For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the birth of activist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Born July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau’s influence on American culture has persisted well beyond his time. His observations contributed significantly to the field of natural history, and many of his observations anticipated future discoveries in ecology. The transcendentalist philosophy which he followed believed in the inherent goodness of individuals, a deep suspicion of the corrupting influence of society and institutions, and the value of self-reliance and personal freedoms -- it is not hard to find reflections of those beliefs in various forms across contemporary American culture today. His account of his Walden years still continues to inspire experiments in off-grid homesteading and alternative lifestyles. But for the pacifist movement, it is his tax resistance and the development of his concept “civil disobedience” that holds a special relevance.
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau began his famous experiment at Walden Pond on property owned by the unofficial leader of the transcendental movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the transcendentalist tradition, Thoreau’s goal was to live simply and self-sufficiently in nature in order to develop a more objective perspective of society. He used this time to observe, think, and write about the relationships between individuals, between individuals and society, and between people and nature. A staunch lifelong abolitionist, in 1840, Thoreau had started refusing to pay taxes in protest of slavery. About one year into his stay at Walden Pond, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, who demanded the unpaid poll taxes of the last six years. Citing slavery and the recently begun Mexican-American War, which many abolitionists considered a Southern invasion into sovereign lands to expand slavery, Thoreau refused to pay and spent a night in jail. Against his wishes, a family member paid his back taxes and he was released the next day.
That encounter with the State affected him greatly; two years after the incident, Thoreau delivered lectures in Concord, MA that would become the basis of his famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” also known as “Civil Disobedience.” In it, he wrote: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight… If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” He frames the individual’s moral relationship with the State in binary terms: either you support the State through paying taxes, thus literally financially supporting the violence and brutality of the State; or you withhold your taxes from the State and sleep well knowing that no one has been hurt or killed with your tax dollars. It is also worth noting that despite the transcendentalist tendency to prioritize the importance of the individual, Thoreau nevertheless clearly states that collective action, even amongst a minority, is the only method for nonviolent revolution. Even more, he seems to say that a collective refusal of the State is the definition of a peaceful revolution. Much of the rest of the essay concerns the individual’s spiritual and physical struggle with the State, but here, Thoreau is explicit about the necessity for individuals to take action collectively in order to establish a truly just government.
Henry David Thoreau was not strictly speaking a pacifist. Indeed, after John Brown’s violent and ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution, Thoreau is credited for being the first person to publicly support John Brown’s actions, even as other abolitionists tried to distance themselves from Brown. But his concepts of collective nonviolent action as a viable means of revolution have reverberated and inspired pacifists across the world: to Russia, where Leo Tolstoy developed the ideas even further using anarchist philosophy and Christian theology; to India, where Gandhi successfully led the independence movement from the British Empire by means in-part inspired by “Civil Disobedience”; back to the United States, where “Civil Disobedience” inspired the modern war tax resistance movement promoted by the Peacemakers and CNVA; to the South, where the Civil Rights Movement famously and spectacularly employed the strategy to end segregation and voting disenfranchisement. Now, individuals are coming together to pull down statues, to form police-free neighborhoods, and to form mutual aid societies. Civil disobedience has developed beyond what Thoreau probably could have imagined. Sprung from a simple act of tax refusal and a single night in jail, for all that this little idea of civil disobedience has accomplished -- for all the people that this idea has liberated, spiritually and physically -- we hope that Thoreau would be proud.
“Henry David Thoreau: A War Tax Resistance Inspiration” https://nwtrcc.org/2014/07/10/henry-david-thoreau-a-war-tax-resistance-inspiration/
“Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience’” https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/thoreau-and-civil-disobedience
Whitman, Karen. “Re-evaluating John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry” http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh34-1.html
Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government.” Ed. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Aesthetic Papers. https://archive.org/details/aestheticpapers00peabrich/page/n209/mode/2up
Thoreau, H. D., letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 23, 1848. http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/project_resources_additions/c1.344-350.pdf
For this week’s Peace of History:
Fifty-six years ago today, the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; enforced the equal application of voter registration requirements; and prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations -- signaling an end to the Jim Crow era in the Southern United States. Most of us know the basic touchstones: Rosa Parks, Dr. King, lunch counters and buses, marches and hoses, “I have a dream…” But those are the singular, dramatic, snapshot moments we know from photos, transcripts, and mythology -- compressing a long and still-unfinished movement into a mythical long-ago.
