February is Black History Month, and today marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks. Famously, on December 1, 1955, Parks became the catalyst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott after refusing to move to the “colored” section in the back of a public bus. What is less well known, however, is that Parks was already involved in civil rights and antiracist activism when she committed her act of civil disobedience.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, an active NAACP member. Seeing the difficulty of her husband’s work started to radicalize Rosa to the fight for racial justice. In 1943, Rosa Parks officially joined the NAACP and started working as secretary for the president of the Montgomery chapter, Edgar Nixon. That same year, defying Jim Crow and all of its attending laws meant to keep her from doing so, Rosa began attempting to register to vote. On one of her first attempts to register, Rosa had a run-in with the notoriously racist bus driver James F. Blake, who kicked her off the bus for entering through the front “Whites” stairwell as opposed to the back. One must wonder if Blake’s treatment made Rosa even more committed to racial justice. Her voter registration was finally approved two years later, in 1945.
Over the next decade, Rosa and her husband Raymond would continue to work in the civil rights movement. Rosa began leading the NAACP Youth Council, and reformed it in 1954 to take greater stands against segregation. During this time, Virginia and Clifford Durr, a White liberal couple for whom she worked as a seamstress, encouraged Rosa to attend courses at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Clifford was on the Highlander board of directors, and thus helped Rosa fund her travel and stay at the school in the summer of 1955. Inspired by the successful folk schools in Denmark, the Highlander Folk School had been established during the Great Depression in 1932 “to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains” (Horton and Freire). It was one of the only racially integrated schools in the South, and despite being the target of persistent racist violence since at least the 1950s (the central office building was torched by arsonists as recently as in 2019), the school came to be affiliated with several civil rights leaders: Dr. King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, and more.
One of the most important people at the Highlander Folk School was Septima Clark, a Black former school teacher who had lost her old job due to her activity in the civil rights movement. While Clark was attending her first workshop, Highlander founder Myles Horton was so impressed that he hired her soon after as the full-time director of workshops. That summer in 1955, a year after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision was made that federally mandated the desegregation of public schools, Rosa took Septima Clark’s two-week workshop, “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” By all accounts, Rosa was quiet and not particularly optimistic about positive change coming to Montgomery, which she described as “complacent.” Nevertheless, the glimpse Rosa received at Highlander of a harmonious and racially integrated future transformed her. Rosa was particularly inspired by Septima Clark’s example: her personal story of losing her career and risking so much else to continue in the movement for civil rights, only to end up at Highlander as a director and equal to White men in the organization. Rosa left Tennessee with some reluctance but with a redoubled conviction, promising to continue working with the NAACP Youth Council for desegregation.
Five months after she had returned to Montgomery, a bus driver demanded Rosa that she give up her seat for White passengers. The driver was none other than James F. Blake, the man who kicked Rosa off the bus 12 years earlier. This time, Rosa refused; when Blake threatened to call the police, she responded, “You may do that.” That night, Edgar Nixon and Clifford Durr bailed her out. Within days, Nixon and the NAACP, led by the Women’s Political Council, had begun organizing a boycott of the Montgomery bus system in Rosa’s defense: a campaign that lasted over a year and which became one of the first major groundbreaking events in the history of civil rights.
A few years later, when the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) bought the “Peace Farm” in Voluntown, predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust (VPT), the Highlander Center was one of their major inspirations. Like at Highlander, the CNVA ran community citizenship and activist training workshops from its founding in 1962. Indeed, some of the founding members of the New England CNVA attended courses at Highlander Folk School, and later VPT members have taken workshops at its successor, the Highlander Center, as recently as in the past decade. The Voluntown Peace Trust continued this tradition of community folk education, hosting workshops and other events through the past couple decades: nonviolence training weekends, YouthPeace weekend retreats for high school students, and more. Last year, as the movement for Black lives gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd, VPT started running training workshops online for people wanting to get involved with racial justice in Connecticut. Another run of VPT workshops for 2021 is in the planning stages now.
