By FATHER WILLIAM J. BYRON, SJ, CNS | Published May 20, 2004
In 1954, at the outdoor commencement on the Avenue of the Oaks on the beautiful Spring Hill College campus in Mobile, Ala., a public announcement was made that Spring Hill would enroll Negro students the following September. Racial integration came to the college the same year the U.S. Supreme Court announced its landmark “Brown vs. Board of Education” decision declaring state-mandated racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
In his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail—an appeal to the conscience of white church leadership in the South—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a word of praise for Spring Hill. He expressed disappointment over lack of white support in the struggle for civil rights for blacks, but he said, “Some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.”
He added, “I commend the Catholic leaders of this state [Alabama] for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.” It had been nine years since Spring Hill integrated over the opposition of many inside and outside the campus community.
I was there on the Avenue of the Oaks this year to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2004. I reminded them of the 1954 decision and asked them to think about integration and integrity in their personal lives.
These students know all about racial integration and, to their credit, welcome it and celebrate its presence. They wonder why it was such a big deal back in the ‘50s. They now have to consider other social justice issues that will challenge their personal commitment.
So I asked them to think about integration in their personal lives—integration of faith and reason, body and soul, matter and spirit, leisure and work, pleasure and pain. I invited them to notice the need in their lives for integration of so many good realities, all of them necessary for achieving the good life. They must “have it all together,” as the saying goes, if they are going to lead genuinely happy and productive lives.
How to integrate family and work, idealism and realism, giving and receiving, gain and loss, sacrifice and satisfaction? These are all goods whose integration in one’s personal life will build a balance of genuine reality—the reality through which all of us must walk on our journey to eternal fulfillment.
There is sometimes a hard edge to the reality that enters a human life. There is the reality of pain and illness, of loss and failure, of being wronged and hurt by others.
The Christian approach to reality, summarized in the paschal mystery, prepares the believer to deal with reality’s hard edge.
Just as graduating seniors measure themselves for caps and gowns before commencement, they should take a graduation moment to measure their own personal integrity.
I told the Spring Hill graduates that I think of integrity in terms of wholeness, solidity of character, honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility. A person of integrity has a sense of self, knows where he or she stands. I invited them to carry with them a take-home exam on integrity along with their diplomas.
Those stately trees on the Avenue of the Oaks challenge the young to go their separate ways together in the tradition of integrity that is part of Spring Hill’s history. People of great integrity are responsible for the racial integration there and elsewhere in America today—far from perfect but lots of progress since 1954.