As we look around today, with a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic, a looming financial collapse, and decades of racist police brutality and incarceration serving as the backdrop of the beginning of a new social justice uprising -- it is easy to lose a sense of how much time and work it takes to achieve justice. Social movements can last for years, even decades, and are composed of several interrelated campaigns, one often inspired by another. Campaigns have specific goals, and achieving those goals can take weeks or months of sustained effort -- and all that takes organizing and time. About three weeks ago, Instagram user gotgreenseattle posted an image reminding us of that fact. Let us meditate on how long these famous historical campaigns lasted, and what it might have been like to be in the participants’ shoes:
At this moment, we are writing a new chapter in the history of civil rights in this country. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955, people across the country were inspired to participate in direct action campaigns for racial justice for the next 9 years and beyond, forcing the conscience of the country to face its racist reality and getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. Similarly, activists across the country have been pulling down or forcing the removal of racist statues from public areas in the wake of the George Floyd protests -- after years of debate, there’s been a tidal shift, and now statues are coming down left and right. Things seem to be happening so quickly these days -- and in a sense, they are. But if we want this movement to go beyond mere symbols, we must organize and press on with more campaigns and more demands. The time for sign-waving protest is drawing to a close; it is time to learn, organize, and take action.
NOTE: On June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protection against workplace discrimination based on sex also applies to gay and transgender workers. This decision was announced days after President Trump announced the removal of nondiscrimination protections for trans and gender nonbinary people with regards to healthcare and health insurance -- in the middle of a pandemic. The only way to protect trans, nonbinary, and all vulnerable people is to organize, take action together, and strap in for the long haul.
“Birmingham Campaign” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/birmingham-campaign
“Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/15/us/gay-transgender-workers-supreme-court.html
“CORE Volunteers put their lives on the Road” http://www.core-online.org/History/freedom%20rides.htm
“Freedom Rides” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/freedom-rides
“Montgomery Bus Boycott” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/montgomery-bus-boycott
“Transgender Health Protections Reversed By Trump Administration” https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/12/868073068/transgender-health-protections-reversed-by-trump-administration
For this week’s Peace of History:
On June 27, 1905, 200 delegates gathered together in Chicago and founded a new kind of union: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike the other unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) -- which exclusively focused on protecting the interests of White male workers in “skilled” trades -- the IWW wanted to build “one big union” to represent all workers in all industries: women, Black workers, non-White immigrant workers, as well as white workers in “unskilled” trades. They called this idea “industrial unionism,” as opposed to the more common “craft unionism.” Indeed, although there is no direct mention of racial justice in the founding meeting minutes nor the founding manifesto, the IWW’s commitment to their slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” led Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP, to write in 1913: “There are two organizations in this country that have shown they do care about full rights for the Negro. The first is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People… The second is the Industrial Workers of the World… The IWW has stood with the Negro.”
Many Americans have the view that trade unionism and left politics generally are almost exclusively white male spaces, historically as well as now. The IWW, or “Wobblies” as they came to be known, is one of many counterexamples to this narrative. Present at that founding meeting were several luminaries of the American Left at the time, reflecting a diverse mix of socialist and anarchist schools of thought: Mother Jones (legendary Irish-born labor organizer), Lucy Parsons (labor organizer, woman of color, and widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons), Daniel De Leon (leader of the Socialist Labor Party), Eugene V. Debs (leader of the American Socialist Party and for whom one of the Voluntown Peace Trust library is named), and more. Their foundational tactics became direct actions like strikes and sabotage, and their demonstrable passion for all working people continued to attract a diverse crowd -- the ranks of card-carrying Wobblies would later come to include the likes of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Hellen Keller, and Noam Chomsky.
In 1910, the IWW began to distribute leaflets and pamphlets specifically addressing issues of the Black worker and offering industrial unionism as the solution: “The Negro has no chance in the old-line trade unions… They do not want him. They admit him only under compulsion and treat him with contempt. There is only one labor organization in the United States that admits the colored worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white -- the Industrial Workers of the World.” As part of this shift, all IWW journals across the country began publishing educational pieces about racial equality -- including in the South. Some were directed at the Black worker directly, while others reminded White workers that the color line had always been used to divide the workers against themselves. As long as the color line existed, these journals argued, employers could continue to exploit the working class forever. This logic is compelling today and it was in the past as well. Indeed, one particularly passionate proponent of this theory was the editor of The Voice of the People (the Southern organ of the IWW) Covington Hall -- who, according to historian Philip S. Foner, was “an Adjutant General of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, who became a radical, a Socialist, an active organizer for the I.W.W., especially among Negroes in the South.”
Although all trade unions are organized by the common understanding that workers are vulnerable to exploitation, all the other trade unions at the time had some arbitrary conditions to membership: gender, race, type of labor. One of the foundational concepts of industrial unionism is that all of these arbitrary conditions could be used to exploit workers in the exact way that the color line did. The IWW came to adopt racial equality as a goal not out of generosity or pity, but because the practical logic of ending worker exploitation demanded it. And with the IWW facilitating more opportunities for interaction and cooperation between workers of different backgrounds, a feedback loop of antiracist education emerged. As the IWW continued to grow, mature, and become a major force in the conflict between Capital and Labor, they became known for their legendary ability to unite workers of diverse backgrounds, national origins, even different languages (see our post from 5/14/2020 about the Bread and Roses Strike). The IWW proved that shared vulnerability is the first step toward solidarity.
