The Movement, more or less
A movement is a social river. It rises from remote tributaries and it is fed by hidden springs. It
waters the dusty plains of ordinary social life it crosses making many
things grow--weeds mostly, but also some rare and beautiful trees. Always it seems, it is badly polluted at the end, even when the sources were pure. In flood stage it is a wanton destroyer. At other times only the dry river bed is there to remind us of something that is likely to come again.
I wrote that paragraph one morning after 20 years of thinking about the movement I once belonged to. I suppose it is as close as I can come to a simple picture of the complexities and the strange contradictions of the movement.
started to think seriously about the movement while I was in the
federal prison at Danbury Connecticut in the winter of 1966-67, serving a
one year sentence for destroying a draft card. It was a quiet life in Danbury compared to the scene around the New York Catholic Worker where I had been the winter before. I had time to read and time to think. Mostly,
I thought about the movement which had occupied the years since I had
left the University of Chicago in 1958 and which had brought me to
prison once again. I thought about my life too and whether I wanted to give any more of it to the movement when I was out on the street again.
I got a letter that winter from a woman I had known in the civil rights movement. She was thinking about getting married, she said . . . what did I think ? What I thought was that I wished she would wait until I saw her again, but I couldn't say it. After 7 years in the movement I couldn't see even how to go about finding a normal life. The
movement had been my life and even though I was pulling away from it in
my thinking, I would find it very hard to fit in anywhere else. I
figured that I was virtually unemployable except within the movement,
which at that time was almost entirely volunteers with a few who worked
for subsistence salaries. A resume which listed prison
sentences for draft card burning and freedom riding and unpaid service
in Catholic Worker houses wasn't a passport to many jobs in 1967. Anyway, I wasn't at all sure that I could tolerate a normal life after the high times I had found in the movement.
first, I was mainly concerned with surviving the prison experience, but
I soon learned that the only real enemies I had there were the empty
days. My fellow inmates were easy enough to get along with. A
prisoner with a record of violence against other prisoners couldn't be
sent to Danbury, nor one with more than 5 years left to serve. So they were all fairly peaceable short-timers, like me. Many
of them belonged to the more refined class of criminal--counterfeiters
and bootleggers, government officials convicted of graft. There
were a number of respectable looking gentlemen in for tax evasion--some
businessmen, several lawyers and even one doctor--or so I was told.
There were other draft refusers in the prison also, and they helped me to feel more at home. About half of them were Jehovah's Witnesses--they are imprisoned in many countries for refusing military service. The others were from various backgrounds. They had become draft refusers as individuals, not because they were members of a group.
number of draft refusers in federal prisons was growing steadily as the
Vietnam War was escalated and the draft calls increased. What made this war different was that the resistance to the war was growing also. The
government had failed to put a lid on the anti-war resistance and the
peace movement, building on the success of the civil rights movement,
grew very rapidly that winter.
I wasn't actually a draft refuser, because I wasn't liable for military service. I had caught tuberculosis in 1959, working at a Catholic Worker house in the slums of Chicago and that gave me a permanent "4F" deferment. I
didn't burn my 4F draft card either, I merely tore it neatly in two at a
press conference in New York City in March 1966 which was called for
that purpose. But that was enough for the Justice
Department, which was still half-heartedly enforcing the new law against
draft card burning which Congress had passed in August of 1965 after a
wave of anti-draft demonstrations around the country.
early resistance to the Vietnam war was mainly carried on by a small
number of people who belonged to a half dozen long established religious
pacifist organizations. (Although most of those involved were too religious to belong to any religion.) Dave
Miller of the New York Catholic Worker became the first man arrested
under the new law after he destroyed a draft card in October 1965 at a
peace rally in New York City. He was already a draft refuser and one reason he destroyed the draft card was that he was tired of waiting for them to come and get him. The
draft card burning law actually gave draft refusers a weapon because it
allowed them to take the initiative instead of waiting passively--often
for years--for the consequences of their defiance. It also gave men who weren't eligible for the draft the chance to join the 20-year-olds in defying the government. It
had given me a chance I wouldn't have had otherwise to support my draft
refuser friends just by tearing up a piece of official cardboard.
was soon followed by others from the Catholic Worker, the Peacemakers,
the Committee for Nonviolent Action, and other groups. Pete
Kieger of the War Resisters League, who had already served a prison
sentence as a draft refuser, joined me in burning a draft card at the
March 1966 press conference. By the spring of 1967, the
government had given up trying to enforce the new law and draft card
burning, free from penalties, was on its way to becoming a fad.
the spring of 1967, a new group, The Resistance, had become the largest
anti-draft organization the American peace movement had ever seen. It seemed as if nonviolent resistance to war was actually going to be a great success.
