In mid-September I will travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the 50-year reunion of faith-based, anti-war activists known as the Milwaukee 14. This group of clergy and lay people, following the example of Catholic pacifist priests Dan and Phil Berrigan and their cohorts in Catonsville, Maryland some months earlier, burned draft files with homemade napalm and stood praying, singing, and waiting to be arrested. This act of civil disobedience on September 24, 1968, was one of many direct actions by people of conscience against the American war in Vietnam.
As a fresh college graduate, I had arrived in town a few weeks earlier to attend the University of Wisconsin on a three-year fellowship in English. Amidst circumstances I chronicle in my memoir, Poetry, Politics and Passion, I dropped out of graduate school to be part of the Milwaukee 14 defense committee and to work on a newspaper called The Catholic Radical. These are the credentials for my invitation to the events of the Milwaukee14 Today weekend.
Bob Graf, one of the “14” writes: “Fifty years later, we are engaged in some of the same struggles, and we are in need of this same moral courage. This celebration will remember the past but focus on how we can bring the spirit of 1968 and nonviolent direct action to current national crises.”
The impetus for writing today is the death of David McReynolds, so righteously reported on Democracy Now. I urge you to watch all parts of that show including interviews with people who knew him well and his own interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. In Union Square in New York City on November 6, 1965, McReynolds was one of five men who participated in the first of many public draft card burnings. This was right after U.S. law made such actions a felony, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
With only “volunteers” now in our fighting forces, young people are not as directly confronted with the choice to kill or not for their country’s wars. But in the mid 1960s, it was a decision required of every male once he turned 18. I was engaged to be married to a young man who destroyed his draft card, refused induction, and was sentenced to 18 months in Federal Prison in 1967. I’ll tell some of that story in my next blog.
Here is a quote from David McReynolds (1929-2018). His life may not be lauded, nor perhaps his death even noted, in our local newspaper, but I stand to honor him and the activism he continued for his entire life.
“Those of us in our 80’s … are needed, not to complain but to resist, to use the wisdom we have gained, often at a steep price, to stand for sanity in our world, and for a sense of compassion in our relationships.”