Foner, P. S. (1970). The IWW and the Black Worker. The Journal of Negro History, 55(1), 45–64. doi:10.2307/2716544
“Industrial Union Manifesto.” https://archive.iww.org/history/library/iww/industrial_union_manifesto/
“Minutes of the IWW Founding Convention.” https://archive.iww.org/history/founding/
“The Industrial Workers of the World.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldman-industrial-workers-world/
For this week’s Peace of History:
Since the Polaris Action in the summer of 1960, peace activists had been leafleting sailors stationed at the Sub Base in Groton as well as to the workers at General Dynamic/Electric Boat, where the workers build the nuclear-armed submarines. Often in the early years, the activists would suffer violence or threats of violence, but they also won some significant success as well. From Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2, in just the first few weeks of the program:
“Joseph Glynn tended his resignation from the Naval Reserve and returned his draft card to this board at a New London press conference the morning of June 6. He called upon all military men, ‘especially Navy men at the New London Submarine Base who are assigned to the Polaris Fish of Death, to resign from the Navy with him and join both Polaris Action and the movement for national defense thru nonviolent resistance.’ Joseph, a four year Navy enlisted man and three year Reservist, has written an open letter to his commanding officer, Rear Admiral Espe, 1st Naval District, Boston, and a statement Conscience Against Polaris Submarines. Copies of both documents are available from our office.”
Stories like Joseph Glynn’s were not common, and indeed, most of the activists who attempted to appeal directly to the consciences of workers and sailors were usually met with ugliness. Later, on the drenching rainy afternoon of June 18, “Brad [Lyttle] sustained a blow on the jaw, and other minor physical assaults were absorbed nonviolently by several participants. A station wagon with a large sign mounted on top, driven by Jim Peck, was mobbed, nearly overturned and the sign torn down and mutilated[...] As the evening progressed, we became more and more involved with a number of shipyard workers and sailors who were rather antipathetic.” And yet, despite the rain, the violence, and the verbal abuse, the efforts of these activists were not for nothing -- the entry for that date ends with the line: “Among the multitude of opponents there were two sympathizers who have since rendered invaluable assistance to Polaris Action.”
Later in the 1960s, as the war in Vietnam grew, some sailors sought military counseling from Marj Swann at CNVA. During the Trident/Conversion Campaign in the late 1970s, two workers publicly stated their opposition to the Trident Submarine Program; Dick Proescher, who wrote and spoke about his opposition, was fired for taking a few extra minutes on a break. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and the massive layouts resulting from decreases in submarine manufacturing, the New England War Resisters League (successor to the CNVA) helped create the Community Coalition for Economic Conversion which included individual EB workers. Promoting a grassroots approach to economic conversion, the coalition worked on a Manufacturing Needs Assessment Survey and An Action Plan for Jobs with the EB Unions. This work resulted in changes in the retraining of EB workers, but have not yet won any real economic conversion projects.
In 2010, for the fiftieth anniversary of Polaris Action, “Veterans of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action and all its successor groups” wrote again to the workers of Electric Boat:
“We are NOT here to put you out of your jobs. We know you have valuable skills and experience. We want to suggest, however, that those skills and that experience can be used to do work which will benefit our country , and indeed, the people of all nations. You know that this country’s infrastructure is falling apart. Our dams, bridges, roads, school-houses, and many other important structures need rebuilding. Also we need rapidly to change the patterns which are destroying our environment. That means stopping the use of coal, gas, oil and nuclear fuels, and quickly developing new fuels using solar, wind, and water elements. You have -- or can easily learn -- the skills to do all this work.”
We have written about the potential dangers of nuclear weapons in the past, but have focused less on the ongoing consequences of our government’s nuclear arms program. According to Timmon Wallis of NucleaBan.US (and one of the speakers in our recent Nonviolent Social Change in the Time of Covid-19 series), the projected cost of the United States nuclear weapons infrastructure -- including upkeep, potential clean-ups, and new systems -- comes out to about $90.7 billion annually. As Wallis notes in his free book Warheads to Windmills, “Unlike the money spent on renewable energy, this is not a capital investment in things that will bring a return of income at a later date. This money is simply spent and then it is gone. It is turned into weapons that can never even be used except in an end-of-the-world scenario.” Moreover, every person using their valuable skills, labor, and creativity on nuclear weapons is not using them for something like green energy. Many skills required to work on various levels of the nuclear arms program are transferable to more productive and necessary fields: research, engineering, design, fabrication, and more.