Meanwhile, back in Danbury, I was trying to keep track of how fast the movement was growing. I
slowly became aware that the movement was also rapidly changing as it
grew and that it wasn't staying in the path marked out by the nonviolent
peace and civil rights movement.
The View from the Hill
Usually you can't belong to something and critically examine it at the same time. But in a way I was able to do both that winter. Just by being there in prison I was living up to my commitment to the movement. But my time was my own and I had a lot of it to dispose of, one way or the other. My body was still committed to the movement, but my mind was free to roam.
was nominally employed at the greenhouse, which was supposed to train
inmates so they could get a job in a greenhouse, when they got out. Most of the time there was very little work to do there and a surplus of manpower to do it. I hadn't picked up a book the year before, but that winter I read constantly.
Once in a while the greenhouse crew was let outside the gates to work on the flower beds in front of the prison. The prison sits on a high bare hill overlooking the countryside and the town of Danbury. (The hill is bare so they can see you if you take off.)
It seemed like I could see a long way from the top of that hill. It
was only a two hour drive to New York City where I had been caught up
in the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam war movement the year before. Boston was about the same distance off the other way. I had organized a peace team from the Catholic Worker to go there and deliver the anti-war message to College students. At one place they ignored us. At another they nearly mobbed us.
I did begin to get more of a perspective on the movement that winter. A
soldier off in one corner of the battlefield has little idea how the
battle as a whole is going and knows nothing about the rest of the war
except what he might pick up out of a newspaper. I hadn't
even read the newspaper the year before except when my friends and I
made the paper because of burning draft cards or something. A lot of people just assumed that was why we did it. Since you got your name in the paper, that must have been why you did it. They were right, of course. Actually it did have something to do with getting your name into the historical record book.
had been so caught up in the daily life of the movement that I had seen
little of it beyond what we were doing around the New York Catholic
Worker. Now at Danbury I had the time and the opportunity
to see how fast the movement was growing and what strange directions it
was starting to take.
I wasn't even aware of Black Power ! the
new slogan of the civil rights movement since June of 1966 when Floyd
McKissick and Stokely Carmichael began using it on the Meredith March
into Mississippi. Now at Danbury I began to catch up on the controversy it had created. I got letters and visits from old friends in the movement. Dianne Feeley wrote me from San Francisco about the Freedom School where she worked and where Malcolm Says had replaced Simon Says in a children's game. She
said that Black Power was a good thing because it would help the masses
of black people rather than just the few that the civil rights movement
I came across two articles from Commentary about Black Power. The black writer, Bayard Rustin, attacked it. The white writer, David Danzig, defended it. I later saw a column by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP in which he said that he had collected about 200 definitions of Black Power.
I came across a story in the New York Times which said that in the past
year nearly all of the civil rights workers belonging to SNCC, CORE and
the SCLC had left the South--no one was very sure for what reason. What was happening to the civil rights movement ?
I still thought of the movement as the nonviolent peace and civil rights movement--a moral crusade to which I had committed my life. My last prison term had been 4 & 1/2 months in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman as one of the freedom riders in the summer of 1961. Even
though I was now involved in the anti-Vietnam war part of the movement I
still thought of myself as belonging to a movement that made up a
spiritual whole, a movement that was for peace and justice and an end to
poverty, a movement that opposed the government of the United States on
Vietnam just as it had opposed the government of Mississippi on racial
peace and civil rights movements had come from the same sources and
there were many people in the early movement who, like me, had been
active in both movements. In fact people had always
thought of peace and civil rights as closely related issues which were
part of the focus of the movement. Only in the late 1960s did they become two separate movements.
big success of the civil rights movement from 1963 on and the related
success of the peace movement from 1966 on led to a rapid growth that
fundamentally changed the character of the movement. It opened the way for new movements such as the black nationalists, the new left, the hippies,
the feminists, the LSD revolutionaries, the sexual liberation advocates
etc. that were more rivals than supporters of the old movement. But they attached themselves to the movement and took it over or weighed it down or re-directed it in many places.
that winter marked the beginning of my attempt to understand the
movement and the changes it was going through, it was only years later
that I arrived at any real understanding of what happened. That
puzzling story from the Times about the withdrawal of civil rights
workers from the South was the start of what eventually became a 7 foot
stack of clippings about the strange doings that characterized the
movement in the late 1960s.
