alumni don’t make those kinds of distinctions,” growled Buck, Yale’s second highest-ranking administrator. “What’s more, Coffin, it’s damned undignified for the chaplain of the University to go to jail.”

In all the glowing tributes to Coffin, who died last week at the age of 81, it is easy to forget that he was a deeply controversial figure within the Yale community. For the men like Buck who ran Yale, Coffin threatened everything from the inflow of alumni donations to the standards of behavior that had preserved the University for two-and-a-half centuries.

Thirty years after he left New Haven, Coffin is now viewed as a hero in Yale’s history, and rightly so. The two biggest causes he stood for — the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam — appear even nobler with the passage of time. Coffin was loud and often impolitic, and Yale was almost certainly better off for that.

But if Coffin was vindicated by history, the irony is that his role on this campus — along with his vision of Yale as a place whose moral power might match its influence as an academic or social institution — has all but disappeared.

Yale certainly has power. When Yale investments chief David Swensen coughs, markets move. When the University decides to change its admissions policies, every top university in the country must respond. And the decision by Chinese president Hu Jintao to visit Yale on his short trip to the United States this week is another sign of Yale’s global reach.

But does anyone at Yale possess the moral power that someone like Coffin wielded? It is hard to imagine that anyone now at Yale does, and sadly, hard to imagine that anyone could.

Coffin was, of course, a rare man living in an unusual time. He possessed a kind of legitimacy that came from mixing an old-guard background (Andover, Yale, the CIA) with a very new style of politics. He also found issues to champion that, while national in scope, struck at the very heart of the University. Vietnam was not simply an abstraction: it was a question of whether Yalies would be going to Calhoun or Khe Sanh. When Coffin spoke out during the tumultuous trial of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, he was commenting on racial unrest that threatened to tear the University apart.

The issues that inspire debate on Yale’s campus today are, so frequently, only directed inwards. Issues like financial aid policy and graduate school unionization present moral questions, but they are really administrative in nature — or at least that is how the University chooses to treat them. They are as easily framed in terms of dollars and cents — where should money go in next year’s operating budget? — as in terms of right or wrong. When the rare issue comes up that mixes the global with the local, like divestment from Sudan, Yale often seems a little too slow and a little too quiet.

In the late 1960s, it must have seemed impossible to be on Yale’s campus and avoid thinking about the issues of the day. I am not so sure the same is true about today’s Yale. (And that isn’t simply the fault of campus religious leaders, many of whom see Coffin as a model.) The campus reaction to the war in Iraq is dominated by ambivalence and pessimism, not the righteous anger that characterized Yale’s response to Vietnam. Perhaps that is a sign of our age — maybe the issues we face are just too complicated to solve with protests and civil disobedience. Perhaps the problems of the world today don’t cry out for a William Sloane Coffin anymore.

But maybe we are at fault, too, for a kind of timidity that leads most of us (myself included) to believe calm discussion is always better than passion. Coffin’s death invites us to at least question ourselves on that score — to ask whether the decision to speak quietly and civilly is as high-minded as we would like to believe.

Coffin’s memoirs, published shortly after he left Yale, end on a somewhat bittersweet note. After nearly two decades preaching at Battell, Coffin decided that he felt too complacent at Yale. But Coffin’s restlessness was matched by a feeling that the moral energy that had characterized Yale a few years earlier was dying.

“Eventually I knew that the students would get bored with being bored, that some of the passion of the sixties would return to the campuses,” Coffin wrote. But, he added, “if I wanted to do something about urban problems and the global vision that I felt more and more compelling, I had better start looking in other places for people who felt as I did.”

In the wake of his death, we should ask whether William Sloane Coffin would feel the same way now.



Jacob Leibenluft is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. He is a former Editor in Chief for the News.

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