“A Message to Those Who Work At Electric Boat.” CNVA (June 11, 2010)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2. CNVA (June 14, 1960)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 3. CNVA (June 22, 1960)
“Warheads to Windmills.” http://www.nuclearban.us/w2w/
Coda: Today, “cancel/callout culture” is a popular form of online activism in which one publicly shames someone perceived to have said or done something problematic. Directed at a celebrity, this may include active harassment as well as passive boycotting of their products. Directed at a neighbor, however, this ultimately leads to blocking the offender on social media -- a silencing, a removal, and a deepening of divisions. For people of color, sometimes it is a matter of mental or physical safety to remove oneself from engaging with hateful people. But on the same token, and especially for White allies, directly engaging with and attempting to convert the opposition is oftentimes the most courageous and productive action to take.
For this week’s Peace of History:
On next Tuesday, June 16, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Action that brought the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and a tradition of nonviolent direct action to southeastern Connecticut. As many groups around the country today are currently attempting to affect positive change in their local communities (some for the first time), let us review the CNVA’s remarkable flurry of activity that summer in New London and Groton, and how it permanently affected our region, if not the greater national and global peace movement.
First, what was Polaris Action? After months of preparation, organizing and promotion, the CNVA launched a nonstop summer-long campaign to “educate Americans to the realities and dangers of the nuclear deterrent policy typified by the Polaris submarines and their deadly cargoes of nuclear missiles,” which were being built at General Dynamics/Electric Boat in Groton. These were the very first nuclear-armed submarines ever built -- each one a genocidal weapon built for a cold war in which people of color were the most common victims. The United States had already used nuclear weapons twice on the Japanese -- a people widely considered in the United States as an “inferior race.” This fact was not lost on people of color in the United States, and Polaris Action was a multiracial effort -- indeed, legendary African-American civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin was a CNVA leader.
Headquartered on Bank Street in New London (where the city later put up a parking lot), Polaris Action members would often meet down the street at what is now the Hygienic Art Gallery. CNVA supported and organized hundreds of visitors as well as local residents as they held a wide variety of activities: daily vigils and marches, weekly documentary movie screenings and other educational events, handing out leaflets to Electric Boat workers day and night -- even when the leafletters were met with aggression and accusations of Russian influence. The CNVA helped visiting participants find housing and meals, and assisted individuals who may have found trouble with aggressive locals. A whole coalition of groups were invited: one of these groups, the Peacemakers, co-sponsored trainings on nonviolent civil disobedience and protesting to people who had never experienced them. A few especially daring activists chased submarines on little sailboats, attempting to and ultimately succeeding in boarding the massive death machines -- making international news. And yet despite the whirlwind of activity, Polaris Action members also knew the value of social recreation: one time, they participated in a local dance at Connecticut College for Women.
The CNVA won publicity by reaching out to high profile individuals, groups, and publications not just in Connecticut, but in the surrounding states as well (The New York Times and others ran multiple stories, as did our local Bulletin and The Day). The CNVA published and distributed its own weekly newsletter, Polaris Action Bulletin, that communicated the upcoming plans and summarized the main events of the last week. This newsletter would continue to publish long after the summer of 1960 ended, keeping all those participants connected even as many of them returned home to distant places across the country, and bringing on many additional readers as it eventually became the Direct Action Bulletin.
One summer of passionate protesting, leafleting, training, educating, and generally cross-pollinating ideas and people inspired movements across the country -- and continued to have lasting effects into the decade and beyond. Remember, Polaris Action happened in 1960 -- before U.S. involvement in Vietnam, before the Beatles or “hippies,” before even the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we watch in awe today at Minneapolis, Seattle, and other cities where feats unthinkable a month ago are now manifesting and spreading -- let us remember that only 60 years ago, that incredible place where the impossible became possible was right here in New London.
To learn more about Polaris Action, please visit our Peace of History from 10/31/2019.
For this week’s Peace of History:
Our friends the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 will be sentenced on June 8, 29, and 30 for their nonviolent protest actions on April 4, 2018 -- the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. On that day, seven Catholic activists entered Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia to follow the prophet Isaiah’s command: “beat swords into plowshares.” None in the group were younger than 55, and the oldest was 78 -- not youths cutting their teeth on their first direct action, but a group of seasoned activists with decades of experience between them. The activists brought an indictment charging the United States government for crimes against peace according to international law. They hung banners and crime scene tape, symbolically and nonviolently disarmed the base, and then were arrested -- all to remind us of the perennial existential threat of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
What exactly is the danger? The Trident-II (D-5) missile is the latest model of a special type of missile with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) -- essentially, a single missile containing several warheads capable of striking a single or multiple targets. MIRV missiles are almost exclusively used for nuclear weapons, and were pioneered by the United States in the late 1960s. Nuclear missiles have been a part of the U.S. Navy’s submarine arsenal since 1958, and the current Trident-armed Ohio-class submarines (as well as the new Columbia-class submarines currently in production to replace them) are the descendants of the Polaris nuclear missile-armed submarines the Committee for Nonviolent Action protested against in 1960. These vessels were built -- and continue to be built -- at the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, CT.