The Statue of Liberty Project
I got a close up view of the new wave of black nationalism from some of the black inmates in Danbury. Most
of them were in for ordinary crimes, but even some of these men were
finding a personal salvation in the new political creed. The Black Muslims offered a religious version of the black nationalist faith and recruited many of their adherents in prisons.
the close quarters of prison life, I overheard the earnest efforts of
black nationalists to recruit other blacks to the new banner--Your strength comes from your color. It goes right down to your roots. One fellow exclaimed: They want you to devote your life to being black ! He liked the company of whites and was resistant to the black separatist doctrine.
established a guarded friendship with one black militant who had been
convicted of a conspiracy to dynamite the Statue of Liberty. He and another black militant, plus a blond woman--who was acquitted, blonds
are always acquitted--plus a police agent--who could afford to be
enthusiastic about the project since he was being paid and also
guaranteed immunity from prosecution--had planned to blow up the great
symbol of American freedom to show how little that freedom had meant to
I had a series of arguments with Walter about civil rights and black power, violence and nonviolence. He was convinced that the issue was black versus white and that a violent showdown was inevitable. He argued that violence was the only way to settle such a fundamental dispute. The
real tradition of India wasn't nonviolence, he argued, it was the
tradition of the warrior Sikhs, the mastery of the martial arts. Walter
was training himself in the martial arts, as were many other inmates,
who lifted weights, worked out on the punching bag etc. Walter had learned karate. He showed me how you could completely disable a man with one well-aimed blow below the belt. Very un-Marquis of Queensbury.
Black and White
my service in the civil rights movement, he seemed to regard me as an
enemy that he was fraternizing with in the lull between battles. Especially at first, he was very suspicious that I was a police agent--his experience had made him somewhat paranoid. But it was his ideology that made him distrust me. If it had come down to black versus white, then I was a traitor to my own side, and traitors can't be trusted.
Some day you'll wake up and realize who you are ! he told me. That is, I would realize what side of the war I had to be on--the white side--just as he had to be on the black side. He
believed that the American government was on the verge of carrying out a
policy of literal genocide against the black population of the United
States and that armed readiness was their only hope for preventing it. When the white power structure concluded that it didn't need all that unskilled black labor--it will be the ovens, Man ! He was an intelligent and recklessly courageous man who sincerely felt that an apocalypse for his people was fast approaching.
After we were both released, I saw Walter again one time on the lower east side of New York City. He
had a wife and two children to support and the necessity of holding a
job seemed to have discouraged him from further participation in black
militant activities--which would have violated his parole. They've let me out into the big prison, but at least I can share it with my wife, he said. Here and elsewhere I have changed names or omitted last names. Especially with ex-prisoners there is always the risk of losing a job. I was fired from a job at NYU in 1971 after two FBI agents called on my boss to acquaint her with my Danbury days.
He was right in a way about my discovering which side I was on. Later
on, trying to make a living, trying to live in the only part of town I
could afford, I found myself sometimes caught up in a kind of war
between whites and blacks, or whites and Hispanics where just being
"white" made me a target. When blacks treat you as the
enemy because you are white, you are forced sooner or later to accept
the role and make the best of it. When you persist in treating anyone as an enemy, you make an enemy out of him, whether he was originally or not.
It's not hard to create a deadly polarization between one group and another--the basic potential for it is always there. It is much easier done than undone, and the individual on either side has little choice if he is caught in the middle of it. The option of standing apart from the battle, being above it all, turns out to be a luxury that you can't always afford.
you don't have the means to move to the nice part of town, away from
the battle zone, your choices are either to fight or to run--to live on
the run, as many people do. If you choose to fight, you find that the sides are already made up. Your skin color is a uniform you can't take off. And that is as true for a white man as it is for a black man. It
was even truer in the late 1960s because blacks were actually
encouraged to act out their anti-white feelings at a time when the
expression of anti-black feelings was effectively tabooed except among
lower class whites who were beyond the influence of polite society.
Testing Your Beliefs
Black Power wasn't the only thing on my mind that winter and Walter wasn't my only source for contrary ideology. I was really trying to think my way through my own beliefs and to find a way out of my own mental box. What drew me to people like Walter was that his opinions weren't just opinions. They were convictions he was putting his life on the line for. When you do that, it creates a kind of test that no laboratory can perform. Do I really believe this ? Am I willing to accept the consequences of this belief, even if it comes down to life and death ?
whole of the movement, even the parts that I came to feel hostile
towards, still has a fascination for me because of the many people whose
beliefs led them to experiment with their very lives. You
could say that they had the courage of their convictions, but it is
more accurate to say that they were the kind of people who were capable
of holding convictions that require courage to hold. The
reckless experiment, crazy and dangerous as it often is, also sometimes
leads to a kind of knowledge that can be achieved in no other way.
