A son remembers his father’s trust in God on a fateful day in 1957.
Posted in , Jul 19, 2020
I was talking to my friend Paul Ogden the other day about a courageous thing his father did in 1957, accompanying the African American students on their way to Little Rock Central High School, making their way through a hostile crowd to integrate that school for the first time.
“As I remember,” I said to Paul, “the first thing your father did that morning was pray.”
Paul himself is an extraordinary person, now professor emeritus of Deaf Studies at California State University, Fresno, with a vibrant faith and a passion for justice. His own book about growing up deaf, My Life of Language, is a treasure on my shelf. But in light of recent events, I was thinking of his father, Rev. Dunbar Ogden, Jr.
“He was a very humble man,” Paul said of his father. He had grown up in the South and was serving at Central Presbyterian, heading up the interracial Ministerial Association in Little Rock. Daisy Bates, who was looking for a safe way to shepherd the students into school had called up Rev. Ogden. Could he organize a group of white ministers, like him, to go with them that fateful day?
At first, he hesitated. Wasn’t this too political and not the realm of faith? Wouldn’t some of his congregation object? But then he and Paul’s mom prayed about it and indeed, Rev. Ogden called, as he later remembered, “perhaps a dozen” white clergy. Only one of them agreed to meet with the students the next morning, September 4, 1957.
(For these details I am deeply indebted to Paul’s brother Dunbar Ogden’s book My Father Said Yes.)
The question remained: What would Rev. Ogden do? Before he went to bed, he prayed again. He got up in the middle of the night and prayed some more, turning to Scripture for help. He knelt by his bed in the morning, as he always did, still in his pajamas and prayed some more. At the breakfast table his three boys were used to him leading them in prayer as they held hands (and Mrs. Dunbar mouthed the words so Paul and his deaf brother Jonathan could understand).
He read the 23rd Psalm, pausing—according to Dunbar—over the words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for thou art with me.” Then ate his oatmeal.
He put on his suit and tie and pocket handkerchief and drove with his 22-year-old son David to the meeting place. (Paul was only eight at the time.) Overcome with compassion for the students, he spoke to them, invoking the names of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Jesus Christ. Still, when he was asked if he would march with them, he didn’t know.
The answer came, as answers to prayer often do, with a feeling that welled up inside him. In that instant, he knew that this was the right thing to do. The fear drained from him. “All right,” he said, “we will go.” And he led that courageous group.
Alas, the students were not allowed into the school that day or for some time, not until President Eisenhower issued the order ensuring that the National Guard would support integration and protect the students. Still, when they finally did integrate Central High they faced much turmoil. One of them, Melba Pittillo Beals, recently told her story in Guideposts.
Paul, after seeing his father on the TV news that night, wanted to visit the school and Rev. Ogden took him to the site the next day.
Rev. Ogden is not someone you read about in history books. Like his son said, he was a humble man. He just happened to be called upon at a heroic moment. He might have made up a hundred excuses to not go, to say no.
Instead he prayed through his fears. He trusted God. Then said yes.