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Rev. John Crocker Jr., 88; activist, college chaplain

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 6, 2012
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Joining 14 other Episcopal clergy, both black and white, the Rev. John Crocker Jr. stepped into the segregated restaurant of a Jackson, Miss., bus station in September 1961. Traveling by bus on a civil rights prayer pilgrimage, the group’s journey quickly detoured into a Jackson jail for several nights.

“We were these little conservative Episcopal clergymen with round collars on, and we were the least revolutionary people you could imagine,’’ Rev. Crocker recalled in an interview for Eric Etheridge’s book, “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders.’’

Local police thought otherwise and had been arresting Freedom Riders who tested the resolve of the segregated South by trying to integrate public places. Refusing orders to leave the restaurant, the clergymen were arrested on breach of peace charges.

“Jackson officials and police asked us: ‘Why did you come down here to mess us up? You’re New Englanders,’ ’’ Rev. Crocker said in the book interview. “ ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought I was an American first.’ ’’

Rev. Crocker, a civil rights activist and Vietnam War opponent while serving as a chaplain at Brown University and at MIT, died last Friday in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. He was 88 and in the late stages of dementia.

Arrested in Mississippi while he was a chaplain at Brown, Rev. Crocker moved to MIT a decade later. While there, he wrote a 1971 entry for the 25th report of his Harvard class and listed a litany of societal ills, from the escalating Vietnam War, to rising unemployment and inflation.

Despite the challenges, he wrote, “there is hope and we all know it. Only those afraid of change are scared and angry. Fear is at the root of most of our failures to love, to do justly, and to walk humbly with the rest of mankind and with God.’’

Social justice activism was part of his family heritage, and so was a life of privilege. His grandfather was a wealthy paper manufacturer, and his father, also an Episcopal priest, was the second headmaster of the Groton School.

The elder man led Groton when the school admitted its first black student in the early 1950s. From his father, Rev. Crocker gained the sense that he should give back to society, even though his family’s social circles included many who were wealthy and not quick to take up social causes.

“They called him ‘parlor pink’; He never gave up that commitment to social justice,’’ said his son Matthew of Bernardston. “He was a funny character in a sense that he was very, very proper Boston, yet at the same time he was kind of a heretic during the ’60s. He’d hang out with all these Republican friends of his who were part of the establishment, and at the same time, he’d have Noam Chomsky over.’’

Born in Oxford, England, when his father was pursuing postgraduate studies, John Crocker Jr. was an accomplished sailor and athletic all his life. He graduated from the Groton School before serving as captain of his Harvard hockey team.

“He was a very passionate guy who was incredibly competitive,’’ his son said. “I didn’t beat him at tennis until he was 80.’’

At Harvard, Rev. Crocker was a member of the class of 1946, but graduated two years later because he took time off to serve in the US Navy as a pilot during World War II.

He married Elinor Winslow in 1946, and after Harvard they lived for a few years in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Newton while he taught in schools.

“I think during that period he was always contemplating God and Christianity as a profession,’’ his son said. “When he came back, it wasn’t because he didn’t know what else to do. He came back with a purpose. He had reached his faith.’’

Rev. Crocker graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge and served as a curate at Trinity Church in Boston before becoming a chaplain at Brown, where he stayed from 1958 to 1969.

He kept examining his own beliefs, though, and did not have to look far to find an intellectual foil for his contemplations.

“My mother did not believe in God,’’ his son said. “She never did. She would go to church and be a good preacher’s wife, but she never lied about not believing in God. I think he liked that. I think he challenged his faith all the time and liked being tested like that.’’

While serving as a chaplain at MIT until 1977, his Vietnam War protests included banding with four other clergy at one point to publicly withhold part of their federal taxes.

“I think you might say that he saw a strong connection between thinking about God and our acting in the world,’’ said the Rev. Scott I. Paradise, who was among the other tax-withholding clergy, and who succeeded Rev. Crocker as an MIT chaplain. “These things were meant to be together, not separated.’’

After MIT, Rev. Crocker moved to Princeton, N.J., where he was rector of Trinity Church until retiring in 1989. There he continued to focus on activism. He led an antinuclear group to the large Central Park protests in New York City in 1982.

His wife died in 1986, and the following year he married Agatha Littlefield. They lived in West Kingston, R.I., after he retired. He moved to Cambridge after she died in 2009.

While still rector in Princeton, he spoke with The New York Times about finding inspiration for a Christmas sermon.

“A few years ago I was lying in a field in Maine, looking up at the sky on a gorgeous August night,’’ he said in December 1982. “In the midst of looking up at this awe-inspiring and mysterious sky, I was overcome by the presence of God. What this really was, was a kind of breakthrough of the beauty of nature through God, perhaps like what the shepherds experienced when they were looking at the stars.’’

In addition to his son Matthew, Rev. Crocker leaves another son, John III of New York City; a daughter, Norrie of Glasgow; two sisters, Margaret Ives of Newton and Mary Strang of Meeker, Colo.; a brother, William of Cambridge; two grandchildren; seven step-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will held at 2 p.m. Monday in Christ Church in Cambridge. Burial will be private in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

During a life devoted to social justice, Rev. Crocker remained undaunted by the world’s problems and the enormous work of social activism.

“I’m not a gloom and doom person,’’ he told the Globe in 1976.

“I think things may get a lot worse,’’ he said, adding that “we are human beings and we do have some foresight.’’

“We are responsible for what happens in this world,’’ Rev. Crocker said. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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