You can pass through your whole life holding certain opinions, thinking that you believe certain things. Somehow
you never get around to acting in accordance with those beliefs, so
they remain ready answers to standard questions--if anyone bothers
to ask. But
getting pushed to where you have to act as if you really believed what
you think you believe at once puts a weight on those beliefs, a weight
which they not be able to bear. If they pass the test, they acquire a validity they would never have had otherwise. If they don't pass--and usually they don't--you are at least free to leave the ruins of your old faith. You may not find a new one, but at least you aren't trapped in a deceit of your own making; living in a house of painted cardboard, which you believe to be stone--until the rains come.
has faith in the sense of believing in something you imagine to be
so--a place in your imagination where you can find what is missing from
life; a secret identity that you will some day reveal. But
what characterized people in the movement at its best was an active
faith--a fancy that insists upon finding its counterpart in the real
world, a dream you are determined to make come true. It's the difference between dreaming about your dream girl and calling her up to ask her for a date. You've decided that it has to be the real thing or nothing. That is why people in the movement went through so many changes in belief. That
is why an honest account of the movement can tell you things about
human life you could learn in no other way--things that people learned
the hard way; knowledge with a price tag on it that someone had to pay.
The Right Wing Draft Refuser
Danbury prison centers around a field used for various sports, with a walkway encircling the field. In
good weather you could exercise by walking around the circle and
usually find a conversation with some other inmate doing the same. I wasn't usually so sociable, but the monotony of prison life forces you to find ways to pass the time. And
other inmates were up against the same problem, so the walkway was a
kind of peripatetic school for finding out where the other fellow was
at--what base or noble folly had put him in the slammer. (Although you never asked directly what are you in for ? You waited for the information to be volunteered or maybe you learned it from other inmates.)
I spent more time walking around with Mack--at a fast clip--than with anyone else. He was a hyper-energetic young guy who was doing very hard time. He had naively expected to win his case and hadn't been ready for prison. The
first time they turned him down for parole, he had climbed the water
tower in the second yard and sat up there all afternoon smoking
cigarettes one after the other. They left him alone because they were afraid he would jump, but he only wanted to get away from the prison for a while. He came down when he ran out of matches and asked the guard for a light.
I classified him as a right wing draft refuser, but I never met anyone else to add to the category. He was a classification of one.
struck me about his case was that he had done just what a Christian
pacifist / anarchist would do but for different reasons. He
had openly refused the draft, made no attempt to evade it or to run
away from prosecution, and had faced the judge without a lawyer, because
he wished to argue his position on his own principles.
He believed that the Vietnam war was wrong because it wasn't being fought as a war. The government was conscripting young men like Mack and sending them off to get killed or crippled. But
it wouldn't even declare that is was a war, wouldn't carry the war to
its sources, wouldn't use any of its super weapons, and wouldn't call
upon the American people to commit themselves to a whole-hearted war
effort. The Johnson Administration had deliberately played down the Vietnam enterprise. It needn't undercut any of his domestic programs. The nation could have guns and butter too--so
long as fellows Mack's age didn't object to throwing away their lives
in a half-hearted enterprise while everyone else went on with business
Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand
Mack had been an ardent supporter of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964. Goldwater's defeat came about primarily because he was seen as a hawk compared to Lyndon Johnson. But
Mack felt that Goldwater would have fought the war as it should have
been fought and that Johnson's Vietnam policy was fundamentally wrong. What article of the Constitution gives the government the right to draft a man without a declaration of war ? ! he demanded of the judge. All of them the judge curtly replied and gave him a 1-6 year sentence--a zip six as the inmates called it. In fact, only since World War II has the United States had a permanent military draft, even in peace time.
Mack's opposition to conscription went deeper than the constitutional argument he had tried on the judge. Many of his ideas came from the books of Ayn Rand. He drew on Atlas Shrugged as if it were a bible. Ayn
Rand opposes conscription as a kind of slavery and there is an
anti-government attitude in her writing that is tantamount to anarchy. Mack's
basic idea was individual freedom and that was the basis of his
opposition to conscription rather than pacifism or the ideal of
But their ideas never fully account for people and explain why they do what they do. The ideas suggest a direction and they provide a psychological support structure for a frightening decision. But
the decision is made on another level and the momentum necessary to
carry it out is emotional and spiritual rather than intellectual. There were millions of Goldwater supporters and thousands of Ayn Rand readers who never felt called upon to defy the draft. So
also there were thousands of black militants in the 1960s who managed
to restrain their militancy so that it didn't land them behind bars. Most
Christian pacifists found alternatives to the personal confrontation
with the war machine which some would argue was the logical implication
of their position.
it was that impelled us, those of us on the inside tacitly recognized
that we had something in common with one another that was more basic
than what we supposedly had in common with our ideological fellows on
the outside. That was one of the things I began to think about that winter at Danbury.
