On the Right Side of History

By Thomas Rozwadowski

Earl Neil ’57

Above: The Reverend Earl Neil ’57 attempts to block a photographer from taking pictures of Huey P. Newton’s parents outside the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, California, in 1968. A cofounder of the Black Panthers, Newton was on trial for murder


 It's dinnertime in Johannesburg, South Africa—eight hours ahead of Northfield—when the Reverend Earl Neil ’57 proudly raises his Carleton T-shirt to the web camera.

Two weeks shy of his 80th birthday in mid-December, Neil is happy to step back in time. The bones may be creakier, he jokes, but the mind is a steel trap.

Names of former Carleton professors and parishes where he served roll off Neil’s tongue with ease. He describes cities and counties in the segregated South as if he had visited them yesterday rather than 50 years ago during voter registration drives.

April 3, 1968, remains an enduring flashpoint. That’s the day roughly 20 Oakland, California, police officers raised their shotguns and demanded to enter St. Augustine’s, Neil’s parish at the time, as part of a raid on members of the Black Panther Party they suspected of hiding out in the church. Neil planned to host a press conference the next day to address persistent police violence and intimidation in his west Oakland neighborhood. But then he received word that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis.

There’s a common thread to these experiences, this living history entrenched in one of the most tumultuous yet transformative eras of modern history. An Episcopal priest for 56 years, Neil consistently sacrificed his own safety to serve as a voice for others.

He wasn’t alone. Neil’s work with King and other civil rights leaders in Chicago and Selma, Alabama, came full circle 30 years later while he was leading voter education initiatives as a member of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s staff in South Africa. Locations change, but the challenges remain the same.

“You don’t realize it until you have the benefit of looking back: ‘Gee, those were historic moments. They’ve written books about them,’ ” says Neil, who served as a Carleton trustee from 1971 to 2005. “But when you’re living them, you don’t feel that way at all. You’re trying to do what you think you’re supposed to do. You’re just trying to get through life.”

Neil is off Skype and likely asleep when the news of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, breaks a few hours later. Fourteen people have died in the worst mass shooting on American soil since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre three years earlier. But something he said earlier resonates: “We have not reached the promised land, that’s for sure, but I never let fear or danger guide me away from the struggles of our time. I firmly believe that you have to live in hope.”

Perhaps that explains why he stared down police officers on those Oakland church steps. How he survived a harrowing night in Magnolia, Mississippi, when two cars filled with bad intentions followed his group of six black and white clergymen into the darkness. And why he so often blurred the lines between peacemaker and troublemaker—and did so with a steadfast conviction that it placed him on the right side of history.

Class of 1957 in 1955

Members of Neil’s sophomore class in a 1955 yearbook photo


 

Hope Began in Rondo

Neil joined his first protest when he was just seven years old. His parents, Earl and Katherine, took him to a picket line at his elementary school in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood to support striking teachers.

Neil jokingly points to that moment as his start in community activism, though the truth isn’t far behind. A dedicated churchgoing family, the Neils attended mass at one of the two main black parishes in the Twin Cities at the time—St. Philip’s in St. Paul. When he was 11, he became an altar boy.

“Throughout high school, people continually suggested to me that I should be a priest. Of course, I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure,’ ” he says.

Even if he wasn’t serious about the ministry in his teens, the church led him to Carleton. Neil eagerly participated in youth programs sponsored by the Episcopal Church, which held an annual summer conference on campus. He fell in love with Northfield and with the idea of pursuing an engineering degree.

Earl Neil ’57“I couldn’t cut the courses, so I switched to sociology,” Neil says. “But it was around the end of my junior year at Carleton that I began to see what I wanted to do with my life. Social work came up a lot. But the priesthood never went away. It seemed to come up again and again.”

Although St. Paul was heavily segregated along racial and religious lines while Neil was growing up, the Rondo schools drew from a mix of adjoining African American, Jewish, and Roman Catholic neighborhoods. School and community leaders instilled in Neil a strong sense of cultural acceptance and led him to believe—somewhat naively—that going to an all-white college in rural Minnesota would be “life as usual.”

In a lot of ways, it was. Neil bonded with his Carleton classmates through cross-country and track. He never felt pressure to act differently or conform to a campus ideal, he says. In fact, he believes his comfort with white students helped ease their fears about having a black classmate, teammate, and roommate.

