The death of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. sent out concentric ripples of grief that touched all who care about peace, social justice, civil rights and other causes he so eloquently championed during his busy, engaged life.
Many in the Nation community worked with him in these causes, or admired him as an inspirational leader. His public witness began in 1961, when he made a dangerous Freedom Ride in the South. He was heeding the call to lend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s endangered nonviolent movement the legitimacy of a white Presbyterian minister and Yale chaplain with hereditary roots in the WASP establishment. During the Vietnam War, this World War II veteran and former CIA officer again used his celebrity and his powerful preaching to spark the draft resistance movement.
Nation contributor Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who met Coffin in that movement, called him “one of the greatest of our ‘prophetic voices.'” Marcus Raskin, a member of the Nation editorial board, joined Coffin in the Boston Five, a group of antiwar activists, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, who practiced civil disobedience in solidarity with young Americans and were indicted for conspiring to violate the draft laws. To Raskin, what was striking about Coffin was his “powerful moral core,” religiously grounded. “Courage was a major part of his life; he had a kind of nobility,” Raskin said. Yet he fondly recalled Coffin’s “sunny disposition.”
Coffin was indeed a witty man as well as charming, voluble, profane, hyperkinetic, athletic–“a tough guy who could drink hard and face anyone down,” as biographer Warren Goldstein writes. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who oversaw the 1968 prosecution of the Boston Five, recalled him as a “wonderfully joyous and loving, optimistic human being.” Asked if Coffin had held the prosecution against him, Clark recalled that after he left government Coffin had invited him to speak at Yale, and they became good friends and allies. Clark also said that the case, in which Coffin was found guilty (the conviction was thrown out on appeal), drove home to a passive public the moral issues of the war. As Coffin preached at a Yale commencement: “Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire.”
Coffin said in an interview that the “sense of self-fulfillment from being in the right fight” was a more profound satisfaction than “mere happiness.” He was on the right side of many fights. Early on he seized the nettle of gay rights while pastor at Riverside Church, causing a rift, only partially healed, with conservative black parishioners. He later inspired the antinuke campaign at the helm of SANE/Freeze. He opposed the war in Iraq, calling the years following the invasion “morally and politically disastrous” in a comment in this magazine in January 2004. But ending on a characteristically optimistic note, he praised peace activists and whistleblowers everywhere and argued that “despair is not an option.”
Just before Coffin died, Cora Weiss, an old friend who had helped him run the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, read to him over the phone Dan Wakefield’s piece on the religious left in our April 24 issue. Wakefield wrote that religious progressives wonder where new leaders of Coffin’s caliber will come from. Weiss said she told Coffin, “Bill, you can’t go. Dan Wakefield says there’s no one to replace you.” Coffin replied, “He’ll find out soon enough.” Bill Coffin is, of course, irreplaceable, but he left some advice to successors. Writing in The Nation, he spoke of the “two great biblical mandates: to pursue justice and to seek peace.” —The Editors