The College’s annual Convocation ceremony, marking the official opening of the 213th academic year, was held Wednesday, Sept. 3, in Pickard Theater of Memorial Hall. Following the “Opening of the College” address by President Barry Mills, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster delivered his “Voices From the Past” remarks, in which he traditionally recounts a story or stories from Bowdoin history.
Voices From the Past
Phil Hansen was eighteen when he arrived at Bowdoin for the first time in September 1960. Home was Bridgton, Maine—about 50 miles away.
A good student, Phil was described as a “do-er” and young man of “very high ideals.”
Dave Bayer also arrived at Bowdoin that September.
Dave was also a good student and an athlete. His home was Merrick, New York, a homogenous town outside New York City.
The Class of 1964 that Phil and Dave joined that day was a typical Bowdoin class for those times: all male, nearly all white, and mostly from New England.
Yet, those years that Phil, Dave, and their classmates would spend at Bowdoin were anything but typical.
These were the years of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Berlin Wall.
The war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement were both heating up.
This was when violence erupted in Birmingham and Montgomery, when Federal troops were needed to escort James Meredith to his seat at the University of Mississippi, and when a quarter million gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King describe his dream for America.
The turbulence wasn’t lost on students and faculty here, even if the events themselves were a world away.
“…We felt Bowdoin was at the cutting edge, a politically active island with major contributions to American history, in the middle of the Maine sea of tranquility,” wrote Phil and Dave’s classmate, Fred Stoddard, many years later.
Stoddard remembered students rising to “the stirring lectures of Whiteside, Daggett, Hathaway, Rensenbrink, and Levine” — Bowdoin faculty of the period immersed in the issues of racial equality and social progress in America.
Professor Levin is with us now. Dan will you please stand?
But for all the lectures, textbooks, periodicals, and news reports, Phil and Dave weren’t satisfied.
After a talk by a visiting Wesleyan professor, they understood what was missing.
Dr. John Maquire—a white religion professor originally from Alabama—was a friend of Dr. King and a “Freedom Rider.”
He told Bowdoin students that they would never truly grasp the struggle for civil rights until they understood, personally and first-hand, what it was like to be black in the South.
That’s when Phil came up with the idea for a student exchange.
“The idea was buzzing around in Phil’s head,” Dave remembered. “And when I learned of this, I decided to act as his Gadfly—biting and tearing at him to take some action.”
Dave ended up taking that action himself.
He composed a letter that found its way to Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Mays was a Bates grad who Martin Luther King called his “intellectual father” and “spiritual mentor.”
He knew Bowdoin and liked the idea of an exchange. So did the administration here in Brunswick, so Phil and Dave set out to recruit fellow Bowdoin students for a trial run.
“This exchange is not a crusade and we won’t be carrying placards,” said Phil.
Instead, the goal is educational—“to aid all participants in acquiring a deeper understanding of the racial problems in the United States,” and to arrive at “a deeper understanding between human beings.”
In March 1963, nine Bowdoin students—including Phil and Dave—traveled to Atlanta for a week at Morehouse. A few weeks later, four Morehouse students arrived here in Brunswick.
These were brief visits to test the potential for an extended program later on.
“…[We did not expect to gain] a great grasp of the whole situation of what it is like to be [black] in the South,” he said later on. “We went to see the issue of discrimination, not in the abstract, but in concrete terms.”
Upon his return, Phil described the weeklong exchange as one of the most “educational experiences” of his life.
For Dave, part of the experience was understanding that injustice and inequality were everywhere.
“The North cannot disparage the South,” he said, “because discrimination is just as prevalent here as it is there, only we practice it a little less violently and decorate it with subtle camouflage.”
That was a view shared by some of the students who traveled from Atlanta to Brunswick.
When asked at Bowdoin if Northern liberals could be of more help to [black people] in the South, Morehouse student and Texan Ray Lundy told the Orient:
“Sure, but only after they decide to be of some help to [black people] in the North.”
Lundy would say favorable things about his time in Brunswick, even if the program had its limitations.
“After all,” he said, “the problem of race tolerance is essentially one of education, and how much education can take place in a week?”
Everyone involved agreed, so Phil and Dave went to work with others to extend the program to a full semester in the spring of 1964.
Among the six Bowdoin students who traveled to Atlanta that next February was Steve Kay of the Class of 1965.
“…We drove around Atlanta after supper,” Kay remembered. “We passed… the hotel where the Ku Klux Klan had been picketing all week.”
“Mr. Lofton [our guide] pointed out a particular church, which had become integrated after strong resistance had barred any blacks from entering.
The issue had been resolved by a vote of the congregation.”
[As Mr. Lofton put it], ‘Jesus was up in Heaven holding his breath, waiting for them to vote on whether they would be Christians or not.’”
The exchange lasted just two more years. Other colleges learned of the program, and Morehouse was inundated with requests that it couldn’t accommodate.
Still, as Dave Bayer acknowledged in a Chapel speech to classmates, this brief opportunity for a connection with others had been well worth the effort.
“We all need to concentrate deeply on our own fields and vocations because this kind of dedication has accounted for our past and contemporary achievements,” Dave said.
“But at the same time, we must remain in communication with [others]. The value of the work of the humanitarian, the natural scientist, and the social scientist increases when they can communicate their ideas and findings to each other.
The various groups in the United States [that] make up our culturally plural society have to communicate with each other in order to understand each other.”
Change was certainly in the air during that spring fifty years ago, and Bowdoin students were at the center of that change.
In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, who had met in Atlanta with Phil, Dave, and the other initial exchange students, visited Bowdoin at the invitation of senior Fred Stoddard.
The Bowdoin Undergraduate Civil Rights Organization, or BURCO, helped establish a scholarship for black students.
And a new student initiative, Project 65, sent groups of Bowdoin students to inner-city schools around the country to encourage applications.
Black enrollment increased from two students to five students to eight students to 46 students five years later at this College that, until 1963, had graduated just 28 black students in its entire history.
Times were changing, just not very quickly.
As for Phil and Dave, both would be awarded Bowdoin’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Prize presented to the student “whose vision, humanity, and courage most contribute to making Bowdoin a better college.”
Today, there are many more opportunities for students to gain first-hand knowledge, and as recent events in Missouri have illustrated clearly, there is still much to learn and still much to improve about America.
So, to the Class of 2018, remember what Phil Hansen and Dave Bayer achieved at Bowdoin.
Go to your lectures and labs; learn from your professors and your classmates; read, watch, and listen to as much as you possibly can, and then read, watch, and listen some more.
But also, whenever you can, do what Phil and Dave did: set aside what you think you know and discover a deeper understanding through immersion, through participation, and through connecting face-to-face with others.
When you do, you will enhance your own education and you will make Bowdoin a stronger college.
Thank you for listening.