On Friday of last week, my wife and I responded eagerly to an invitation from the Duke Divinity Administration to attend an official 50th Reunion of the Class of 1968. The whole day was a time of emotional remembrance and gratitude for the extraordinary achievements of a school of distinction. We were warmly greeted by Dean Greg Jones, an old friend whose father had served in this position in a previous generation. Even though I had returned to the Duke campus upon many occasions for continuing education and enjoyment of the arts, this event was unique, for my emotions were tapped in ways I did not anticipate.
The returning graduates had accomplished many significant things in their professional lives as retired pastors, a campus minister, one United Methodist Bishop, professors, counselors, and a widely-published church historian. We spent most of the afternoon in a tight circle of sharing our pilgrimages in the spirit of gratitude to the university that had launched our careers in various expressions of ministry.
We were fortified by a gracious meal in the majestic space previously designated "York Chapel." Then we made our way to the adjacent Duke Chapel for a performance of Messiah. The Chapel is indeed a special place for every Duke graduate, including those who have no particular religious orientation. But, for members of the Class of 1968, this Gothic structure that presides over the west campus has a unique historic significance. In the weeks before our graduation in May of that year, the quad was filled with as many as 5,000 students-in-grief upon the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These had appropriately gathered in demonstration, calling attention to the salaries of non-academic employees of the university and demanding a compassionate and just response from the administration.
Last Friday we were honored to sit in front seats near the talented orchestra and lofty choir. Handel's masterpiece was embellished by the orchestrated additions by Mozart. Our spirits were elevated by this incomparable artistic gift from some of the university's finest musicians.
As we embraced our classmates/colleagues in emotional farewells, we filed out the long nave. At the entrance door, I placed my hand upon the empty ledge that once supported the statue of Robert E. Lee. In those moments, I recalled with vivid clarity standing in that same spot on an April morning of 1968 as I departed from the memorial service conducted days after Dr. King had been murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, just days before. Departing chapel worshipers were still singing the concluding hymn, "We Shall Overcome." Suddenly we were joined by thousands of voices upon the quad. My hand remained in place as I relived those powerful emotions of fifty years ago.
In the name of the God of justice, there is only one appropriate replacement for the statue of the man who sustained a war for the preservation of slavery. The Duke University that I cherish will commission a gifted sculptor to fashion the likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr. When I return for my fifty-fifth Class Reunion, I shall kiss the feet of that statue, in accordance with the libretto of Messiah: "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things." (Isaiah 52:7)
Rev. Dr. George E. Thompson is a Duke divinity alum, ‘68.