The most advanced nuclear warhead currently in the U.S. arsenal is the W88: 455-475 kilotons. Although the U.S. is treaty-bound to limit the maximum number to four, up to eight W88 warheads can fit in a single Trident-II missile. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 14 kilotons, which killed 150,000 people in moments. A single Trident-II missile can carry between 1800-3800 kilotons.
The Ohio-class nuclear submarine carries 24 Trident-II missiles, each missile capable of destroying more than 100-200 Hiroshimas -- each within 15 minutes of launch. No other vessel has ever carried more destructive power on earth. It is truly “the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon.”
The U.S. Navy has 14 of these submarines deployed secretly across the world.
But aside from addressing the literal existential danger of actually using this arsenal to strike, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 emphasizes a more insidious danger: the continual moral degradation of our society by positioning implicit threats of nuclear annihilation behind much of our foreign policy. They invoke the United Nation’s Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the ongoing United Nations negotiations regarding the prohibition of nuclear weapons -- all of which the United States government violates with its nuclear arms program. In frank terms, the United States government has use
While the danger is especially heightened under this administration, as when President Trump threatens to resume nuclear weapons testing, for instance -- the truth of the matter is that the arsenal is preposterously dangerous for a single person, democratically elected or not, to control. In 1983, it was indeed President Reagan at the helm when a false alarm in the Soviet Union reported that five American missiles had been launched -- it was just one man, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who may have averted nuclear war that day by continuously convincing his superiors to confirm the report before acting. Just a few months later, the Soviet military mistook an elaborate NATO war exercise as preparations for a surprise nuclear strike and prepared itself accordingly. However, many of the other infamous nuclear incidents occurred under Democratic Presidents. Under President Carter, the year 1979 had at least four false alarms at NORAD, at least one of which resulted in a request to the president that he make a decision to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes. Under President Johnson, radar-interference caused by a solar flare was misinterpreted as Soviet jamming in preparation for a first-strike, and thus nearly led to a U.S. nuclear bomber counter-strike. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred as a direct result of Democratic President Kennedy’s aggressive action in the Bay of Pigs a year before. And we must not forget that the only world leader to ever command the use of nuclear weapons in war was Democratic President Truman, bringing to completion the project begun by his Democratic predecessor FDR.
Moreover, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, and regardless of whether or not the weapons are ever actually used again in war, the costs of the nuclear arms program continues to mount: the ecological cost, the human cost, the moral cost. The Kings Bay Plowshares 7’s actions remind us of our own individual responsibilities to humanity. Under the Nuremberg Principles, “Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity...is a crime under international law.” To what extent are we complicit in the crimes of our government? Certainly, we are not blameless: we, who pay taxes, who enjoy cheap consumer goods, who sometimes stay silent when we know we shouldn’t. On April 4, 2018, seven Catholic activists stopped being silent and took a stand.
As written in the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 Action Statement: “Dr. King said, ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world (today) is my own government.” This remains true in the midst of our endless war on terror…Nuclear weapons kill every day through our mining, production, testing, storage, and dumping, primarily on Indigenous Native land.
...As white Catholics, we take responsibility to atone for the horrific crimes stemming from our complicity with ‘the triplets [of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism].’ ...We cannot simultaneously pray and hope for peace while we bless weapons and condone war-making.”
Read their whole statement and learn how you can help here: https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/mission/
For this week’s Peace of History:
On May 29, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign began in Washington, D.C., a month and a half after Dr. King had been assassinated. Dr. King had started organizing the campaign months before, convinced that the issue of socioeconomics was the next front in the struggle against racial injustice. However, when he learned of a majority-Black strike of municipal sanitation workers in Tennessee, he took a break from the national campaign to make his final return South.
On February 1, 1968, Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage collection truck. In 1964, two other sanitation workers had been killed in a similar manner. In the following years, the city of Memphis refused to replace the defective machines or even remove them from service; refused to provide safety equipment, uniforms, or restrooms; kept wages so low that many sanitation workers relied on welfare and food stamps; forced late-night shifts with no overtime pay; and provided no procedures for filing grievances. Strikes were attempted -- first in 1963, which failed for lack of proper organization; and the second in 1966, which the city beat to the punch with strikebreakers and threats of jailing the strike leaders. The second strike had been led by worker-turned-organizer T.O. Jones of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union the city of Memphis refused to recognize.
On February 11, ten days after the deaths of Cole and Walker, over 700 members of the AFSCME unanimously voted to strike. After a week and a half, city police deployed mace, tear gas, and clubs on nonviolent demonstrators marching on City Hall. With this kind of brutality running rampant in Memphis, 150 local ministers under the leadership of Rev. James Lawson met on February 24 to form the Community on the Move for Equality (COME). Their plan was to nonviolently bring national attention to the strike and put public pressure on the Mayor Loeb, who continued to resist the strikers even against the wishes of the City Council.