“Most students were very open and willing to learn about me,” says Neil. “This was the first time a lot of them had ever gone to school with a black person, so I was able—because of my upbringing—to help them navigate my being there.” Neil was the second African American student to graduate from Carleton.

“In later years, some of them told me that they were glad they went to school with me. When they attended other schools or got jobs with people of color or from other cultures, it helped them recognize what it meant to grow. They already had a stronger sense of who we all are, together.”

It was an early example of Neil serving as the “bridge,” a word he uses often when describing his life’s work. But first, he had to get to seminary.

While he was not the most devout churchgoer at Carleton, Neil was attracted by a growing call to action with the national civil rights movement and Twin Cities chapters of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The struggle against segregation reached a fever pitch during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955, Neil’s sophomore year at Carleton. Something began stirring inside him.

After graduating from Carleton, Neil applied to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Much to his surprise, he got in.

“Rudyard Kipling says that at the equator, the sun comes up like thunder. At the North Pole, it’s slow and gradual. But it’s the same dawn. That’s how my ministry development was. It took a bit more time. It had to grow inside me,” Neil says.

1956–57 Carleton track team

Neil (second from right) with members of the 1956–57 Carleton track team


 

Navigating the South

Since he could work only in black parishes—and Twin Cities parishes didn’t have any openings—it was time to beg.

After a demoralizing letter-writing campaign, Neil landed at a mission church in Wichita, Kansas, where he began to navigate the tenuous relationship between civil rights and church politics. A mission church relies on support from the larger organization; the diocese controlled the purse strings. If increasing church membership or diving into community issues stirred up too much discomfort among white residents, Neil knew that a warning would follow. The same proved true at his next mission church in Chicago, where
he protested the construction of a new diocesan center because the segregated union workforce didn’t reflect the city’s racial composition.

“Those were watershed moments for me,” Neil says. “I saw the way the church should be dealing with the ministry of Jesus and addressing the human condition, and how some people in power didn’t believe in showing that kind of humanity.”

As the scope of the civil rights movement widened, Neil’s ministry followed. While he notably worked with King to reverse discriminatory housing practices in Chicago during the summer of 1966, it was voter education and registration drives in McComb, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964 that opened his eyes to the chilling reality of race relations outside the Midwest.

“The work in McComb stays with me because it was tough just to get the black community to come to voter education and registration classes,” Neil says. “The people would be sitting on their porches, but when you’d come to talk to them, they’d go in their houses. They’d say to us, ‘When you all leave, we’re still gonna be here.’ ”

The clerical collar, often a symbol of comfort to those in crisis, adopted a different meaning in southern Mississippi. There, it “flashed like a neon sign” to white Southerners, inspiring fear and intimidation, says Neil. Southerners knew priests were held in high regard in African American communities and that they were often agents of social change.

African American churches and houses were bombed. White residents were armed. One night in Magnolia, a few miles south of McComb, two cars began following Neil’s vehicle. He and a group of fellow clergymen had driven there to counsel voter registration workers who had been arrested and jailed.

“We knew they had weapons in those cars,” Neil says. “There was lots of fear and trepidation that night. You never knew when they were going to strike next.”

Yet Neil didn’t waver. As a coordinator for the landmark Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, he helped pave the way for passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Through a series of orientation sessions, organizers helped new marchers prepare for the oncoming storm.

“Basically, we were showing them how to stay alive,” Neil says matter-of-factly.

Earl Neil ’57, Salimah Compton Majeed ’68, and Takashi James Kodera ’69

Neil, Salimah Compton Majeed ’68, and Takashi James Kodera ’69 at a Multicultural Alumni Network (MCAN) reunion in 1996


 

Oakland Police Didn’t Expect a Priest

Earl Neil ’57Roughly 10 squad cars surrounded the church and the officers, two to a car, raised their shotguns. They came to the church following reports that a man with a gun was seen running inside. In fact, members of the Black Panther Party, a group of young African Americans who initiated armed patrols to monitor police behavior in Oakland neighborhoods, had been using St. Augustine’s for twice-weekly meetings.

“David Hilliard, the Panthers’ chief of staff, and I went to the door and asked police to describe the man since we didn’t allow guns in our meetings,” Neil says of the April 3, 1968, standoff.