The Highlander Folk School showed Rosa Parks a vision for a better world and inspired her to assert her rights in “the cradle of the Confederacy.” Five months later in Montgomery, Rosa sparked one of the most foundational campaigns in the civil rights movement. As a fellow folk learning center, VPT seeks to do the same for eastern Connecticut and New England as a whole.
Horton, Myles and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press, 1990.
Robnett, Belinda. How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Beacon Press, 2013.
Whitaker, Matthew C. Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Last Friday, January 22, over thirty-eight individuals gathered in New London, CT to celebrate the United Nations Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) coming into force. Participants held signs thanking the 51 ratifying states on the road to the General Dynamics - Electric Boat engineering building. Those participants belong to a 61-year movement in southeastern Connecticut to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons and to move the region’s economic reliance away from the military-industrial complex. Indeed, almost exactly 45 years earlier on January 23, 1976, peace activists launched a national action with roots in southeastern Connecticut. Hundreds of people would eventually be organized to cross 34 states and a total of 8000 miles on foot in less than 10 months, all in order to spread the message of peace and justice to big and small communities in a post-Vietnam America. This was the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice.
The organizers for the Continental Walk were inspired by an earlier project: the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace from 1960-1961. That earlier Walk also had a connection to southeastern CT: the idea for it was first conceived in New London, CT. The San Francisco to Moscow Walk was organized in just a couple short months, with a much more limited number of participants, volunteers, and funds (to read more about it, see our previous posts linked at the end). But the Continental Walk would be different. After 1967, CNVA (which organized the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk) merged with the War Resisters League (WRL), and it was WRL that organized the Continental Walk. The goals for the new Walk could be divided into four parts: educating the public about the military-industrial complex, organizing local people for social action and connecting them to greater resources, promoting unity between various disparate groups working for social justice, and reaching out to communities that are often ignored and forgotten. Preparations took eighteen months. Press releases had to be issued, bills tracked and paid, and fundraising orders processed. WRL made t-shirts, leaflets, bumper stickers, posters, and more to advertise and fund the Walk. They had to write, print, and distribute literature, establish routes and acquire permits, and arrange for speakers at various sites.
The full name “The Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice” was chosen to emphasize the connections some had made a decade earlier: that the United States was investing so much into war at the expense of the needs of people already here. Incredible sums were (and are) spent researching and producing weapons which, in the best case scenario, would never be used -- while children in America went hungry. They also addressed issues such as racism, sexism, the growing problem of nuclear power, etc. The United States had officially left the Vietnam War in April 1975, less than a year before the Walk began. Many peace activists did not view the withdrawal from Vietnam as an opportunity to pat their own backs and rest on their laurels, but rather the time to maintain the momentum, stir up local organizing, and connect communities to prepare for future resistance. In preparation for the Walk, WRL even reached out beyond the United States, to Japan. Sixteen Buddhist monks and nuns from the Japan Buddha Sangha eventually joined the Continental Walk, ultimately establishing a permanent presence in the United States.
Shortly after the main group took off from Ukiah, CA, several regional WRL and other co-sponsoring groups like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) , the Catholic Worker, SANE, Socialist Party USA, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Women Strike for Peace worked to coordinate and train regional “feeder” routes. Each route had its own unique logistical challenges. On January 31, two hundred people met in Hartford, CT to celebrate the launch of the San Francisco feeder group and to drum up local interest in organizing New England feeder groups. Several months later in July 1976, the New England CNVA in Voluntown became the main hub for training and preparing walkers for the Northeast Route. Six people joined with the AFSC staff, spending six weeks preparing their minds and bodies for the difficulties of walking 20 miles a day, and organizing the logistics for the walkers.
The Continental Walk also has another special connection to the Voluntown Peace Trust. Our current Chair of the Board of Directors, Joanne Sheehan (as well as her now-partner Rick Gaumer), served as part of just four national organizers in the WRL New York office at the time the Walk was happening, and was instrumental in helping to overcome some early challenges. Unlike the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk, which had a single small core group of walkers, too many people wanted to participate in the Continental Walk. A few of the core group invited anyone to walk with them, including people who did not agree to the guidelines. Soon, local organizers were unable to provide hospitality and assistance to the growing numbers of sometimes undisciplined participants. Joanne was one of several organizers who joined the Walk to help reinstate the guidelines, and work with the core group to return to the number of permanent walkers that could be sustained.
