John Lewis and Allegheny College – Reflections by Rick Momeyer ’64

Reflections by
Rick Momeyer ’64

July 2020

In the spring of 1961, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin came to the Allegheny campus to report on the student sit-ins and the just concluded “Freedom Rides.” After his college-wide address, Rustin challenged and inspired a handful of students to create “CAUSE: College Advancement Under Student Effort.” (It was blowing in the wind!) The aim of CAUSE was to assist the Admissions Office in recruiting Black students to Allegheny, something of a novel and not entirely welcome idea to colleges that had yet to appreciate the educational value, to say nothing of the justice, of a racially diverse, multicultural student body.

In the course of that effort, we discovered that a number of colleges like Allegheny had for years conducted one-on-one student exchanges with historically Black colleges, mostly in the south. Chaplain Charles (“Brownie”) Ketcham set up such an exchange with Fisk University in Nashville. Three Fisk students signed up to come to Allegheny in the winter term of 1962. No Allegheny students signed up to go to Fisk. So three of us in CAUSE—June Fair, Peter Schwartz, and I—decided to leave CAUSE to others for a semester and go to Fisk for our own enlightenment.

The third day we were in Nashville we were all three invited to a picnic in the Nashville Park with a bizarre half-size replica of the Parthenon. More interesting still was the diverse mix of 20 or so people: Black and white, young and old, students, teachers, citizens—all veterans of “the Movement.” One of them was John Lewis, recently released from Parchman Prison in Mississippi after completing a Freedom Ride, in the course of which he was assaulted several times and had one of the buses set ablaze by Klansmen while he and others were in it.

Someone brought a guitar, and singing/teaching the freedom songs commenced. John and the other veterans told of their campaign to desegregate public facilities in Nashville the previous year, and several who had been on the Freedom Rides—which after one bus was burned in Anniston continued largely because of the efforts of students in Nashville—told of their experience.

A week after the picnic, Pete and I, and John and half a dozen others, went to jail. Having been captivated by the passion and power of the stories and the righteousness of the cause, Pete and I signed up for a nonviolent workshop conducted by James Lawson, recently expelled from Vanderbilt Theological Seminary for doing just this sort of thing. Rev. Lawson, a longtime student of Gandhi, had been conducting these workshops in Nashville for 3 years, so a year earlier when the first sit-in occurred in Greensboro, NC, Nashville students were well prepared to spread the message of resistance. We got trained in how to nonviolently resist and protect against assault and why returning love for hate was not only right, but also the best strategy for effecting lasting change. Lawson was a good teacher, but John Lewis was even better: he embodied and exemplified commitment, courage, and kindness even in the face of the vilest verbal and physical attacks. He was then, at 21, and still decades later at 80, an uncompromising believer in the possibility of a “Beloved Community” in which peace, equality, and justice for all prevailed.

There were a few more arrests that semester, usually on a Friday after classes ended and demonstrators set out to challenge the still-segregated restaurants and facilities in Nashville. Pete and I learned to take our books with us on a demonstration so that, if we got arrested and spent the weekend in jail until there was a hearing on Monday, we would keep up with challenging academic studies. As it happened, it was that first sit-in at an upscale restaurant (The Crossed Keys) on our tenth day in Nashville that led to John, Pete, and I and two others being indicted by a Davidson County Grand Jury on three counts of “conspiracy” to disrupt a business. (To the best of my knowledge, this was the only occasion in more than 40 arrests that John Lewis was indicted.) The D.A. wanted, we were told, to “test” three 1890s “seg laws” passed when segregation was being codified nationwide. We were alleged to have conspired to: create a public disturbance, deny a businessman his unfettered right to choose whom to serve, and some other offense too obscure to remember.

It was with the announcement of this indictment in April that the Allegheny community became most concerned and involved. Earlier, I was given to understand, there had been both criticism and support by many Allegheny students for our involvement in the Movement. John helped me write a piece requested by “The Student” paper and that seemed to provoke exaggerated responses on both sides of the controversy. At a then generally conservative college, the predominant critique was that we had been “disgraceful” representatives of the college for getting into the kind of trouble that we did (what in later years John Lewis would famously call “good trouble”).

When the indictment for “conspiracy” came down in April, John and I drafted a letter for supporters to sign. It said that if these 5 young people were guilty of engaging in an illegal conspiracy, then so was I since I supported their activities and encouraged more people to do so as well. Hundreds of Nashville citizens signed and sent a copy of the letter to the District Attorney. At Allegheny, a petition to the same effect was circulated and sent to us to give to the D.A. Well over a hundred Allegheny students signed the petition, and probably half the faculty as well (including Professor of Chemistry Herbert Rhinesmith, whose older daughter 3 years later intemperately agreed to marry me). Beyond signing the letter, Alleghenians raised and contributed $68 as a concrete token of support for the Movement. That was the occasion that allowed me to meet and give a check to Dr. King when he came to give a speech at a freedom rally in Nashville that spring.

In November 1963, Brownie Ketcham and the Religious Activities Committee sponsored a visit to campus by John Lewis, then Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). John spent several days on campus, delivering an address to the community about the movement, speaking to individual students and in classes. He was then, and always, an eloquent advocate for nonviolent direct action to challenge injustice and inequality in all its manifestations. He was also incredibly generous with his time and concern for others. John left campus on Nov. 22. President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 23. John called me that evening weeping at the loss. He had great confidence that JFK had finally come around to see the importance of the civil rights movement and believed deeply that Kennedy would do the right thing. I did not share his confidence in Kennedy, but wept with John as well. (Less than five years later, John was with Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated in Los Angeles).

I do not know whether John visited Allegheny again after the fall of 1963. (John was supposed to come to Meadville in June 1965 to be best man when Susan Rhinesmith and I married, but as with a number of other missed appointments in those days, he went to jail instead!) At Miami University (OH), where I taught philosophy for 44 years, John came on at least 4 occasions to meet with students, for Freedom Summer conferences (the training for which took place there), to dedicate a memorial, to meet with students at Miami University, and once to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree.

Personally, I shall always be grateful to Allegheny College for making available to a few classmates and me the experience at Fisk University at such an extraordinary time. Even more, I am thankful for the opportunity to have met, engaged in struggle with, and become friends with John Lewis, who has come to be recognized as among the most patriotic and admirable of American citizens in our history. I count as one of the greatest privileges of my life knowing and being greatly influenced by a man of such singular character and unwavering courage. He taught me, by the force of example, what an admirable thing it is to get into good trouble. I am grateful as well that many others learned this lesson, still are learning it, and still more in the future will learn from John Lewis how to get into good trouble.

50 years later, Allegheny students visit with veterans of Freedom Summer as part of a travel seminar on the legacies of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The class traveled through GA, AL, MS, TN, and NC in the fall of 2014.