Moral Courage

I recently heard an interview with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault who was, as a young Charlayne Hunter, one of two black students to integrate the University of Georgia exactly 50 years ago this January.

She recalled walking on to the campus surrounded by hecklers. She recalled sitting in her dorm room with crowds of white students outside chanting, “Two-four-six-eight! We don’t want to integrate!” She described a brick being thrown through her dorm room’s window and a girl, a fellow student, throwing her a quarter saying, “Hey Charlayne, go upstairs and change my sheets.”

She also described being invited to tea by an English professor who had watched and heard the taunting crowds outside the dorm. She recalled their long conversation, not about race and racism but about literature and ideas. Charlayne Hunter-Gault never forgot that professor and could still name her fifty years later, sharing that she had only recently passed away.

As I listened to this very personal reflection, I was struck by the moral courage it must have required for Charlayne to stay at University of Georgia despite the taunts and threats; and by the powerful, individual act of moral courage of that professor who became her ally and advocate simply by sharing a cup of tea and conversation. I was taken aback yet again by the actions and attitudes of Charlayne’s peers, actions that seem morally untenable today and engendered in part because long-held assumptions and systems dared to be challenged, in this case about race.

Fifty years later, I wonder: What are the thorny moral issues facing our schools today that require similarly courageous action? Not the easy ones that can be addressed without consequence or conflict, but the hard ones that might require us to face jeering crowds or, like that University of Georgia professor, to reach out to the marginalized and the trail blazers? Do Episcopal schools and those of us in them have the courage to stand up for the good, or will we be more like the University of Georgia or Charlayne’s white peers who, by defending tradition, perpetuated and perpetrated injustice?

What will be said of us, fifty years from now?