Now, over 75 years after the first ever use of nuclear weapons in war, 51 governments have come together to assert that such weapons are illegal according to international law. Notably, the United States is not one of the ratifying nations. As the only country to ever use nuclear weapons aggressively in warfare, the United States of America has an unique moral obligation to ratify this treaty and disarm its nuclear weapons program. Just as the Continental Walkers reminded us of this fact in 1976, so too did the folks in New London last Friday. Yesterday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released their 2021 statement. It is 100 seconds to midnight, they said, citing how the covid-19 pandemic has exposed so many governments inability to manage massive and catastrophic issues such as climate change and nuclear weapons. And if we want to turn back the clock, perhaps we should take a look at the past.
“Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice Records, 1975-1978.” Swarthmore College Peace Collection, accessed 27 January 2021. http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/DG100-150/dg135cwdsj.htm
Leonard, Vickie and Tom MacLean, Ed. The Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice. Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice, 1977.
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
Mecklin, John, Ed. “This is your COVID wake-up call: It is 100 seconds to midnight.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed 27 January 2021. https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/
More on the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace:
Yesterday, Joseph Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America. To many Americans, this was a moment of immense relief: the authoritarian Donald Trump is finally out of the White House. And yet, many others on the left have already cautioned that a Democratic President is no guarantee for progressive, effective policies. Among Democrats, Biden is known for being a pushover for conservative policies and for being slow to adopt civil rights and other progressive legislation. Though there are recent signs of a progressive turn for Biden, we must not rest on our laurels yet. Indeed, our history shows that we must now work harder and smarter than ever.
The determination and momentum carried by Dr. King provide an excellent example. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not stop seeking equality when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 (which outlawed segregation and other forms of discrimination), nor justice when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 (which removed racist laws that prevented countless Black Americans from voting), but rather continued to aggressively interrogate the root causes of injustice, inequality, and suffering in the United States. Despite Democratic President Johnson’s stated wish to focus on the “war on poverty,” after 1965 LBJ found himself diverting more funds from his “Great Society” project into the actual war in Vietnam. Dr. King clearly saw that militarism consistently funnelled much needed resources from the poor, even when the liberal President devoted to fighting poverty was reluctant to do so.
Thus, King’s vision of civil rights and social justice came to include all Americans, regardless of race, suffering under the inequality of modern capitalism. After segregation was outlawed, he started speaking of a “revolution” in an era when peoples around the world were violently struggling to assert their rights, dignity, and self-determination after decades, sometimes centuries of colonization. Social and liberation movements have always demonstrated their strength most effectively on the streets in mass actions. But, of course, Dr. King meant a nonviolent revolution, one in which the nonviolent means would be consistent with just ends, one that would require immense cooperation, discipline, and organization. Nonviolence is sometimes criticized for being too insular and for caring more about the individual’s moral egotism than about improving real lives in society, but Dr. King’s nonviolence was always rooted in mass action and tangible results: from the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1963 March on Washington to his last campaign, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As King wrote in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." Crucially, such action can force a community to confront the issue while still maintaining a certain moral legitimacy.
Asking to consider legitimacy is not a call for respectability politics; it’s a call for practical strategic thinking. Donald Trump may be out of the White House, but the White supremacist / conspiracy theory movement he stirred can be found in communities all across this country. Their ideology is manifestly violent. But for every person who went to the Capitol to protest the election results on January 6, there were several more watching from home who had considered going but didn’t. With the authoritarian defeated but the threats to our society spread all across the country, now is our chance to frame the issues, expand our alliances, and inoculate our communities against such a movement.
