The Display of a Feather
by Rev. Will D. Campbell

Originally published in New South, January 1962

[The Manifesto of the Order of the Variegated Feather

Each summer from 1960 to 1963 Connie Curryrounded up about 20 of us and took us "up north" to wherever the National Student Association was going to meet for her Southern Student Human Relations Seminar. Meeting as equals with other students of a different "race" was illegal in most of the South, certainly in Georgia and even in progressive Atlanta, so the only way to pull that off was to leave the South. Connie's Seminars, sounding so very tame now, have yet to be fully explored.

There are about 60 members of the "Order of the Variegated Feather." We met as a small group for three weeks with Connie and Will and a rotating band of instructors who were the best minds of the country. My summer, 1962, we met in Columbus on the campus of Ohio State University. We had Ms. Ella Baker all to ourselves for a week! Anyway, among SNCCers who were also in Connie's seminar were Casey Hayden, Bob Zellner, Chuck McDew, myself, and possibly others. My friend Faye Powell of the Albany jail, "Dear Faye" letters was in the 1961 seminar with Bob Zellner. In fact of the 9 Albany Freedom Riders, three of us — Bob, Casey and I — were alumns of Connie's seminar. — Joan Browning]

Rev. Mr. Campbell, Associate Executive Director, National Council of Churches, closed the Southern Student Human Relations Project at the University of Wisconsin last fall with this advice on personal involvement.

Three weeks ago we met one another for the first time. We came assuming that because we were all liberal enough to sit down in the same room together that we were in common agreement on everything under the sun. For almost two weeks we played this game, weighing our every word and thought, ever cautious, careful, polite, courteous, agreeing, cooperative, lest in some unguarded moment we should skid into a blundering exposure of what was really going on in the very marrow of our bones.

Slowly we began to loosen our grip. Little by little it began to be apparent that we were not all in agreement not in accord as to what the problem is, what should be done about it and certainly not in accord as to how it should be done. Little by begrudging little the facade began to droop, the politeness began to melt away in the burning wake of honest hostility and the recognition of differences, differences which we did not choose but which in the accident of birth became our legacy. Though we have retained our guard, though we have not been able to leave not a rack behind, we have nevertheless approached a state of candor. In that process I trust that we have all be able to recognize the immensity of the problem and that agreement is not necessary for solution and that it is going to take many different people playing many different roles.

Three weeks ago we arrived with an assumed sophistication in the area of human relations. If any hint of that sophistication remains, the Seminar has failed you, for in the field of human relations sophistication is indeed a delusion, a mockery, and a snare. For human relations is about humans, and humans are mighty strange creatures, and the more you learn about them the more confused you become. There are no authorities, no experts in this field, for the variables of society are too numerous and the exigencies of history are too unpredictable for a science ever to evolve out of our endeavors.

If there are no specialists, no experts in human relations, then why do we bother? In five years of moving into every racial crisis in the South, I have asked myself that many times. I do not have an answer, but I believe it is because somewhere along the way I began to feel the tragedy of the South, and I keep trying because I have no choice under God but to behave as if the whole burden rests on my shoulders while knowing all the while that in five years I can see not one thing that I have personally accomplished. And so must you behave as if you will singlehandedly solve all her woes, but you must know that there will be times when all your human efforts, all strategies, all techniques, all movements will fail all human engineering will go lame and only your understanding of the tragedy will remain, only your ability to weep because you understand.

Human relations is about humans, and you can study humans with test tubes and slide rules, but what you are methodically able to calculate and observe has no bearing on human relationships. History helps, but actually humans have not been here on earth long enough to have a history to study. We just got here, and so far we haven't decided if we will stay or if we will not stay. Human relations begins with a point of view, a preconceived notion, a bias. Human relations is an effort to entice man to stay, not to destroy himself with himself. It is not a new field. It has been going on since tribal savages screamed over the hills through the night to the cave of another tribe and sought to destroy them not because they were different, though he thought they were different, not because they were dangerous to him, though he thought they were dangerous to him but the real reason was just because they were there.

But one morning coming home from battle one of those primitive savages stooped over and picked something up. It wasn't a rock with which he could make a bow, and it wasn't a stick which he could fashion into a spear. It was red and brown and yellow and green. It was pretty it wasn't worth a thing. He took it back to his cave and kept it because it spoke to his deepest feelings. But soon he knew that its beauty spoke forth only if he shared with his fellows. With this feather, civilization began and human relations began.

But that was too few years ago for us to claim to have a history; for we still storm through the night, over vast oceans and over narrow lunch counters, through the night at the other tribe with H-bombs and lead pipes and small baseball bats, and legislation and propaganda and closed schoolhouses and burning buses. We still scream over the hills at the other tribe not because he is different, though we with our higher intelligence and greater degree of civilization, our ability to reason rather than react on feeling alone, as did the primitive savage, we with our sciences and our technologies, are more than ever convinced that he is different and not because he is dangerous, though we are convinced that he is dangerous but really just because he is there.

Human relations is still, as then, the display of a feather ... the effort to say there is some other way that it doesn't have to be this way that the time is out of joint. Human relations, you see, really has to do with aesthetics. It has to do with that which is true, which is just, which is pure, lovely, gracious. It has to do with justice that unassailable fortress, built on the brow of a mountain which cannot be overthrown by the violence of torrents, nor demolished by the force of armies. It has to do with love, a virtue no force can shut in, for a tear will publish it to the loved. It has to do with ultimates where we came from, who we are and why we are here first and last with all men is the affair with the Almighty.

If human relations has to do with aesthetics, there can be no rules. We will all play different roles, for there is no one way. Some will march in picket lines and face the jeers of neighbors and the jails of peers. Some will seek and find other ways. As to how you involve yourself in the crisis I have no parting words of advice. But during the past few days I have become convinced that none of us can ever rest comfortably again until we find our place in the struggle. The role you play you must now go forth and find. In this moment of farewell, I say that your heart will not rest till it finds rest in personal involvement. And so ... goodbye.

Copyright © Will Campbell, 1962.

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