Initially kept apprised by phone, national civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, and later Dr. King would arrive in Memphis to support the strikers. On March 28, Dr. King led his last march: one that led to a splinter group throwing sticks and bricks into store windows, and the police responding with teargas and indiscriminate violence. Looting broke out, police shot dead a 16 year old boy, and by nightfall, nearly 4000 National Guard troops with tanks had been called in to enforce a state of emergency.
Later, King learned that the Black community in Memphis had a militant “Black Power” wing called the Invaders. Some in Memphis at the time thought of the Invaders as quite separate from the rest of the nonviolent demonstrators -- young, reckless, extreme. Others tried to group all of the nonviolent protesters in with the rioters to discredit the sanitation workers’ grievances. Indeed, Blackness in America is far from a single monolithic culture -- but the nonviolent civil rights leaders of the 1960s also understood that all African-Americans do suffer under the same racist superstructure, which includes the interconnected systems of policing, poverty, and labor exploitation, among more. When Dr. King addressed the issue of rioting and property damage, he notably did not criticize their lack of civility, nor did he address the ethics of looting. Instead, he criticized the fact that the rioting distracted the media from the real issues:
“Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.”
A year earlier, Dr. King made his position on riots clear in his speech “The Other America”: “…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
It wasn’t just about the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The reaction to their deaths was explosive in part because the other municipal workers knew that it could have been any of them. In the final speech of his life, King continued on to argue for Black solidarity and working class solidarity. He called for boycotts, an old tried-and-true tactic of the civil rights movement, but notably also included some nonviolent tactics in line with “Black Power” strategies of Black separatism, such as the bank-in:
“Now not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something that we don't do ourselves in SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we're doing, put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an "insurance-in." Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. And I ask you to follow through here.”
Many Americans today are not accustomed to thinking about the connections between racism, police violence, poverty, labor exploitation, war, ecological devastation, and climate change. Even Dr. King, at the time of his death, was continuing to broaden his understanding of these connections.
While some aspects of society have demonstrably improved for the historically oppressed, other unjust conditions have changed little in the ensuing years. Here lies danger: focusing on the improvements of one aspect of society can hide the rot of another. Jim Crow is over and most municipal garbage disposal in the United States is now semi-automated and much safer -- but the unlivable wage the Memphis sanitation workers were protesting was equivalent to between $12.06 - $14.32 in 2019 dollars (today, the US federal minimum wage is $7.25, and sanitation workers in Memphis make about $12/hour).
What is different, 52 years later, is that now more people than ever see passed the distractions and recognize the interwoven patterns of injustice. Let us remember, when tragedy strikes and innocent people die, when responsible parties escape consequences and it seems that evil is winning -- we are not alone, our allies are diverse and many, and our numbers are only growing.
“"I've Been to the Mountaintop," Address Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple
“Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike.” https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike
“The Other America.” https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm
For this week’s Peace of History:
With economic insecurity currently on many people’s minds, let us look at the unique activities and principles of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA). Founded in 1929 as primarily a research, educational, and central coordinating organization for the progressive labor movement, the group also provided relief, ran public awareness campaigns, and generally sought to build an expansive “labor culture” among working-class Americans. Under A.J. Muste’s leadership, the CPLA tactics were grounded in experience and more flexible than those of many other more ideological leftist groups at the time.
Muste was heavily influenced by his colleague David Saposs, who believed that “an effective labor movement is only possible when it is based upon a labor culture; that is, a mode of feeling, thinking and acting in terms of the problems and aspirations of labor.” Saposs, like many labor progressives of the time, viewed the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as “business unionism, which deliberately discouraged all working class organizational activity except unions, and which led the workers to immerse themselves in the capitalistic culture” (118). As a healthier and more fulfilling alternative to the dominant capitalist culture, some early CPLA projects focused on organizing recreational activities like picnics, dances, and singing clubs. They taught union songs and labor history, and generally attempted to educate working class people by framing the labor struggle as the next step in the expansion of American liberty. The ultimate goal was to develop a radical bloc within the conservative AFL to force the broader group to accept progressive measures.
From the start, the CPLA focused its attention on many of the “neglected” groups of the working class. Taking the opposite tact of the Communist Party, which was at once too reliant on long-winded theory and also too opportunistic with regards to strikes, the CPLA always started with the specific concerns of the workers to build sustainable, community-led movements. One of the first groups the CPLA started with was African-American laborers. Indeed, among the pamphlets published by the CPLA in its first year was “Negro Labor.” With both Black nationalism and Black capitalism becoming popular ideologies for many African-Americans in the early 20th century, the CPLA offered a third alternative to Black workers: working class solidarity with special attention to the unique challenges and implications of anti-Black racism. The theory was that barriers like racial prejudice and ideological differences would dissipate through the organic education of collective action and shared struggle. Although this proved to be an imperfect strategy, it was often the reason why the CPLA was successful when similar leftist and labor groups had failed.