Source: King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 1963. https://letterfromjail.com/
Could Trump launch a nuke in the last week of his term? Following the right-wing conspiracy theorist insurrection that was instigated by President Trump at the Capitol last week, many have been wondering this question. Some might find the question irrelevant and silly -- what do nuclear weapons have to do with a domestic political conflict? -- and sweep questions of strategy, morality, power, and accountability under the rug. Others, however, have realized that the question is the logical end of US Presidential overreach, and one that should raise more questions as well. Why is the US nuclear arsenal under the command of one person, the President? What are they there for? And considering the history of deranged leaders of wealthy countries with powerful militaries, are these weapons safe to keep around at all? What can we do to keep ourselves and each other safe from nuclear weapons?
Activists have been asking these kinds of questions for over 70 years. Indeed, there has always been a pacifist faction of the left arguing for unilateral disarmament, even preceding the invention of nuclear arms. But everything changed after the United States dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years immediately following, the former labor organizer A.J. Muste tried to reach his fellow Christians with the message of disarmament, especially in the face of this new super weapon -- but found that the vast majority of liberal Protestants had come to adopt a “realism” that, in the words of Muste biographer Leilah Danielson, “devolved into a kind of American moral complacency and self-satisfaction that exempted the United States from any responsibility in the rising tensions of the Cold War” (Danielson 247). He also sought to convince the country’s nuclear physicists and engineers that building these weapons at all was inconceivably dangerous, but was met with a different kind of obstinance: the scientists believed that peace could only come from supranational, one world organization and governance -- a long-shot, most of them would admit, given the tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time.
Failing with the majority of liberal Protestants and the scientific community, in 1947, Muste brought together pacifists from across the United States to discuss strategy in the new atomic era and the emerging Cold War. By then, Muste had become a prominent public critic of nuclear weapons. Disagreements with the more liberal pacifists, who still believed in working within the system, led Muste and others to hold a second conference in 1948. From this second conference would eventually develop a whole new anti-nuclear pacifist movement. In the 1950s, more groups began to emerge or shift their missions to include opposition to nuclear weapons: the Committee for Nonviolent Action (predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust), the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), the Catholic Worker Movement, and more. Muste himself held a leading position in those first three groups listed, and was a close friend of Dorothy Day, a prominent leader of the Catholic Workers.
All of these groups came to the same conclusion: nuclear arms production is a primary obstacle to world peace, and unilateral disarmament is the only solution to the existential threat of the Cold War. The United States had both the practical and ethical responsibility to be the first superpower to reject the nuclear arms system that it had started, since the United States alone was the only one to ever use such weapons in war. In the absence of a moral government, these groups argued, the ethical individual should refuse to participate in the unjust society. Stop following the script. Don’t play along. Surely we can find better uses for these physicists and engineers. Surely our spiritual lives would be richer if the world was consistent with our values.
Resistance to nuclear arms in the United States have waxed and waned over the decades. In the early 1960s, small groups protested at nuclear and weapons production sites, including at General Dynamics Electric Boat in the New London-Groton area. Daring young activists in small sailboats like The Golden Rule chased nuclear-armed submarines, trying to board them -- some even succeeded. Women Strike for Peace organized the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century: 50 thousand women in 60 cities specifically calling for nuclear disarmament. Long-term peace walks, some lasting several months and covering thousands of miles, started to expand across the country and the world. Perhaps the most famous anti-nuclear protest occurred in 1977, when 1414 protesters of the Clamshell Alliance and other allied groups were arrested at Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant and held in National Guard armories for 12 days. But five years later, in 1982, one million people in NYC’s Central Park protested against nuclear arms and the arms race -- the largest political demonstration in American history.
