Professor, Western Kentucky University
2008 Alumni Achievement Award Winner
Alan Anderson '56 is a pioneer in opposing the American color line. "As a
young Methodist minister on Chicago's southwest side in the late 1950s,
I worked in community organization and opposition to segregation in the Chicago public schools," Anderson recalls. "Sometime later these efforts became known as the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the city."
It was his experience at Knox that sent him on his path toward social ethics. He entered Knox as a biology major, but quickly lost interest. He then "spent a wonderful sophomore year exploring history, literature, psychology, philosophy, and religion." He says it was religion and philosophy assistant professor Bill Matthews' capacity to make sense out of the frequently arbitrary, if not superstitious, Western religious traditions that proved persuasive.
"I can honestly say that I never had a bad teacher at Knox," says Anderson. In fact, he says that "the Knox faculty by example reconfirmed my decision to teach even while it set before me exciting alternative fields in which to pursue that career."
After graduating from Knox with a degree in philosophy, he continued his interest in religious studies at the University of Chicago, earning a bachelor of divinity in 1959, followed by a master of arts in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1975, both in social ethics.
Early in the summer of 1962, he answered a call to travel to Albany, Georgia, where he joined 45 other people on the steps of city hall. They prayed for civil rights and were thrown in jail for disturbing the peace. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined them at one point and commented that "it's always a mistake to imprison committed men because they have more time to plan the revolution."
"As an integrated group of mostly clerical northerners, our action was so unusual for that time that it made front-page news all over the country," says Anderson. "Several of the ministers lost their churches as a result, but it became the model for the better-known March on Washington a year later and the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965."
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Anderson led the Divinity School's participation in the civil rights movement and was the founder of the Methodist Interracial Council. He became the Council's representative to the emerging Chicago civil rights coalition, serving as the central figure in organizing King's 1965 visit to segregated neighborhoods. This visit resulted in a march of 25,000 people against the segregated school system and led to King's 1966 open housing campaign in Chicago.
After finishing his Ph.D., he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1975, where he offered the institution's first courses on racial justice and the civil rights movement, an accomplishment he was to repeat at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Wilberforce University (a historically African American university), and Western Kentucky University, where he currently serves as a professor.
He founded the Social Ethics Seminar after his first year teaching at the University of Chicago, a professional organization of his former students that he says is "designed to continue the discussion of racial and related social issues." The seminar continues to meet and publish articles today.
In 1986, Anderson co-authored Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, with George W. Pickering. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, won a Choice Award for academic book of the year, and received the 1986 Myers Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in the United States.
For his achievements in civil rights, Anderson was awarded the Knox College Alumni Achievement Award in 2008. He says that he is "pleased that the current generation of students at Knox and elsewhere evidences some reawakening to social issues. I urge them, however, to address these issues politically, as well as personally, in their social structural form."
"I encourage Knox students to give themselves fully to the Knox experience, both in class and out. It can change their lives, as it did mine."