A native of Pennsylvania, Duncan attended both the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama as an undergraduate. He married a Mississippi girl and proceeded to open her eyes and encourage her to take a clearer look at life around her. He also treated her as an intelligent human being and not "just a co-ed". As she grew accustomed to thinking things through, she found that his insights agreed strongly with underlying tenets she had been brought up on.
After they married and he enrolled in the University of Alabama, the town of Tuscaloosa flamed with violence as a young African-American, Arthurine Lucy, attempted to enroll. Ultimately, the trustees decided that her presence on campus caused the violence and refused her admission. In the aftermath, a few students and faculty formed "The Open Forum" as a haven for discussion of events occurring in the South. Many of the participants were from the north, but it was a mixed group. At one meeting, in the Episcopal Student Chapel, Klan members with guns burned a cross outside the building.
At this time, the Montgomery bus boycott was going on, and a young clergyman with a new doctorate was chosen to lead the group, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Duncan drove over to Montgomery to discuss the possibility of Dr. King addressing the Open Forum, but ultimately agreed this might prove inflammatory at this time.
When the National Guard was activated to enforce school integration in Little Rock, Duncan typed his own press credentials on student newspaper stationery and drove all night to observe personally. Very youthful looking at 22, he borrowed a student's ID card and was probably the only non-student who gained admittance to Central High School at that time. Insightfully, he also visited the Negro high school, talked to students there, and took pictures of their inadequate classroom equipment.
By this time, both Duncan and his wife had recognized that any really effective movement toward integration must include Southerners of both races, who better understood underlying relationships. They fled Alabama for Northern California and by 1961 had two baby daughters. Their first steps toward social action took them on a 5-day, American Friends Service Committee sponsored, Peace Walk from Sunnyvale to San Francisco, pushing the 11-month-old and 2-1/2 year old in strollers all the way. Subsequently they participated in several area AFSC-sponsored demonstrations.
Freedom Rides by Southern black students, marked by burning buses and jailings, were followed by similar groups from outside, including Southern California. When they attended a rally soliciting support and participants for a bus from the Bay Area, they both felt a deep response. Despite their sharing perhaps a deeper understanding of what was involved than other volunteers, they both realized that he must go. Leaving his wife with two babies and a full-time job, Duncan joined the integrated group which crossed the country by train, then boarded a bus in New Orleans for Jackson, Miss. (Interestingly, Fr. Grant Muse, Vicar of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, later to be their priest, was also in the group.)
As soon as they sat in the White Waiting Room as an integrated group, they were booked into the Hinds County Jail with previous riders. One goal had been to "fill the jails". That was thwarted by Governor Ross Barnett, who designated one cell block in the State Penitentiary at Parchman to be an extension of the Jackson facility. During this time, Dr. King appeared at a huge rally at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Laura sang in the massed choir. After the speech, she was taken forward and introduced personally to Dr. King. After 29 days, Duncan's group of Freedom Riders made bail and returned to California, hailed by many as heroes. Ironically, this was the first organized Freedom Movement participation for several Riders, and when, at a public reception the Sunday after their return, they were asked to sing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," a number of the group had to fake it, including both McConnells.
After graduation from Cal State/Hayward in 1962, Duncan enrolled at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. The McConnell family, including 2- and 3-year old daughters Kennan and Tarin, participated in sit-ins and church rallies in nearby towns. Coordinating many of these activities was a Howard undergraduate, Stokeley Carmichael, whom Duncan had met in jail. At one memorable rally, Stokeley grabbed the youngest McConnell, set her on his shoulders, and led a vigorous march around the church sanctuary as everyone enthusiastically joined in singing, clapping, and marching.
In June 1963 when Governor George Wallace made his famous "Stand in the schoolhouse door" against integration, Duncan borrowed a press card from a reporter on one of the African-American publications, and the whole family drove hastily southward. However, after being chastened for taking children to a location where there might be violence, plans were changed. Although Laura and the children would have been with friends far across Tuscaloosa, instead they spent three days in a SNCC Safe House in Atlanta. Significantly, that was the weekend Atlanta swimming pools were integrated, and the occasion of the fatal shooting of Medgar Evers, NAACP organizer and Freedom Movement supporter in Mississippi.
In August 1963 Duncan, Laura, and their small daughters all clustered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his thunderous "I Have a Dream" speech. By this time the children had learned all the songs!
It is gratuitous to mention that the Klan and the southern police were not the only threats to civil rights participants. In D.C. we discovered that a tap had been placed on the telephone in Berkeley before his Freedom Ride. There were a number of indications that the FBI monitored the family's communications and activities on both east and west coasts..
In early 1964, half-way through law school, Duncan dropped out, with several ambitious but unrealistic projects as reasons.
Sparing details, let it be said that Duncan's family history, biology, and many other factors led to his becoming severely emotionally disturbed. When he was unable (and sometimes unwilling) to follow through on treatment, the couple separated. Shortly afterward he returned to California, where he was repeatedly treated and released from mental institutions. Still able to show his intellect and unquestionable charm, much of his behavior in other areas degenerated into socially unacceptable patterns. At one time, he earned money to support his reading habits by sweeping out the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. He remained a voracious reader and enjoyed controversial debates all his life, despite large areas of irrational and confused thinking. And till the end of his life, that spark inside which redeemed the intellect and unborn, deep-seated sense of fairness and values in that southern girl continued to draw others to him, despite attendant communication problems.
Duncan died peacefully in his apartment in San Francisco in January 2009. According to his expressed wish, Tarin, Kennan, and Laura scattered his ashes on the waters of San Francisco Bay and said a final goodbye, after a separation of 45 years. May he finally rest in true peace.
— Laura Lansford