Ralph Roy ’50 on Swarthmore, Activism, and Dr. King

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.

Reverend Ralph Roy, ’50, opened Tri-Co Peace Week last Friday with a speech recalling his Swarthmore days and his life of political activism. After graduating from Swarthmore, Roy attended Columbia Law School before transferring to Union Theological Seminary. “Apostles of Discord,” his best-selling first book, was published just three years after he left Swarthmore. Roy was a committed member of the American Civil Rights Movement, and his activism has continued to this day: in 2002, his picture appeared in the New York Times after he was arrested during a protest against the Iraq war.

In his talk, Roy described his life as a minister, which included fourteen years serving African-American congregations in Harlem and Brooklyn. In the summer of 1961, Roy was arrested along with other clergy members as a Freedom Rider. In 1962, Roy attended the trial of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Albany, Georgia. Roy told the audience of his unconventional encounter with King before the trial, when he and King spoke “mouth to ear” through the bars of King’s jail cell while student protesters in nearby cells sang freedom songs to prevent the guards from overhearing their conversation. Roy went on to hear King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and to attend King’s funeral five years later. Roy noted that despite the civil rights leader’s many serious concerns, King loved to exchange “jokes and stories” over meals and would “throw his head back” to laugh at a particularly funny anecdote.

Lastly, Roy talked about his experience at the College in the late 1940s. Swarthmore students were as socially active 60 years ago as they are today–Roy mentioned an incident in which the Student Council tried to prevent women from wearing jeans to Sunday dinners in Parrish. The following Sunday, several dozen students, both men and women, showed up in their jeans, ready for dinner.

To learn more about the Reverend Roy’s life and work, you can find a two-part interview with Roy in February: 1st part, 2nd part

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