“There was a tense back and forth, to say the least. Finally, luckily, the command sergeant told them to break. So they left.”

Neil began working as a community liaison with the Panthers after cofounder Huey P. Newton’s high-profile 1967 altercation with two Oakland police officers left one officer dead and the other (along with Newton) wounded. Neil attended the court hearings with a church member who knew Newton’s girlfriend, and he offered to visit Newton in prison.

Police harassment had left the Panthers without a regular place to meet, so Neil also agreed to allow the group to use his church. He was acutely aware of media images of militant young black men in berets and leather jackets looking to cause trouble. By the end of the 1960s, the Panthers had launched chapters in most major U.S. cities, prompting FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to call them the “greatest threat to internal security of the country.”

Earl Neil ’57It’s true that the Panthers often were armed (for self-protection, says Neil) and, in some cases, committed criminal acts of violence—polarizing methods of protest that Neil didn’t always condone. But Neil also knew that the group was trying to combat real problems in poor African American communities. They helped establish free health clinics, prison visits, clothing drives, alternative schools, and food programs—most notably Free Breakfast for School Children at St. Augustine’s, the first nationally organized breakfast program in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy sell to his congregation—in fact, Neil chose not to ask them for approval to use the church—though there was a breakthrough the weekend of King’s murder.

“Tensions were high in the community that week . . . a shooting had also happened at a house near the church and [prominent Panther member] Bobby Hutton was killed. The community needed to emote, so we held a memorial service for both,” Neil says. “Members of my congregation and members of the Panthers began to talk with one another. They began to relate on a human level.

“Members of the congregation weren’t just seen as handkerchief heads and Uncle Toms, as they were often called in those days. And those same members saw for the first time that a lot of the Panthers were just teenagers who were reacting to the needs of their community. We broke down a lot of barriers.”

David Hilliard, Eldridge Cleaver, and Earl Neil ’57

From left: Black Panthers chief of staff David Hilliard, activist and writer Eldridge Cleaver, and Neil hold a press conference to announce Cleaver’s 1968 bid for U.S. president. Cleaver ran on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.


 

And Now South Africa

Now retired, Neil lives in Johannesburg with his wife, Angela, and daughter, Latoya, both South African citizens. He volunteers twice a week at his parish’s school for fourth to seventh graders. It is a bridging school focused on helping second and third language speakers with English comprehension.

Additionally, Neil assists the youth pastor by developing programs aimed at engaging children from racially diverse parishes. It’s his way of giving black and white students the tools to come together.

“I am blessed that I can participate in a small way in their future,” Neil says. “Keeps me young.”

While Neil was working for the Episcopal Church’s national headquarters in New York City in 1990, he took a sabbatical to South Africa. It was supposed to last nine months. He stayed three years.

As part of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s staff in Johannesburg, Neil oversaw programs to help expatriates return to the country. With Nelson Mandela released from prison and apartheid in its waning days, the early 1990s were a period of historic transformation in South Africa. It felt all too familiar to Neil. His experience with American voter education programs proved invaluable as South Africa prepared for its first democratic elections in 1994.

“That was a special time,” Neil says. “Archbishop Tutu was so caring and supportive. He would send us flowers on our birthdays. I was always struck by how he could be around kings and queens and presidents, then immediately spend time with little kids. He just knew how to interpret every situation around him.”

After a detour coordinating ministries with the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Neil moved to South Africa permanently in 2005.

Life is slower in retirement, and trips to the United States are less frequent. Neil still follows U.S. news—Ferguson, Baltimore, Black Lives Matter—but he doesn’t have to look beyond his backyard to know that the struggle for social justice persists.

“It’s the same thing in South Africa—incidents of xenophobia, local South Africans arguing that people from Zimbabwe or Mozambique are stealing their jobs. It leads to violent confrontations, but it just gets called criminality,” Neil says. “No, you have to call it what it is. We need to respect everybody. Sure, you may never eradicate racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or religious intolerance, but you have to continue to press on and find solutions. You have to uplift people.”

Neil pauses, then smiles at the web camera.

“That’s my sermon.” 

Earl Neil ’57

Neil today, photographed by Thom Pierce

Comments

  • May 22 2017 at 7:47 am
    Michael Clarke

    I had the pleasure of working with Rev. Neil in Washington, DC and he is an amazing man!!!

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