Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 09


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Courage & Conviction

Courage & Conviction
Mardon Walker ´66 and lifelong friend Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano.

Civil rights activist Mardon Walker ´66 returned to campus this spring to share with students her story and a struggle for justice that was taken all the way to the Supreme Court.

by Lisa Brownell

One January afternoon in 1964, a white Connecticut College sophomore, an exchange student at the historically black Spelman College, walked into a segregated restaurant in Atlanta with a group of black students. They knew they were defying the law but they never realized their actions would culminate in a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I´ve always had a core belief that injustice should be confronted,” said Mardon Walker ´66, recalling that fateful day 45 years ago. Walker and her classmates were arrested. Being white and from the North, she was tried and convicted of trespassing. Later she was beaten in the county jail by white inmates; back in New London students, faculty and staff at Connecticut College helped raise her $15,000 bail; the conviction eventually was overturned by the highest court in the land.

Walker, who once practiced law and more recently taught and advised students at Baltimore City Community College, returned to her alma mater in March to participate in a forum sponsored by the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

“My roommate came back in tears because she had been refused service,” she told a room crowded with students, recalling an incident in Atlanta in 1964. “It became a personal thing.” The episode convinced Walker to abandon her original intention to merely observe civil rights action.

After she and 12 others refused to leave the Krystal restaurant, police were called and carried them off. A jury found Walker guilty of violating Georgia´s anti-trespassing law, and Judge Durwood T. Pye, attempting to send a message to other would-be activists, imposed the maximum sentence: six months in jail and 18 months of hard labor. Time magazine would call it Pye´s most famous sentence in his “one-man crusade against sit-ins.”

The student served less than two weeks before bail was posted, during which time the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. came to visit in her cell. Walker appealed, but the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld her conviction. It was nearly 15 months (and almost a year after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson) before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the case in a 5-4 vote in May 1965.

Letter from a county jail

Segregated with other white women prisoners during her first night in jail, Walker was threatened, cursed, kicked and beaten on the cement floor. Eventually the warden, under pressure from King and others, put her in solitary confinement for her own protection.
In her later accounts of the incident, typed single-spaced and mailed to friends back on campus in Connecticut, as well as to the student newspaper, ConnCensus, she recounted her thoughts as she lay curled up on that floor in the cell.

“I was shaking all over and yet I really wasn´t afraid as such,” she wrote. “I felt that they could do to me what they wanted and that I could take it. … I was completely alone and surrounded by pure hate, but I really felt that I had enough strength in what I believed in to stay like that without fear.”

Back in Blaustein Humanities Center last March, Walker was surrounded by a new generation of Connecticut College students in a student-led seminar. At her side was Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a friend she´d made at Spelman who was expelled for her political activism. Simmons became a Mississippi project director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a leader in the battle for desegregation and civil rights. Today she is a professor of religion at the University of Florida. While finishing her Ph.D. at Temple University she met a future Connecticut College professor, Sufia Uddin, who made the connection with Walker and invited the two back to campus for the panel and classroom visits.

Walker and Simmons recalled that Spelman administrators tried to prevent civil rights activism by the students because they feared for their safety and the reputation of the college; both had to use their wits to get off campus for SNCC events. At that time, SNCC recruited white students, Walker said, because their participation drew more attention and media exposure for the cause. “Their parents would call the White House when they got arrested,” Simmons said.

The daughter of a U.S. Navy captain, Walker, who earned a law degree from the University of Maryland, looks back on her life as a series of choices and decisions. She even mapped out those life choices on paper, a detailed document she refers to from time to time to remind her how she got to where she is today. “Some people are just born to cause trouble,” she said with a smile. “Even in high school, in East Greenwich, R.I., I was involved in a boycott of the school lunch room.”

After her arrest her photo was all over the media, from the front page of The Providence Journal to Time. Back at Connecticut College for the second semester of her sophomore year, Walker received “a lot of hateful mail, ” a fact that clearly troubles her to this day, though she saved some of the letters as a reminder.

Walker joined the Civil Rights Club on campus and applied herself as a history major. There were “little pockets of activism” on campus at that time, but only one or two professors who were involved in political causes. “I found a support system in my close friends in Plant house,” she said. Eventually she left after her junior year to work in a low-income housing project in New Haven and wasn´t awarded her degree until 1969, a year after she had started law school.

One of Walker´s friends and a source of inspiration was the founder of the Civil Rights Club, Karin Kunstler Goldman ´65, now an assistant attorney general in the New York Office of the Attorney General. She is the daughter of the late William Kunstler, the well-known lawyer and civil rights activist.

Goldman had studied at a historically black college, Tougaloo, two years earlier than Walker, but had been forced to withdraw from Connecticut College and reapply, unlike exchange students who followed in her footsteps. She also took part in the famous 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a campaign to register black voters, where she also was arrested. On campus, she organized the first intercollegiate civil rights conference, an achievement for which President Charles Shain nominated her as a College Scholar. Today she proudly recalls going to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Johnson and other leaders.

“It was Karin who challenged the campus to take a stand,” Walker said. “Every single student on campus had to decide if they were going to give money toward my bail. For many it was the first time that they had to make a choice. After all, I had broken the law.”

Two student government leaders, Joanna Warner and Flora Barth, held an all-campus assembly in Palmer Auditorium to call for funds for Walker´s support. Although the Bond Fund on campus quickly raised the original bail of $5,000, an angry Pye raised Walker´s bail to $15,000. At that time, another Connecticut College student at Spelman, Karen Haberman, also was arrested on a lesser charge of disorderly conduct while picketing in Atlanta.

In the Connecticut College Alumni Magazine in 1972, the late Dean of the College Alice E. Johnson wrote, “In a curious way, Mardon Walker symbolizes the decade of the sixties, for she brought to the college a sense of dedication, a sense of rightness of her beliefs, and a willingness to put her life on the line in order that America might begin to move toward a more perfect society which would grant opportunity and equality for all Americans.”

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