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Black History Spotlight

Who was Rev.  Walter R. Murray, Jr.?

by Dr. Rosevelt Noble, ’98

In my short answer to this question, “Who was Walter R. Murray?” I can say emphatically that Walter was a Bridge Builder!  Before elaborating deeper on the bridge builder analogy, I’d like to share some general information about Walter Murray.

September 16, 1948 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Reverend Walter R. Murray Sr. and Thelma (Cartmell) Murray
His father passed away when he was 6 years old.  He was heavily involved in the church and held several youth leadership positions.  Religion & his faith were very important elements of Walter’s life.

High School:
He is a 1966 graduate of Pearl High School along with his best friend and notable Vanderbilt Alum Perry Wallace.  He was Salutatorian of his senior class and played in the band.

Vanderbilt  University:
Attended from 1966-1970 on a Rockefeller Band Scholarship.

While at Vanderbilt University:
Walter did a lot to bring black students “out of the shadows”.  In interviewing many students from Vanderbilt’s second integrated class (1965-69) they referred to Walter as a “Father figure” and spoke of how their presence was not really known on campus until Walter arrived in the fall of 1966.  He played a prominent role in founding the Afro-American Association (AAA), which is presently the Black Student Association and was also a founder of Project Opportunity.  He became heavily involved in student government and was actually elected Vice President of SGA his senior year.  Walter had strong relationships with the administration – Chancellor Heard and University Chaplain Beverly Asbury were counted among his friends.

After Graduation:
Elected by his classmates to serve on the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, becoming the first black member (1970-72).  Earned a Master of Management Degree from Owen in 1974.  Co-founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni in 1984.  Walter worked on campus as an Admissions Counselor and later as the university’s first Opportunity Development Officer, becoming Vanderbilt’s first black administrator.

After Nashville:
1976-83 – Served as the Assistant to the President for Institutional Development and the Dean of Students at Cincinnati Technical & Community College.
1983-87 – City Mission Society of Boston.
1984-87 – Youth Minister & Assistant Pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church.
1987-93 – INROADS, Managing Director of the Central New England, which he founded.
1989-98 – Senior Pastor, Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, MA.

Walter Murray married Donna Lee Taylor in 1970 and their union produced three children Simone, Shawn, and James.

April 22, 1998 following a 12-year battle with cancer.

In his lifetime, Walter Murray was the recipient of numerous awards and honors.  Following his receipt of the 1997 Children’s Defense Fund Annual Award, Mariam Wright Edleman summarized Walter’s career best when she said:  “Rev. Murray is an inspiring example of the difference that one person of deep faith can make when motivated by love for the children God has entrusted to our care…He is my Hero.”

Walter…The Bridge Builder
Walter Murray left his impression on every community that he encountered.  Everyone that I interviewed spoke about the transformation in their thoughts, actions, and their views on the greater humanity after having met Walter.  He was not uncomfortable in making others uncomfortable if that’s what was needed to bring about change.  As a result he was able to generate many collaborations where none had existed before.  These collaborative efforts were most often to produce something to the benefit of the poor, our youth, the marginalized, and the alienated.  His efforts were never for self-gratification.  In this regards he embodies the concept of the bridge builder.  Here is just a small sample of the many episodes that reflect the manner in which Walter R. Murray was a bridge builder.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
He served as a liaison for the small population of marginalized black students who bravely came to Vanderbilt during a time Walter described as “alien and very hostile”.  As a result of his mediation between the black student population and the administration, a Human Relations Council was formed under Chancellor Heard to address many of the problems facing black and other minority students at Vanderbilt.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
During a Student Government meeting to approve the Afro-American Association as a campus group, tensions became very high between the black and white students in the discussion.  Despite the desires for some of his black classmates to present a more radical and aggressive approach to bring about change, Walter maintained a calm and calculated approach.  Consequently, the group was approved and still exists on campus today.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
Working as an admissions counselor he published an information booklet entitled “The Black Student at Vanderbilt.”  The booklet was a resource guide designed to ensure that unlike he and his classmates, future black students would have a reference guide for how to navigate through Vanderbilt University.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
In response to the feelings of alienation and disconnect expressed by many black students after graduating from Vanderbilt, he founded the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
He strategically showed up to a weekly meeting of the Swampscott Rotary Club.  At the time he was the Managing Director of the Central New England Chapter of INROADS  (which he founded).  INROADS is a non-profit organization founded to fix the perceived lack of ethnic diversity in corporate America.  The organization provides training and internship opportunities to minorities in high school and college.  Walter recognized that in order for his chapter to be successful he needed buy-in from the business community, and so he went where business people meet.  When Walter left INROADS in 1993, the Central New England Chapter was INROADS’ most successful with 250 young people in positions with 75 area and national firms.

