The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of longtime board member Dr. John D. Maguire. His evolution from a child of the South who grew up harboring racial prejudices to passionate civil rights advocate and close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most compelling narratives of transformation to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement. As a university professor, Maguire worked tirelessly to open the eyes of his white students to the injustices faced by their fellow citizens of color. Ted Shaw, LDF’s fifth director-counsel (and a Wesleyan alumnus), said that Maguire “inspired a generation of Wesleyan faculty and students.” Maguire’s activism extended well beyond the classroom. In addition to his friendship with Dr. King, he participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides to integrate bus stations throughout the South.
“John Maguire was a force of nature: a brilliant, hardworking man of action, totally committed to the enduring struggle for racial justice and equality,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones. “His relationship with LDF lasted for more than four decades, from his time as an LDF client after his Freedom Ride to his tenure on the Board of Directors, where he was a wise and experienced advisor on a host of programmatic and institutional issues. A son of the South, John demonstrated a capacity for growth and evolution which inspired and served as an example to others. LDF remembers him with deep respect, gratitude, and love for sharing his remarkable life with us.”
“John Maguire’s life is a testament to the power of individual transformation and committed action,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “Within a short period, he went from being a Southern teenager who accepted racial divisions to a Freedom Rider who sought to erase them. He used his own journey of growth to inspire others – not only the countless students who were blessed with his tutelage for decades, but anyone who had the privilege of encountering his warm and determined spirit. He will be sorely missed.”
John Maguire was born in Montgomery, Alabama. As he recounted in a 2014 interview for a University of Southern California blog, he adopted the prejudices and assumptions of his environment. “Up until I was 16 years old and a senior in high school, I did the same thing my friends did,” Maguire said. “We drove through the Black side of town throwing pears at Black guys and yelling racial epithets. We were the White oppressors. I was the White oppressor.”
Maguire recalled that his attitudes began to shift in the summer of 1948, when he attended a baseball camp at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where the organizers intentionally roomed each camper with someone of a different race. His awakening continued at Washington and Lee University, where the climate of intellectual exchange challenged his inherited beliefs about race. To counteract the discriminatory policies of campus fraternities, Maguire organized the Campus Club, a service organization open to all students. As a sophomore, he attended a conference at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he met and roomed with a young student named Martin Luther King Jr., the beginning of a friendship that lasted until King’s assassination in 1968.
After graduating from Washington and Lee in 1953, Maguire spent a year studying at the University of Edinburgh on a Fulbright scholarship, before returning to the United States to pursue a doctorate in theology at Yale. There, he met William Sloane Coffin Jr., who served as the university’s chaplain from 1958 to 1975.
After receiving his doctorate, Maguire became a professor of religion at Wesleyan University. In 1961, with urging from King, Maguire and Coffin embarked on a Freedom Ride with three Black students and several other white theology professors, part of a larger effort to challenge Jim Crow’s grip on the South. Writing in the June 2, 1961 issue of Life magazine, Coffin said that by joining the Freedom Rides, he and Maguire “hoped to dramatize the fact that this is not just a student movement. We felt that our being university educators might help encourage the sea of silent moderates in the South to raise their voices.”
The group was arrested in Maguire’s hometown of Montgomery for “breach of the peace” after they attempted to order coffee at a segregated restaurant. After spending two nights in the local jail, they were released on bail. Maguire, Coffin, and their fellow riders were represented in Court by an LDF team that included LDF’s founder and first Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall, his successor Jack Greenberg, Lou Pollak, and Rosa Parks’ attorney, Fred Gray. Lou Pollak (who later became dean of the Yale Law School and a federal judge) won Maguire’s case in the Supreme Court. Maguire’s participation in the Freedom Rides earned him the scorn of many white Americans, including several Wesleyan alumni who sent him anonymous threats.
As Ted Shaw noted, Dr. Maguire “was not content to cheer on the Movement from the sidelines. He put skin into the game, joining the generation of white Americans who can honestly claim to have fought for the good cause.”
At Maguire’s invitation, Dr. King visited Wesleyan four times in five years for periods of rest, reflection and writing They remained close until King’s murder in 1968, an event that rocked Maguire to his core. In the Wesleyan student paper, he meditated on the gap between America’s rhetoric and practice when it came to non-violence: “We cheered when [King] called for non-violence,” he wrote, “but in our hearts we believe in violence and practice it as a way of handling our hostilities—in our families, in our nation, as an instrument for international relations. How long America, how long will we praise non-violence but persist in practicing violence?” Maguire is believed to have worked closely with King on his anti-Vietnam War speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967, a year before he was assassinated.
In 1970, Maguire left Wesleyan to become president of the State University of New York, Old Westbury. At the time, the school was just two years old, the youngest member of the SUNY system. Under Maguire’s guidance, the school adopted an innovative curriculum designed to explore what the school’s mandate called “the riddle of human justice.” It was a cutting-edge posture for an institution of higher learning, and it was a reflection of Maguire’s commitment to social equity.
In 1981, Maguire left Old Westbury to become chancellor of the Claremont Graduate University in California, a post he held until 1998.
He joined the LDF Board of Directors in 1991. He was a proud and active member throughout his tenure, serving as vice chair of the board’s nominating committee. He also served on a subcommittee that strongly urged LDF to open an office in Los Angeles, which operated from 1988 until 2007, and he regularly co-chaired LDF’s Hank Aaron Humanitarian Award Dinner.
Dr. Maguire is survived by his wife Billie, and three daughters. A memorial service will be held to celebrate the life of John D. Maguire on December 1st, 2018 in Claremont.