EMORY MEDALIST CHARLES HAYNES 71C 85G
BY PAIGE P. PARVIN 96G
IT WAS THE MIDDLE of the night on May 26, 1969, and sophomore Charles Haynes 71C 85G found himself in a most unlikely situation: shivering in the dark at the front door of Lullwater, unannounced, in hopes of an audience with President Sanford S. Atwood.
When the heavy, arched door swung open to reveal the University president in his bathrobe, Haynes says, the conversation that followed would shape his future scholarship and ultimately his life's work.
Haynes' late-night call on President Atwood was spurred by the gathering climax of a three-day protest by African American students who alleged deep-rooted, pervasive institutional racism at the University. Specifically, they sought the appointment of a ranking black administrator at Emory, which had officially desegregated in 1963 with the arrival of nursing students Verdelle Bellamy and Allie Saxon.
The demonstration began on Sunday, May 25, when members of a nascent Black Student Alliance disrupted University Worship to raise their concerns. They then moved to Cox Hall, where they blocked the food lines. By late Monday, President Atwood was losing patience with the situation and had obtained a restraining order from the Georgia Superior Court, which he planned to enforce the next day.
"The protest caught a lot of people off guard," Haynes remembers. "There was no sense of violence, but there was a very high level of tension. . . . Our challenge at that moment was, how do we address legitimate concerns and issues without falling into a pattern of violence or hate?"
Coming from a background shaped both by progressive social views and Christian principles, Haynes was an idealist already deeply committed to civil rights. Though only a sophomore at the time, he was president of the Student Government Association, a role that swiftly changed from a practice ground for his fledgling leadership skills to a real-life test of his political acumen and diplomacy. Hoping to avoid a confrontation between the African American students and police, he called on the leaders of various student groups to try to come up with a solution, but to no avail.
"Finally, it occurred to me that the only thing to do was to go to Dr. Atwood himself and try to find some common ground, to find a breakthrough," Haynes says.
As they talked, Haynes heard the president say the words that ultimately became the key to resolution: Of course there is racism at Emory. That simple acknowledgement--and the administration's intention to address it--were at the heart of a statement Haynes and Atwood drafted that night, finishing close to dawn. The next day, Atwood read the statement to a packed Glenn Auditorium, and the wave of tension receded.
"That was a defining moment, one of the most wonderful moments of my life," Haynes says. "I didn't think about it being something I would do with the rest of my life, but it really began my life's work."
THE LATE-NIGHT VISIT to President Atwood, and the watershed town hall meeting that followed, taught Haynes that he had a gift for finding common ground. His particular talent for helping groups with disparate viewpoints reach peaceful coexistence--if not harmony--has become the guiding force in his career as a scholar of religion and the First Amendment.
As senior scholar for the First Amendment Center, an arm of the Freedom Forum foundation that originated at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Public Policy Studies, Haynes works to protect and promote religious liberty in schools and in American public life. Does the Bible belong in the classroom? Does a moment of silence violate students' rights? Can there be a Christmas tree in the school lobby? Haynes has spent the past decade exploring questions like these with a philosopher's deliberation, reaching back to the Constitution, U.S. history, and the founding principles of the pilgrims to find answers that are true to the most fundamental American ideals.
Haynes is the author or co-author of six books, including The First Amendment in Schools and Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools , resources that were sent by President Bill Clinton to every public school in the U.S. in 2000.
"We needed national agreements to provide a safe harbor where communities could reach their own common ground," Haynes says. "These principles don't belong to lawyers and judges, but to the American people. What is legal is important, but what is right for our communities is more important."
Haynes also conducts training and mediation in public schools around the country. Last year, for instance, the holiday season took him to Plano, Texas, where something as seemingly innocent as candy canes had thrown an elementary school into chaos. A student wanted to pass out candy canes with a religious message attached, but the school refused to allow it. The parents of the child, claiming administrators were hostile to their religious faith, sued the school.
Yet, "These things are never about the candy canes or the nativity pageant," Haynes says. "It's really about, whose schools are these, and more deeply, what kind of nation are we? Many feel that our public schools are where we define ourselves as a people. These issues trigger deeply felt emotions on all sides."
While many public schools have dealt with conflict by pushing religion out the door altogether, Haynes contends that to remove all traces of religious practice from the educational sphere is to misinterpret the Constitution. Rather, he seeks to foster a civil public school where student religious expression is protected as long as it does not violate the rights of others.
"The aim," he says, "is to create a unity that is in the interest of our diversity."