The CPLA also regarded the concerns of woman-laborers to require special attention, similarly to those of African-American workers. Despite this wisdom, however, the CPLA was only somewhat more progressive with regards to views of women than many other leftist organizations of the time: the CPLA’s typical “labor feminism” sought to cultivate female leadership and female worker organization, but also presumed natural differences in ability between men and women, and continued to envision the prototypical “Worker” as a masculine force. Moreover, the CPLA recruited young people of all genders from the League for Industrial Democracy (youth wing of the Socialist Party especially active on college campuses), and from the YWCA’s industrial department (with which Muste was well-acquainted from past collaborative projects). Against the established leftist theory of the time, Muste also recruited intellectuals and “professional” wage-earners of “new capitalism” into the network, envisioning this new class of wage-earners as brothers to labor.
Perhaps the CPLA found some of its most dramatic successes in organizing jobless people -- first in Seattle, then spreading across the country (Ohio and Pennsylvania would ultimately organize the most, with approximately 100,000 and 50,000 people, respectively). With these numbers, the CPLA coordinated massive public awareness campaigns, educating the public of the invisible plight of unemployment as well as measures like government assistance that could mitigate them.
And yet, perhaps it could also be said that FDR’s federal response to the Great Depression helped end that era of progressive labor organizing. To Muste, the foundations of a movement, an organization, or a policy must be aligned with a diverse, anti-capitalist labor culture in order to win and maintain workers’ rights. He was unshakeable in his belief in the primacy of the common people’s will, even when FDR implemented some of the progressive policies while maintaining the dominant capitalist power structures.
It is a problem that continues, as contemporary leftists still contend with reactionaries and moderate liberals -- but perhaps the solution is to simply continue the work of building the culture of labor as a more attractive alternative to the individualistic, capitalist society in which we live. Culture, after all, is cumulative -- and history is not over.
For this week’s Peace of History:
We continue to celebrate Labor History Month with the famous story of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, commonly known as the “Bread and Roses” Strike. Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, a holiday formed in part to bring attention to and celebrate the many underappreciated labors and responsibilities of women. Perhaps less known is the role of women in the American labor movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, both as organizers and as workers.
After a new state law shortened the maximum work week for woman and child mill workers from 56 to 54 hours, and after mill owners responded by cutting wages, the strike began with a group of Polish woman textile workers discovering the wage cut and walking out.
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Joseph Ettor and Socialist Party of America member Arturo Giovannitti had already been attempting to organize the textile workers of the city. The two quickly became leaders of the strike and formed a committee of 56 people: four representatives of fourteen nationalities. Like the strike that would hit Lawrence 7 years later, the 1912 strike organized efficient solutions to the extensive communication issues between the strikers. Strike meetings, decisions, and demands were ultimately translated into 25 different languages, and the ethnic representative system allowed for the rapid communication of pertinent information from the strike leadership to the workers. The United Textile Workers (UTW), an AFL-affiliated union, attempted to speak for the strikers early on to work out agreements with individual mills, but with the leadership clearly centered around Ettor and Giovannitti as well as the ethnic representatives, the mill owners ignored these attempts to undercut Ettor and Giovannitti.
The reaction to the strike, however, was swift and extreme. The city’s alarm bells were rung for the first time in its history. Police militias began patrolling streets. Bouts of violence between picketters, mill owners, and police broke out. Someone paid by the president of the American Woolen Company tried to frame the strikers by planting dynamite in various places across the city. Later, authorities fallaciously charged the strike leadership as accomplices to murder for the death of Anna LoPizzo, a striker likely shot by police. Ettor and Giovannitti were jailed, 22 more militia companies began patrolling the streets, and the city was put under martial law.
To replace the lost strike leadership, the IWW sent “Big” Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, along with several other organizers to Lawrence. Together, they raised funds from other New England mills; established relief committees, soup kitchens, and food distribution stations; and coordinated volunteer doctors to provide medical care. They also organized for the children of strikers to be sent out of Lawrence temporarily to the homes of supporters, mostly in New York City, for their own safety and to reduce the strain on the strike fund. When police attempted to stop them, beating strikers and supporters including women and children, the press witnessed and reported on the brutality. The story got the attention of Congress, which brought the strikers’ plight to national consciousness and made the mill owners’ position morally indefensible. The owners caved.
At the end of the strike, the workers had won most of their demands. The children sent away to New York City returned home. Without a permanent union or other organization to protect the gains, however, mill owners were able to reverse every improvement over the next few years, leading to the 1919 strike described last week. In both strikes, the ability to organize an incredibly diverse and multilingual industry of workers proved to be essential.
Next week: we will continue exploring the intersection of labor and peace with more stories from the movements.
“Lawrence, MA factory workers strike ‘for Bread and Roses,’ U.S. 1912.” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/lawrence-ma-factory-workers-strike-bread-and-roses-us-1912
“The Lawrence textile strike, 1912 - Sam Lowry.” https://libcom.org/history/articles/lawrence-textile-strike-1912
“The Strike that Shook America.” https://www.history.com/news/the-strike-that-shook-america
For this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrate the first week of Labor History Month with the story of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Workers’ Strike: an episode that proved the power of nonviolent resistance in the American context decades before Dr. King, that bridged the gap between pacifism and trade unionism, and that sent A.J. Muste on the path to later co-found the influential Committee for Nonviolent Action.
