In Memoriam: William Sloane Coffin, Jr. April 14, 2006Posted by jaldenh in Interesting.
April 13, 2006
Rev. William Sloane Coffin Dies at 81; Fought for Civil Rights and Against a War
By Marc D. Charney, New York Times
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960's from his position as chaplain of Yale University, then reveled in the role of lightning rod thrust upon him by officials and conservatives who thought him and his style of dissent dangerous, died yesterday at his home in Strafford, Vt. He was 81. The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Amy Coffin. She said he had recently been under hospice care.
Dr. Coffin, a believer in the power of civil disobedience to bring social and political change, was arrested as a Freedom Rider early in the 1960's and was an early admirer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he embraced a philosophy that put social activism at the heart of his clerical duties. In the late 1970's, when he became senior minister of Riverside Church in New York — an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Courage, he preached over the years, was the first virtue, because "it makes all other virtues possible." In his later years, he devoted himself to antiwar crusades, advocating a nuclear freeze, opposing the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But he did not consider himself a pacifist, and when genocide broke out in Bosnia, he asserted that there were times when international intervention with force was justified.
But it was as the outspoken chaplain at Yale in the tumultuous years when the Vietnam War was escalating that Dr. Coffin's name became known across America. While he questioned the wisdom of the war almost from the start, he came only slowly to a decision to apply to this cause the same tactics of civil disobedience he had already engaged in on behalf of the struggle for integration in the South. Yet when he did, the spectacle he created — the chaplain of an Ivy League university counseling students that they were right to resist the draft, and accepting their draft cards to be turned in to the Justice Department — so infuriated the Johnson administration that Attorney General Ramsey Clark, himself a prominent liberal, sought to imprison him. In one of the most celebrated trials of the day, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three others were accused of conspiracy to encourage draft evasion. Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and two others were convicted, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal. The case became a cause célèbre for the antiwar left and civil libertarians, who considered the prosecution's eventual failure an incomplete vindication of the right of free speech.
Dr. Coffin had a distinctive view of his own role as a dissenter. His argument with American social practices and political policies, he said, was that of a partner engaged in a "lovers' quarrel." It was a position he could claim almost as a birthright, considering his lineage and the patrician positions he held. His forebears traced to the Pilgrims, and his father, also named William Sloane Coffin, was a vice president of W. & J. Sloane, the furniture manufacturers, and president of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His uncle, the Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin, was president of Union Theological Seminary and the principal influence on his entry into the ministry. And for almost all of Dr. Coffin's adult life, his service was performed in one or another institution near the heart of power and prestige: the Central Intelligence Agency, Andover, Williams College, Yale, and then Riverside Church, which had been built as an interdenominational house of worship with financing from John D. Rockefeller Jr. So if Dr. Coffin preached on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden, he did so to the most prominent and talented of parishioners. His enthusiastic ministry to the Vietnam generation at Yale prompted a Yale alumnus of those years, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, to gently lampoon him as the offbeat Rev. Scot Sloan ("the thoroughly modern minister/enabler") in "Doonesbury." Another Yale man of the time, President Bush, has spoken of a less affectionate memory: After Mr. Bush's father lost a Senate race in 1964 to Senator Ralph Yarborough, Dr. Coffin told the young man, then a freshman, student that he knew his father and that the better man had won. (Dr. Coffin disputed the anecdote.) After Dr. Coffin left Yale, disgust on the part of alumni with his political activities was often blamed for a decline in alumni contributions. But Yale was not the only university to deal with that problem in the 1970's. Moreover, Dr. Coffin made the case that by addressing the anger, fears and frustrated idealism of the students, the Yale administration may have helped the university avoid the kind of fractures that left far deeper scars at Columbia and other universities.