WHILE HAYNES is thoroughly versed in the First Amendment and the law, he brings another perspective to his work: He is, at heart, a theologian.
Even as a small child, Haynes seemed to have a deeply spiritual nature; he showed a commitment to the Christian tradition beyond his years. "I don't remember a time in my life when I wasn't really interested in God," he says.
Born in 1949 in Durham, N.C., Haynes moved with his mother, brother, and sister to Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he was seven and then attended middle school in New York City before returning to South Carolina for the latter part of high school. His mother, an actress with a searching spirit, eventually took over the management of a spiritual retreat in Myrtle Beach.
It was on a visit there, when Haynes was eight years old, that he had the rare chance to meet an Indian spiritual leader, Meher Baba. Although he was a shy child and had never seen Meher Baba before, Haynes ran right into his arms.
"I feel very much that [that experience] shaped the rest of my life," Haynes says. "To have that encounter at such a young age with someone who was giving his life in service to others, in a way that was far beyond anything I had ever imagined."
When it was time for Haynes to consider college, Emory--then the academic home of Thomas Altizer, the religion professor famous for stirring a national debate with his declaration that "God is dead"--was the only place he wanted to go.
"I think it was because I read about Emory as being a hotbed of discussion about God," he says. "I wanted to be where the action was. It did not put me off at all that the headline on the cover of Time magazine was 'God is dead.' It just provoked me to be interested."
Haynes also landed at Emory at a time when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were causing upheaval at universities around the country. "It was a very powerful time," he recalls. "Many of us felt a moral obligation to speak out and get involved, and some of our professors really encouraged us."
One of those was ethics professor Jack Boozer, whom Haynes remembers as a major influence on his moral growth and self-awareness. Boozer, he recalls, nurtured the social activist in all his students.
In addition to serving in student government, Haynes worked as the editorial page editor of the Emory Wheel , joined the Emory Players, and at Commencement received the Britain Award, one of the highest student honors.
Haynes went on to attend Harvard Divinity School with the idea of exploring the ministry; but he came to realize that to be a leader of one religious faith would prove too confining. He came back to Atlanta and taught high school and middle school for a time, before his old professor and friend Jack Boozer convinced him to return to Emory for a Ph.D. in theological studies.
Gradually, Haynes began to carve out a niche for himself as an expert on religious liberty, working with groups like Americans for the Separation of Church and State and as executive director of First Liberty Institute at George Mason University. He also participated in the 1988 Williamsburg Charter effort, a reaffirmation of the First Amendment and religious liberty ultimately approved by leaders of all major U.S. faiths. In 1994, he approached the Freedom Forum and joined the organization as a visiting scholar before becoming senior scholar two years later.
"Charles is a truly great American," said Walter H. Beckham 70C 77L, the classmate who nominated Haynes for the Emory Medal. "It seems we do not often have the opportunity to recognize a theologian, much less one with a deep and abiding Emory relationship and such an outstanding record of diverse public and community service."
Ironically, Haynes' work to protect the freedoms of others sometimes brings him to the defense of those who are at odds with his own beliefs.
In recent months, the issue of sexual orientation in schools has escalated to a boiling point in many parts of the country, with particular focus on whether gay students should be allowed to convene in clubs typically known as gay-straight alliances. As a scholar of the First Amendment, Haynes advocates for their right to organize. But he must equally support the rights of those students who object, often on religious grounds.This particular debate strikes a sensitive chord for Haynes, who is gay.
"In every effort I've made to work for common ground, I've had to be careful not to bring my own views into the picture, to be the honest broker for the conversation," Haynes says.
One of the most devoted admirers of Haynes' ability to negotiate differences is his partner of more than sixteen years, Christopher Wilson, an art historian. "Somehow, Charles is able to bring together groups from across the spectrum," Christopher says. "He has a way of helping them find something they agree on."
In the bright living room of their Alexandria townhouse, surrounded by antiques and the religious artifacts they collect, Charles and Christopher serve lemonade and try to keep cool on one of the hottest days in recent history. Not that the two actually do much relaxing, what with Elsa, their aging black lab; Jefferson, their wriggly puppy (named for Thomas, their favorite president); and Jose the bird vying for their attention. But for Haynes, home is a refuge.
"I could not do any of this work if I could not come home and know how much I'm loved and accepted for who I am," Haynes says.
Perhaps Haynes also is bolstered by the memory of the shivering Emory College sophomore who was bold enough to knock on the president's door in the middle of the night, and found that it opened.
Verdelle Bellamy profile
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