John Maguire: A Moral Awakening
The walls of retired college president John David Maguire’s Claremont Graduate University office are covered with photographs. As I scanned the walls, I spotted a photograph of two young men smiling: John Maguire and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was that photo that inspired my conversation with Maguire.
Black History Month isn’t just about celebrating the achievements of Blacks, but about recognizing that a moral and philosophical awakening can occur in someone—no matter his background or ethnicity—when that individual decides to embrace others different from him.
Maguire is a product of the South. His parents were “radical segregationists,” but he was quick to point out they did not see themselves as bigots. “In their mind, there was a difference,” Maguire explained.
As a child, Maguire said he simply “reflected the Deep South of the early 1940s.”
“Up until I was 16 years old and a senior in high school, I did the same thing my friends did. We drove through the Black side of town throwing pears at Black guys and yelling racial epithets,” Maguire recalled. “We were the White oppressors. I was the White oppressor.”
But Maguire’s peripatetic summer of 1948 began an incremental epiphany leading him to a pathway toward a cosmopolitan mindset. It began when Maguire was picked by the YMCA to go to a national baseball camp at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where the YMCA purposely integrated the baseball camp by rooming each young man with someone of a different race.
“It was just what I needed,” he said. On a particularly hot day, after a softball game, somebody grabbed three Dr. Peppers and passed them down the line. Maguire, surrounded by Black men, took a drink of the Dr. Pepper. “That was the first time I’d ever passed my lips to anything that had touched a Black man’s lips.” While not an entirely transformative moment, it stands out in his mind as key to his awakening.
At the end of that summer, Maguire started his first semester at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. The lectures and discussions, Maguire said, took any racist mentality “…right out of you. You literally had no place to stand.” When Maguire was a sophomore, at age 19, he attended a conference at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Penn., where he met and roomed with Martin Luther King, Jr. Maguire thought King was brilliant with compelling analysis and reasoning. Perhaps it was the long discussions that King and Maguire had that destroyed most remaining vestiges of racism in Maguire. (Maguire’s and King’s friendship began there and continued until King’s death.).
In 1961, after meeting with newly elected President Kennedy, King told Maguire to join him for a Freedom Ride.
On that ride, Maguire learned firsthand what it was like to be subjected to racial epithets and have objects hurled by angry racists. The oppressor had become the oppressed. His story was published in Life Magazine in February 1961.
Maguire’s civil rights activism was also pivotal in changing his parents’ ideology, to some degree. He recalls his mother telling him, “We see your friend Martin King on TV all the time, and he looks so tired,” she said. “Tell him that if he wants a place to rest…he can rest here. We won’t bother him.” Maguire said that after that conversation, he wept. He knew that his parents had finally opened their eyes to integration.
Maguire still sits on boards and commissions of several academic and social rights organizations, and gives talks about his civil rights involvement across the nation. His correspondence and interaction with King can be found in the archives of The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, including King’s key public antiwar speech from 1967 against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, co-written by Maguire and colleague Vincent Harding.
King delivered the speech exactly one year before his death.
Delores Abdella Combs, an MSW student in the Health concentration, met John Maguire when she was completing her bachelor’s degree at Pitzer College during his tenure as president of Claremont Colleges. She has always admired his commitment to civil rights issues, diversity and inclusion.