Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In part two of the Daily Gazette’s interview with civil rights activist Ralph Roy ’50, Roy discusses his experiences ministering in an African-American church, meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and being jailed as a Freedom Rider.
See part one here.
DG: How did you get involved with civil rights after Swarthmore?
I went to Columbia law school, I wanted to be a lawyer and be active in civil rights practice. I remember writing to the NAACP and ACLU for positions, but it wasn’t very encouraging. I stayed at Columbia for a little while, but I was turned off because many of the students were mostly interested in making money. They would sit down and talk about how much they would be paid by a big law firm. And I was very idealistic. Frankly, Swarthmore contributed to that.
I had always been very interested in the church, all kinds of religion, not just Christianity. There was a church nearby, and I decided that I was going to become a minister. I had always had a little urge in that direction, but my family was opposed to it, because ministers were considered rather poor. My father had been raised poor and so was my mother. My father always said it was a dog’s life [to be a minister]. I went to seminary and became a minister, wrote a couple books. I became an assistant minister in an African-American church and had a wonderful experience.
DG: What was it like being a white minister in an African-American church?
Generally, they [congregations] were very gracious. There are two things I could add: the black Muslims were very active in Harlem, and occasionally when I tried to buy their literature, they asked me what I was doing here. Another thing is that I tried to go to Malcolm X meetings, and they would never let me in.
I had a good experience in those churches. It was a big factor, probably, in getting involved in the civil rights movement because when I did, I had the backing of the congregation.
DG: How did you become involved with the Dr. King and the Freedom Rides?
In 1955, December 1st, Rosa Parks was arrested. I was still in seminary and we were very excited for that; it seemed like such a clear right and wrong thing. That really got a lot of us stirred up. By 1962, we’ve been in black churches for a few years. A few of us went to Dr. King’s trial in Albany, Georgia, and that’s where I really got into knowing Dr. King. I’d met him before but I’d never really gotten to know him personally. So I went down to Albany, Georgia, and we went into the jail to see Dr. King. I went into the jail and there were 3 cells, not very large. On the left side from where we were standing, the cell was filled with young African-American women, and these were college students form the local black college. It was filled with 18, 19, 20 year olds, and on the other side there was one [cell] with young African-American men.
In the middle, there was a cell with Dr. King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, his first lieutenant. As we went to see Dr. King, the young people in the two cells began to sing. Freedom songs were very important to the movement, you know, and this one was called, “Old Freedom”. They spouted it out, in spite of us, and the rabbi and I wondered, “How we were going to talk to Dr. King?” He [Dr. King] motioned to us to put our ear to his mouth and he said, “They’re singing loudly so the guards won’t hear us”. There were 2 guards in the corner.
The trial was a travesty; they treated him like a crackpot, never addressing him as Dr. King, but as Martin. They made him out to be a troublemaker and put him back in jail.
Then Dr. King got out of jail; someone had paid his bail anonymously, but we thought they just wanted him out of Albany. Then we got to know him, the next days we’d have lunch together and go to Southern Leadership Conference meeting. I got to know him and we got to talk; when we had lunch he didn’t want to talk business, he wanted to relax and tell jokes.
One of my best friends at Swarthmore, Robert Brightman, was the son of one of Dr. King’s favorite professors at Boston University, Edgar Brightman. When he found out in our conversation that I knew Robert Brightman, he was quite interested to talk about the Brightmans. He wanted to know about Bob, and we talked about that. He liked to talk about theology and things like that. He didn’t seem to want to talk about civil rights at lunch; he seemed to want to get away from it.
Then he asked this Rabbi and me if we’d go back North and organize what he called a prayer pilgrimage to Albany, to support the Albany movement. So Rabbi Jess and I went to New York, and my church in west Harlem became the center for it. We got about 80 people to down to Albany, and they were mixed, mainly white, but some African-Americans. Mainly ministers, but some laypeople.
So 75 of us lined up in front of city hall, it was a hot summer day in August 1962, and we planned to stay there for 2 hours. A crowd gathered in the hotel nearby and all around. We read a scripture and offered a prayer. Then the chief of police told us to leave and we were all arrested. I think it was the biggest jailing of clergy in American history. We were all put in jail; they put us in four jails because there wasn’t room. That wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
How do you remember your time at Swarthmore?
I was always appreciative of Swarthmore because it increased my social consciousness; it was a wonderful school to be at. I’m sure that if I had gone to another school, I might not have gotten involved in all of these things that I did with the civil rights movement. Swarthmore and all of the professors there increased my awareness of the world; it was the perfect school at the time. It was a wonderful experience, a wonderful four years.