Walter Murray was a Bridge Builder when:
In response to a teenager being murdered across the street from a Catholic church in Lynn, MA, he called together the clergy of the city to meet for a press conference and to devise a plan that would put people of faith between children and violence.  One of those clergy was the Reverend Jerry Hardy who delivered Walter’s eulogy.  In the eulogy, Rev. Hardy stated:  “Walter wanted us out in front of the violence instead of always cleaning up and burying folk after it. ”Rev. Hardy goes on to conclude that the biggest accomplishment from that first meeting was that Walter had managed to get “preachers who had worked in the same town for 10-15 years to speak to each other for the first time.”

In their work under the auspices of the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) they developed and implemented after school programs for the city’s schools, and increased the city’s community policing unit.

Bishop Joseph Johnson: A Time of Change, Determination, and Courage

When Joseph Johnson became the first black student to attend Vanderbilt University, the entire nation was in the throes of change.  It was 1953, a year before the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that racial segregation in public schools, including public universities, was unconstitutional. Johnson’s admittance to Vanderbilt was also two years before key turning points – the tragic lynching of Emmett Till and the courageous Montgomery Bus Boycott – in African Americans’ struggle for equal rights.

On Sept. 28, 1953, Johnson entered Vanderbilt University as a special student. His acceptance to Vanderbilt by then Chancellor Harvey Branscomb and the Board of Trust signaled both change and courage. Johnson, who was 39-years-old, married and a father and a pastor, wished to pursue the Ph.D. in theology. His admission was an exceptional step for both the Board of Trust and Johnson. As a special student in the School of Religion, Johnson earned the bachelor of divinity degree in one year, fulfilling the requirements for the degree on April 1, 1954. Following four years of graduate study, Johnson received the Ph.D. in 1958, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate at Vanderbilt University.  In the preface to his Ph.D. dissertation, Johnson thanked Branscomb, Dean Beaton, the dean of the Divinity School, and the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, who, “in 1953 opened the doors of a great University to qualified Negro students.”

Johnson’s admittance to and graduation from Vanderbilt was not without opposition, but historic change in the university’s student body was not met with as much controversy as one might have expected.  In 1954 when his name was called to receive his bachelor’s degree, “the audience broke out into prolonged applause.”  Nevertheless, there were some dissenters who felt that “one of the greatest mistakes ever made in the history of Vanderbilt University” was Johnson’s admission.

In the years following Johnson’s admission and graduation, Vanderbilt would periodically admit other African-American students – Frederick T. Work and Edward Melvin Porter were the first African American students admitted to the university’s law school in 1956 – for example.  Work and Porter graduated in 1959.

However, it was in the spring of 1960 when another African American divinity student, James Lawson, would challenge Vanderbilt’s self-identity and Jim Crow laws in Nashville. Lawson was a 30-year-old transfer student from Oberlin School of Theology when he entered the Divinity School in 1958. In 1960, he was expelled from the school for his leadership role in the Nashville sit-ins.  A Gandhian pacifist and a leader in the principles of non-violent resistance for social change, Lawson had been training black students from Fisk and Tennessee State (then Tennessee A&I) universities, and American Baptist College in the methodology of nonviolent resistance. Lawson’s expulsion was controversial, as several members of the Divinity School Faculty resigned in protest. The expulsion generated national headlines and prompted some Vanderbilt faculty members to resign in protest. A compromise was worked out later to allow Lawson to complete his degree from Vanderbilt, but he chose to transfer to Boston University, where he later graduated.

While Vanderbilt’s graduate and professional schools had slowly opened their doors to integration, it was 53 years ago in 1964 that the university admitted its first class of black undergraduates. Those early African American undergraduates— Robert J. Moore, Dorothy Wingfield Phillips, Diann White Bernstein, Maxie Collier, Earl LeDet, Norman Bonner and Randolph Bradford—helped pave the way for the Vanderbilt we know today. For these students, it was sometimes lonely, and it was challenging academically, but they met the challenges and helped forge and strengthen a proud legacy.

Many of these notable alumni have a continued presence on campus, whether it is through participation in events hosted by the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni – which marked its 30th anniversary in 2014 – or the university’s black cultural center being dedicated as the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center 33 years ago in honor of the university’s pioneering first student.

The Rev. Lawson’s relationship with the university also has continued since the 1960s.  Recognized by the Vanderbilt Alumni Association as a Vanderbilt Distinguished Alumnus in 2005, Lawson taught on campus from 2006 to 2009 as a Distinguished University Professor. In 2007, Vanderbilt established the James M. Lawson Jr. Chair at Vanderbilt in his honor, and in 2013 he donated a significant portion of his papers to Vanderbilt Libraries’ Special Collections.