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As our nation stops today to formally remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s worth noting that the late civil rights leader was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, as Billy Curl (’64) and Larry Bonner (’64) were integrating Abilene Christian University in their first year as its first full-time undergraduate African-American students.
The Fall 2012 issue of ACU Today magazine documents Curl’s and Bonner’s experiences in its cover story, “Trailblazers,” by Paul Anthony (’04). He and Dr. Charlie Marler (’55) authored other sidebar stories related to the main one.
Upon returning to Maryland last August after a memorable weekend on campus, Bonner sent a touching note back to several people, acknowledging that he unknowingly carried home what he termed “a wound” with him after earning his degree in May 1964. “I have always encouraged family and friends to attend ACU for their education,” he wrote. “Being invited back to ACU as a guest revealed my wound, but my ACU family cleaned, closed and healed that wound for me. I am so touched and at peace.”
Curl expressed similar sentiments in his own letter to campus:
“When I was first approached with the idea that Abilene Christian University was considering honoring Larry Bonner and me at the 50th anniversary of our enrollment at the university, I didn’t believe it would happen. But it did. Larry and I are still reeling with amazement at the outpouring of love and appreciation at all of the events.
Two things stood out, even though all the events were awesome. I was overwhelmed when I was given a robe to march in with the president and the chancellor. What an honor. The second was the reception with the Black Students’ Association where we were given class rings of our school year.
At church last Sunday, I showed the ring to everyone and explained the purpose and history to them. It was a moving experience to see their reaction. One of our members, having played football for a USC team that won the Rose Bowl, wears his ring all the time. He said, “My ring is a joy, but I want to touch yours because that’s history.”
While incarcerated in Alabama, King wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to eight white clergymen who were critical of him. In part of his nearly 7,000-word treatise, King’s words are ones we should reconsider today:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Curl and Bonner did not see themselves as pioneers or even as creative extremists, to borrow King’s words. But we are grateful to each of them for showing us a better way.