The Shirley Temple Fan
One Sunday afternoon, Mack and Dave and I worked the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. It took us all afternoon to do it, but we weren't pressed for time. Dave came up with a whole line that neither Mack nor I could get: onthegoodshiplollypop. Dave was a black draft refuser who was rapidly becoming an ardent black nationalist. Several years later, I saw his name in the membership list of a Black Panthers chapter near his home town. I presumed it was him. Unlike his friend and mentor, Walter, Dave never seemed to want to talk to me although he was friends with Mack. I think I threatened his new black nationalist faith in a way. He
couldn't very well exclude me from a movement I had been in long before
he had, but neither could he accept the idea that I could legitimately
be part of a movement that should include all of the black people and
exclude all of the white people. They were assigned the role of enemy in his ideology. He
tried to be friends with all of the other black inmates in Danbury and
to shun the company of whites in accordance with a basic belief that all
blacks were his brothers and all whites were his foes. And
yet he obviously found it difficult to like all the blacks he was
supposed to like and to feel a proper hostility to all whites. I
last saw him the afternoon he left Danbury, looking the way everyone
looked when confronting the exhilarating but also frightening prospect
of being out on the street again--tense. don't take any wooden revolutions I advised him, but I think my good advice went unheeded.
Living Up to Your Belief
Dave's problem illustrates the problem of anyone in the movement--the problem of trying to live up to your belief. A believer in nonviolence might suddenly find himself yielding to a violent rage. A believer in violent revolution might discover that he had no stomach for violence. An
anarchist might discover in himself an affection for the President and a
hope for what his administration might achieve that was entirely at
odds with anarchist belief. A young red might discover
that he really believed in Americanism deep down, despite his sincere
attempt to believe something contrary. A radical feminist, committed to a movement which intended to smash monagamy ! might find herself longing for love and marriage. The apostle of sexual freedom discovered that the only woman he wanted was the wife who had divorced him. The
fellow who discovered the peace he wanted on the communal farm then
realized that he really wanted a private place and that he missed the
excitement of the city.
As a follower of the Catholic Worker movement, I supposedly believed in poor people as the first children of the church. In an unjust society, the poor were justified by their poverty. A Christian had an obligation to love the poor, to take up
their cause against the rich and powerful who kept them poor by the wasteful materialism of their lifestyle. The luxuries of the rich are taken from the necessities of the poor. The
poor were the good guys of history, the hammer which would break up the
old society; the foundation upon which the new society would be built.
A Nasty Bunch
But my first intense involvement with poor people,
when I ran a Catholic Worker house in the slums of Chicago, had shown
me that I didn't even like poor people, much less love them. I liked a few of them, and some of them, freed from the constraints of polite society, had developed into remarkable characters. But they weren't the good people they were supposed to be. On
the average they seemed to be worse than the more prosperous people for
whom they were supposed to provide a moral antithesis. Where middle class people were nice in an insincere way, lower class people were nasty in a sincere way. I once heard a young lady volunteer at the New York Catholic Worker remark in a candid outburst: We have the nastiest bunch of old people around here ! (I won't tell you who said it, but she said it with an English accent.) Moreover,
if they were the victims of social injustice, it was also apparent that
their own folly and their own vices tended to keep them where society
had put them. And most of them were even more boring than the middle class people I was trying to get away from.
I tried to get a better look at the changing movement that winter. It wasn't only intellectual curiosity. It was a vital matter to me because my life had been so completely entwined with the movement. I was really striving to get a perspective on my own life.
It was life itself that I didn't understand. At 22, when I had plunged into the movement, I had felt that now at last I had the right answers to life. I knew what life was about, and, more importantly, I knew what my life was about. But through the years my good answers had somehow turned back into questions--questions that I couldn't answer; questions that led to new questions which hadn't occurred to me before.
Belonging to the movement had given me a perspective on life I wouldn't have had otherwise. Even if it wasn't the one right perspective--as I had once believed--it was a perspective. It
did provide a certain distance from ordinary life and thus a viewpoint
from which some basic features of life could be better seen.
I had gone right from the University into the movement--from one special situation into another. My direct experience of life had been very limited. When I did begin to wake up to the facts of everyday life, I encountered them at first as novelties. The
changes in the movement, which were so contrary to the original spirit
of it, turned out to be, at least in part, a subversion by everyday life
of something that had tried to be different. The new spirit that appeared in the movement turned out to be an old and familiar spirit.