William Sloane Coffin Jr. was born on June 1, 1924, in Manhattan. His father and his mother, Catherine Butterfield Coffin, were rearing him, a brother and a sister in a penthouse that occupied the 15th and 16th floors of a building on East 68th Street when the father died of a heart attack in December 1933. He had slipped and fallen on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With money less plentiful, Mrs. Coffin took the three children to Carmel-by-the-Sea in California. She also took them to Paris, where young William studied harmony in hopes of becoming a classical pianist. The interest in music continued at Phillips Academy at Andover, from which he graduated in 1942, and for a year at Yale's music school. Then he entered the Army and was sent to Europe as an infantry officer. Because of his facility with languages, he was made a liaison to the French and, later, the Russian Army. In 1946, he took part in operations to forcibly repatriate Soviet citizens who had been taken prisoner and who, once repatriated, were never heard from again. The deceptions in which he took part to gain the prisoners' trust before handing them over, he wrote in his memoir, "Once to Every Man" (Atheneum, 1977), "left me a burden of guilt I am sure to carry the rest of my life." "Certainly," he added, "it influenced my decision in 1950 to spend three years in the C.I.A. opposing Stalin's regime." His reference was to the years of the Korean War, which he spent in the C.I.A. after being recruited by a brother-in-law who was a top agency official. In Germany, he helped send anti-Soviet Russians back into Russia; they would parachute in by night and work against the Soviet regime in paramilitary teams. "I had seen that Stalin could occasionally make look Hitler look like a Boy Scout," Dr. Coffin explained last year to a reporter for The New York Times, Tim Weiner, who was preparing a history of the C.I.A. "I was very anti-Soviet but very pro-Russian." But Soviet intelligence detected nearly all of the efforts, and Dr. Coffin said the missions nearly always ended in disaster. "It didn't work," he said. "It was a fundamentally bad idea. We were quite naïve about the use of American power." The years in the spy agency, it turned out, were only an interlude. Before joining it in 1950, he had left the Army as a captain in 1947, returned to Yale and earned a degree in government. In 1949, he was captivated by the possibilities of a religious vocation when, at the urging of his Uncle Henry, he attended a conference at Union Theological Seminary and heard Reinhold Niebuhr and prominent ministers from Harlem speak. So when he returned to the United States in 1953, it was to study for the ministry at Yale Divinity School. When he graduated in 1956, he returned to Andover as the school's acting chaplain. That year he also married Eva Anna Rubenstein, an actor and dancer who was the daughter of the pianist Artur Rubenstein. The couple had three children before the marriage ended in divorce in 1968.
After spending a year at Williams College as chaplain, Dr. Coffin was named to the chaplain's post at Yale in 1958. The civil rights struggle was heating up, and he was arrested three times when he went south to join it. The arrests came in 1961, while taking part in a Freedom Ride in Montgomery, Ala.; in 1963, while protesting segregation at an amusement park near Baltimore; and in 1964, at a St. Augustine, Fla., lunch counter that he and others were trying to integrate. Dr. Coffin said aides to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had tried to dissuade the Freedom Riders from making their trip in 1961. That first arrest caused some surprise at Yale. But Dr. Coffin said he was only setting a moral example. "Every minister is given two roles, the priestly and the prophetic,"' he said later that year. "The prophetic role is the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister himself, the congregation and entire moral order some judgment." The athletic and voluble Dr. Coffin became a familiar figure on Yale's campus, riding his motor scooter, joking with students and challenging them to stand up for what they thought.
But by 1967, the campus that had largely welcomed him back from Montgomery as a man of courage was convulsed with the passion surrounding the Vietnam War. Much of the turmoil was over the draft, from which young men in college were exempt but which was waiting for them as soon as they left academia. Dr. Coffin, a critic of the country's war policy since 1965, had been a founder of a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. But he had concluded that letter-writing and seeking out policy makers and members of Congress were having no effect. In 1967, he chose a course of civil disobedience. First, he offered the chapel at Yale as a sanctuary for those who were refusing to serve in Vietnam. Then, on Oct. 16 of that year, as a major demonstration at the Pentagon itself was being planned, Dr. Coffin helped preside at a service at the Arlington Street Church in Boston at which young men who were resisting the draft turned over their draft cards to him for delivery to the Justice Department. Dr. Coffin and three others left about 185 draft cards and 175 classification notices at the Justice Department in Washington on Oct. 20, a Friday, even as the capital braced for a weekend of demonstrations. Dr. Coffin told James Reston, a Times columnist, that his effort was intended to mount a "fair and dignified" legal challenge to the draft, and his statement to the Justice Department made it clear that the protesters were courting arrest as a symbolic act — a position in accord with his statements that civil disobedience required confronting the draft and accepting the legal consequences. There was no immediate arrest, however, as the capital focused on the confrontations in the streets between radical protesters and helmeted troops outside the Pentagon. But on Jan. 5, 1968, the Justice Department came back with a far more serious charge than the defendants had expected. It indicted Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and the three others on charges that they had engaged in a conspiracy to counsel draft evasion. Dr. Coffin said he had not pushed the thought of draft evasion on anyone who did not already have it, but the government argued that this defied common sense, given the persuasive power that someone of his standing would have when he took a position or set an example. Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and two of the other three were convicted of conspiracy, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal, largely because of errors made by the judge. Dr. Coffin could have been retried, but the government chose not to do so. The case left him a national figure of protest — lionized by the left, vilified by the right, and puzzled over by his superiors at Yale. Kingman Brewster Jr., an expert on constitutional law who would himself fall afoul of the Nixon administration, was Yale's president, and his reactions said a great deal about the difficulties Dr. Coffin's brand of conscience could present. Eight days after Dr. Coffin turned in the draft cards in Washington, Mr. Brewster gave a speech to parents of Yale students and said, "I disagree with the chaplain's position on draft resistance, and in this instance deplore his style." Two years later, after Dr. Coffin's conviction was overturned but before the government dropped the case, Mr. Brewster stood before entering freshmen and held up Dr. Coffin and Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York as two men who were "wholly unashamed of their high purpose." He drew applause when he criticized the draft as "a system of conscription which makes the campus a draft haven and distorts career choices in an effort to avoid service in a war nobody wants to fight." If the draft issue proved a political minefield for those seeking to hold Yale together, the pattern became only more complex as the war dragged on into the Nixon administration and another incendiary issue came to the forefront: the prosecution of Black Panthers in New Haven on kidnapping and murder charges. In the spring of 1970, a constellation of spokesmen for the radical left — among them Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society, David Dellinger of the antiwar movement, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Yippies, the poet Allen Ginsberg and Black Panther leaders — convened a giant rally just outside the Yale campus to protest both the prosecution of the Panthers and the conduct of the war. Officials throughout the Northeast feared an explosion of violence at Yale's doorstep. National Guard troops were sent into New Haven. Among Yale's students and faculty, political sympathy for the left ran high, but so did a concern to prevent violence. Students organized a group of marshals to keep tempers cool. Dr. Coffin met with rally organizers, who chose to put the most fiery speakers on in the morning and the more boring ones on as night, with its potential for disruption, was about to fall. He served on a committee of monitors. And on the one night when events threatened to get out of hand, he helped persuade a National Guard commander to keep his troops inconspicuous. In the end, the gathering proceeded largely peacefully, and when it was over many at Yale basked briefly in self-congratulation that the threat of serious violence had been averted. Then came news that four young protesters had been killed when troops opened fire at Kent State University in Ohio, where a remarkably similar stage had been set that week — tense national guardsmen facing angry students — but with less success at controlling tempers and fears. In September 1972, Dr. Coffin was a member of group of clergy and peace activists who went to Hanoi to accompany three released prisoners of war on their return to the United States. He remained chaplain of Yale until 1976, when he stepped down to work with world hunger programs and write his memoir.
A few months later, he separated from his second wife, Harriet Gibney, whom he had married in 1969. That marriage, like his first, ended in divorce and he remarried once more, to Virginia Randolph Wilson, who survives him. Besides his daughter, by his first marriage, Amy, of Oakland, Calif., Dr. Coffin is survived by a son by his first marriage, David Coffin, of Gloucester, Mass.; his brother, Ned Coffin, of Strafford; his sister, Margot Lindsay, of Newton, Mass.; three grandchildren; two stepchildren, Jessica Tidman, of Strafford, and Wil Tidman, of San Francisco; and four stepgrandchildren. Another son by his first marriage, Alexander, died in 1983. Dr. Coffin was appointed to the ministry at Riverside Church in 1978. There, he promoted international arms control and mobilized congregants to work on local issues like unemployment and juvenile delinquency. In 1979, he was one of three American clergymen who, along with a fourth from Algeria, went to Tehran at their own expense to help the American hostages held there celebrate Christmas. In the 1980's, after leaving Riverside, he was a leader of Sane/Freeze, an organization that campaigned for disarmament and a freeze on nuclear testing. Dr. Coffin's activities slowed considerably in the 1990's, and in 1999 he suffered a stroke. But he continued to write and speak out from his home in Strafford. In the spring and fall of 2003, he spoke out repeatedly in criticism of the war President Bush was leading in Iraq. Last October, he founded an organization of religious leaders calling for the elimination of nuclear arms.
In the fall of 2003, he preached at Riverside Church again, on World Communion Sunday, after being introduced by Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations. His voice resonant, even though his speech was slow and somewhat slurred, Dr. Coffin told the congregants that there was "a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism." "Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race," he declared, adding: "Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never. Let us love our country, but pledge allegiance to the earth and to the flora and fauna and human life that it supports — one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water; with liberty, justice and peace for all."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company