Fire in the mountains

1968 | After flame-throwing campus debates, God spoke in a low whisper

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

In the beautiful Berkshire mountains, Williams College in 1968 was physically far removed from the social and political turmoil of cities along the East Coast. But the liberal arts school was a hotbed in the battle for ideas.

The college is tucked away in a valley in the midst of the peaceful hills and mountains of northwestern Massachussetts. Coming from the flat terrain of central Indiana, I loved looking at those mountains-big chunks of earth rising up off the land, covered by trees, waiting to be explored.

Started as a Christian college in the late 1700s, Williams had become a top-tier school academically, with the typical liberal bias of that league. Its Christian origins had long been forgotten.

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The school attracted the best and the brightest, mostly from the East Coast, to a small community called Williamstown. Perhaps to diversify, they allowed some of us from the Midwest. I had to work very hard to get an A or B in political science and history classes, while some of the top students breezed by without much study. Coming from an Indiana-based journalism family, I was vaguely familiar with politics, but in high school I read the sports pages first. Williams in 1968 was a great place to learn much more. The issues of race and the Vietnam War dominated campus debates, and the debates were everywhere, in the dorms, the eating places, the school newspaper, and in the classroom.

I plunged into journalism, working for the school newspaper and becoming what was called a "stringer" for about five other newspapers, including The New York Times. The protests and debates on campus provided a steady stream of stories to write, and a $5 check for a story seemed quite lucrative compared to the $2 lawn mowing and golf caddying jobs I had in high school.

The war debate was tilted very strongly to the left, favoring withdrawal ASAP from Vietnam. One faculty member, political scientist Fred Greene, had worked in the State Department and tried to defend and explain the rationale for the policies of President Lyndon Johnson, but he was rare. Yet debates were usually polite, seldom personal and nasty.

The journalism jobs gave me a fascinating chance to listen to anti-war perspective. Back home I could hear the anti-communist side in more conservative Indiana on vacations or in the summer.

The college had taken up the race issue with recruitment of African-American students from East Coast cities. That provided some of the best part of my education, as I listened to black student protesters trying to find their identity at a predominantly white college. For me as a reporter for the college newspaper, and correspondent for regional newspapers, the protests kept me busy filing -stories, interviewing students. Books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X helped me understand the sense of grievance and bitterness that some of the students felt.

I could not see the big picture, but Williams' approach to race was part of a larger national repentance for the wrongs of slavery and segregation, an attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life. Motivated in many ways by a Christian heritage, the repentance had been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s preaching and the civil-rights movement. The word repentance was not used that I can recall, but the concept lay behind the well-intentioned efforts to bring blacks into the mainstream through a top college education.

I became close friends with an African-American roommate, Drew Hatcher. His father had been in the Kennedy administration, an assistant press secretary, and somehow any difference in our backgrounds or politics didn't affect our friendship. Even today, when I see him at the Justice Department, where he works as a lawyer, our conversations pick up on the latest politics or personal developments with our children. We seem to slide right back into those college bull sessions, decades later.

There was an idealism in 1968 at Williams, both in the anti-war movement and the repentance over race. But sadly the idealism did not have a strong enough foundation to endure. Like so much of America, the college had neglected, slid away from, or ignored its historic Christian roots in favor of a vague Enlightenment-based humanism. The liberal sentiments seemed noble and idealistic in the midst of a beautiful campus, surrounded by mountains. But they were falling prey to what the prophet Jeremiah warned about, trusting in man and allowing the heart to depart from the Lord. Something was missing-Christian faith and a conscious attempt to search the Scriptures for wisdom. The Scriptures had been subjected to a higher critical review in religion and were no longer trustworthy or infallible.


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