You can make a difference
Essay by David George Ball, James City

On our first day at Yale my roommate and I dressed excitedly for an orientation dinner. The university secretary welcomed us: “Congratulations to each of you on matriculating. You are the future leaders of the country.” Many of my classmates came from privileged homes and elite boarding schools. As an immigrant from England and the son of a humble Baptist minister, I could hardly believe I was one of them. We belted out the alma mater, “for God, for country, and for Yale.” A
Promoting the lecture by Henry Ford. David Ball on right, Yale mascot Handsome Dan IX in foreground.
new friend, the assistant chaplain, deplored the apathy on campus with regard to urgent national problems. He said, “Last year we tried to organize a lecture series, but it never got off the ground. How would you like to try it, David?” I jumped at the opportunity. He mentioned a black minister in Montgomery, Ala., named Martin Luther King Jr., who had led a successful boycott of segregated public buses. Segregation was foreign to me. I had never met a black person before I came to America. But I loved hearing of a black Baptist minister who had accomplished something important. I invited him to Yale.

In January 1959, 2,000 people jammed into Woolsey Hall to hear the Rev. King describe the history of race relations in the United States. Although the Supreme Court had ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal, the nation failed to mobilize behind school integration. He chal leng ed us to join him. “Together we can make America truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We leapt to our feet applauding.

The next day I changed my major to political science. I didn’t mention the change to Mum because I didn’t want her to get upset. I still planned to become a minister. Our next speaker, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, was considering a run for the presidency. He said labor and management “have the glorious opportunity of cooperating together to create and share in economic abundance.”

Henry Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Co., arrived to answer Reuther. He argued that excessive union wage demands have an inflationary effect. Instead, the best way to increase economic growth was to bring the economic and political power of the unions within reasonable bounds. As a result of the crowds and extensive coverage in the Yale Daily News, I had become well-known on campus. This happened at a time when members of the junior class, like me, hoped for a bid from a senior society. On tap day, to my astonishment, I was invited to join the oldest and most venerable society. I had entered the inner circle at Yale, a world where everything seemed possible.

I bought a tux for a dinner at the University Club of Fifth Avenue, where I sat between Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, and Averell Harriman, former governor of New York. Excitement shot through me as I sat between these two famous men. I must choose between the ministry and a vague new aspiration to be a leader in the establishment. An intriguing idea grew. Why not apply to law school? I wasn’t sure, so I asked the new chaplain, Bill Coffin. He advised, “If you can possibly do something else, don’t be a minister.” What a shock! His advice swayed me, and ambition pulled. I decided to apply to law school. When I broke the news, Mum retorted, “You’ve been led astray!” But I didn’t feel led astray at all. I vowed to follow the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and help make the world a better place.

David George Ball of James City received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1960 and his law degree from Columbia University in 1964. He served as assistant secretary of Labor 1989-93.