A.J. Muste (for whom the VPT conference center is named) was a Dutch-born American pastor and activist known for his lifelong work in the labor, peace, and civil rights movements. Shortly after the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was founded in 1916, A.J. Muste became an active member of the pacifist organization. By the end of the next year, with the United States’ entry into the First World War already several months in, Muste’s wildly unpopular pacifism led to the resignation of his pastorate in Newtonville, MA. Shortly thereafter, Muste moved to Boston and joined up with two other pacifist ministers involved in FOR, Cedric Long and Harold Rotzel, as well as three women of some social renown: Anna N. Davis, Ethel Paine, and Elizabeth Glendower Evans. Together, they formed the Comradeship: a group dedicated to investigating “the question of how to organize our lives so that they would truly express the teachings and spirit of Jesus.” In 1919, when FOR asked Long, Rotzel, and Muste to assist in the arbitration of the strike at Lawrence, MA, the Comradeship had their chance to put their philosophy to the test.
There were many challenges to resolving the strike from the start. The more than 30,000 striking workers came from over twenty different ethnic groups with different languages, spoke little English, and faced an ascendant and violent nationalism hostile to their foreignness. The workers had organized themselves into smaller ethnic groups, with a spokesperson for each group, but factory bosses had devised a divide-and-conquer strategy of rewarding “old” immigrants and exploiting “new” immigrants, further stoking ethnic tensions among the workers. And the brutality of police attacks on the workers began on the very first day of the strike, with police clubbing not just workers on picket lines and outside the mills, but also entering the homes of workers to attack women and other members of working families.
Many pacifists of the time, including some in FOR, believed that in irreconcilable situations, it might actually be better to cede victory to evil rather than to violate fundamental pacifist principles. Unlike mainstream pacifism of the time, however, when push came to shove, the Comradeship could not stand neutral. Moreover, while many American pacifists viewed labor strikes as inherently violent, the Comradeship realized almost immediately upon entering the situation in Lawrence that law enforcement was the “creator of violence” in the strike. Muste would argue later that, although worker activism might appear to disturb the “social peace,” the language of “peace” could often be used to maintain an unjust status quo -- one of the many important lessons he would learn from the 1919 strike.
In helping to organize the strikers into a more sustainable force, the Comradeship helped to form the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (ATWA), a new union of skilled and unskilled laborers. Muste was immediately elected to the office of Executive Secretary. His immigrant and working-class credentials helped him win the trust of the workers, but it was largely his strategic flexibility paired with a rigid commitment to justice that maintained that trust.
One early episode in particular demonstrated both of these qualities especially well. Of course, the Comradeship discouraged the strikers from retaliatory violence against the police and scab workers, but sensing that some dramatic action was required to take its place, Long, Rotzel, and Muste took the risk of suffering police brutality to lead the picket line. On the first day of leading the line, Muste and Long were separated from the rest of the strikers, beaten until they could not stand, and then arrested. The Comradeship, however, turned the beating into a victory -- preceding the strategies that Dr. King would champion decades later, the brutalization of the clearly nonviolent pastors by the city police turned the city’s opinion of the situation overnight. More money began coming in for the strike fund. The tone of the press became more sympathetic. And the workers now had a living example of the power of nonviolent resistance.
So when police mounted machine guns in key locations of strike zones, and when “radicals” (who later turned out to be agents provocateur) called for the commandeering of the machine guns, the strike committee decided to continue the nonviolence strategy. To their great frustration, the police were unable to instigate any more significant bouts of violence from the strikers. Mill employers attempted to frame Muste for murder, but that plan was not carried through, in part because such an accusation would strain credulity.
At the end of 16-weeks, with both sides exhausted and preparing to give up, Muste was finally called in by the head of the American Woolen Company in Lawrence. They settled: 15% increase in wages and no discrimation against strikers.
It was an important victory for the labor movement, a critical chapter of the early peace movement, and an essential learning experience for A.J. Muste -- the beginning of much of his decades-long work.
Next week: we will compare the 1919 Lawrence strike with the much more famous, and decidedly more violent, 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike -- so-called the “Bread and Roses” strike organized by the Industrial Workers of the World.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century, 2014.
“Lawrence Mill Workers strike against wage cuts, 1919.” https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/lawrence-mill-workers-strike-against-wage-cuts-1919
“This Day in Resistance History: Hope College graduate A.J. Muste and the 1919 Lawrence textile workers strike.” https://griid.org/2013/02/03/this-day-in-resistance-history-hope-college-graduate-a-j-muste-and-the-1919-lawrence-textile-workers-strike/