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William Sloane Coffin Jr, 81; Former Yale Chaplain and Civil Rights, Peace Activist

Obituaries

April 13, 2006|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a Presbyterian minister and social activist who was an outspoken leader of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and '70s, died Wednesday at his home in Strafford, Vt. He was 81.

The cause of death was not immediately known, his daughter, Amy Coffin, told The Times. He had suffered congestive heart failure, she said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Coffin obituary: The obituary of former Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. in Thursday's California section quoted John Silber, a colleague of Coffin at Yale, as saying "Kingman Brewster caught hell from the alumnae for appointing Bill." Coffin was appointed during the term of President Brewster's predecessor, Whitney Griswold. The story also said Williams College was in southwestern Massachusetts. It is in northwestern Massachusetts.

"My father was outside in the backyard with us, talking and laughing. Then he was gone," she said.

In recent years Coffin was stricken by several strokes but continued to participate from his wheelchair in public protest demonstrations, including one in the winter of 2003 before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Coffin emerged as a national figure soon after he was named chaplain at Yale University in 1958 and became an early supporter of desegregation. For the next 30 years he fought for progressive causes, first from Yale's Battell Chapel, later as senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City and then as head of SANE/freeze, a group that was opposed to the nuclear-arms movement.

"Bill was passionate, vocal and risk-taking about the enduring values, peace and justice," said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, who lived with Coffin and his family when she was a student at Yale Law School.

From the time she met him in the early '60s, Edelman said, Coffin was on the leading edge of key justice issues.

"In that era, Yale chaplains didn't go South to get arrested," she said.

"Bill was a fearless prophet," said the Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who first worked closely with Coffin in the Vietnam War era when they were both antiwar activists.

"Bill never gave up on challenging the power structures on the big issues," Regas said. "No one intimidated him."

Coffin was one of the first white Northerners in 1961 to join the Freedom Riders, who traveled through the South on interstate buses, monitoring enforcement of civil rights laws. He was arrested in Alabama during a protest demonstration against segregated bus stations, and again in Maryland and Florida when he demonstrated against public facilities that practiced discrimination against blacks.

"You've got to be rugged and determined and expect to take hard knocks if you're going to do a Christian's work in the world," he told a reporter in an interview after his first several arrests.

Journalists covering the contentious field of social justice through the '60s and '70s began to seek out Coffin on the Yale campus to take a closer look at the Ivy League minister who peeled through his neighborhood on a motorcycle and had a knack for creating controversy.

"Walking through the streets of New Haven with William Sloane Coffin Jr. is like being in a movie about a small-town folk hero," Jessica Mitford wrote, in one of several feature articles she wrote about Coffin's antiwar activities in 1967. "People come up to shake his hand, students run after him with urgent questions, old folks stop their cars to call out, 'Good luck, Bill!' and 'Howdy, Reverend.' "

Norman Mailer described Coffin's athletic build, his 6-foot-plus frame and broad features, in his 1968 book, "Armies of the Night, History as a Novel, The Novel as History." Despite an education that took him from Deerfield to Exeter Academy to Yale University, Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, Coffin's voice "sounded close to the savvy self-educated tones of a labor union organizer," Mailer wrote.

In public lectures and sermons, however, he was eloquent and provocative. "War is a coward's escape from the problems of peace," he told a Yale audience in 2003.

When a church group asked him about his frequent run-ins with the law, he said, "I can only reassure you that I don't like to go around picking fights. Some fights pick you."

Not everyone would agree with that. Once in a bar in Austin, Texas, Coffin pulled two brawlers apart. One of them had a broken beer bottle in his hand. The other had a knife.

"Bill ran between them and stuck his arms out straight. They could have cut him to ribbons," recalled longtime friend John Silber, who was on the Yale faculty with Coffin. "He looked at them with a fierce, determined look, eyes blazing like Moses coming down from the mountain," Silber said in a 2004 interview with The Times.

"Bill was quite physical," Silber recalled. "Thoughtful and physical both."

For his ruggedly handsome, engagingly flawed, humane if not always lawful behavior, he inspired the Doonesbury comic strip character, the Rev. Scot Sloan. In the late 1960s, after the most heated battles of the desegregation movement had passed, U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated and Coffin took on the war as his issue. While his colleagues at Yale had supported him through the civil rights era, his popularity there waned during the Vietnam conflict.

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