Since the 1980s, the Cold War has ended and the arms race dissolved, but the issue of nuclear weapons has not closed. In some ways, without the principle of “mutually assured destruction” that supposedly kept the Cold War from “heating up,” the use of nuclear weapons in war is more likely now than it was forty years ago. But on January 22, 2021, people around the world will celebrate the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entering into force. This is perhaps the first major step for global nuclear disarmament, what the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW) describes as “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.” On that afternoon from 2:45-4pm, volunteers will gather in New London to express thanks to each of the 51 nations that have ratified the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. Participants will stand along the route driven by General Dynamics Electric Boat employees. The goal is to honor the hard work of the treaty ratifiers, to call on the United States to begin the process of disarmament, and to make EB engineers consider the danger they are actively designing into the world. (To participate or learn more, please visit the RSVP form for this event here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdF0x6tdnyisX9ACu2seMJoX21liUVGZOXls84O4-ggynnQZQ/viewform)
Two days after the insurrection, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to subtly ask him to prevent President Trump from commanding the nuclear arsenal. Milley argued that that was not his role, pointing to the legal process and norms in place. Checks and balances are great when they work, but under such an obviously unstable person as Donald Trump, it’s hard not to wonder at which point one would have to stop going along with it all.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Sanger, E. David and Eric Schmitt. “Pelosi Pressed Pentagon on Safeguards to Prevent Trump From Ordering Military Action.” The New York Times, 8 January 2021 (updated 13 January 2021).
On January 8, 1885, Abraham Johannes Muste was born to a humble, working-class family in Holland. At age 6, Muste and his family immigrated to a Dutch community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A.J., as he would come to be known, was strongly influenced by his religious upbringing, instilling in him a deep devotion to justice and peace. But he never let his spiritualism cloud his view of reality. A story from A.J.’s seminary days tells of a friend warning him against reading Darwin. Muste’s response was to read all of Darwin’s writings he could get. Charismatic and well-loved by all, he was the captain of the basketball team at Hope College, graduating valedictorian. At the much more conservative New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Muste chafed against the lack of academic rigor and outdated thinking. And yet, despite his open criticism of the school’s academics, he remained popular with professors and fellow students when he graduated in 1909.
Muste took additional classes in philosophy and theology during and after his time at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. While attending lectures by William James in New York City, Muste met the great progressive theorist John Dewey. The two became good friends. Muste became influenced by Dewey’s theory of pragmatism: that learning and deep understanding is best achieved through direct experience. This was also the time in which Muste became more interested in the “Social Gospel” movement as well as other progressive and left ideas. He left his pastorship and the Dutch Reformed Church in 1914 over its conservatism, but joined the radical Christian-oriented Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) shortly after its founding in 1916. He resigned again from another pastor position over his pacifism in 1917, as the United States entered the First World War. For a time, Muste worked for the ACLU aiding conscientious objectors. Then, in 1919, A.J. Muste got involved with Lawrence Textile Strike.
We have told the story of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike before (https://www.facebook.com/groups/voluntownpeacetrust/permalink/10158108528137978/). Almost all outside support for the strike came from the Boston Comradeship, a group of radical pastors which Muste helped found. And so, after a week of picketing and violence, the workers asked Muste to organize and lead them. For the next 16 weeks, Muste personally led a nonviolent strike even as the police became more aggressive, winning public support and ultimately forcing the factory owners to accept most of the workers’ demands.
Following this strike, Muste became more involved in the workers movement and socialist politics. For the next 17 years after the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike, Muste worked on organizing unions, pushing dominant unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the left, and proving the practicality of nonviolent strikes. Among some of the strikes Muste led include the 1936 Goodyear Tire Strike in Akron, which is the first recorded use of the sit-down technique in a modern civil disobedience action. He became a Marxist-Leninist, a revolutionary, and became convinced of the need for an American labor party.
Not all of his endeavors were successful. For two years after his first strike, Muste tried and failed to organize the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America. He had to leave his positions at both religious and secular organizations due to his politics numerous times. He even had to leave his director position at the Brookwood Labor College -- a school to learn labor theory and militancy -- in 1933 due to controversy over his activism. In 1929, Muste helped found the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), from which the American Workers Party (AWP) was born. Muste’s sharp and effective organizing skills became so deeply associated with the AWP that many contemporaries called the group “Musteites.” Within a few years, the Musteites would merge with the Trotskyist Communist League of America to form the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). Under the new organization, however, Muste started to become disillusioned with the efficacy of socialist politics, and began to consider leaving the Trotskyist movement.
It was 1936 when Muste took a vacation and met the man himself, Leon Trotsky, in exile in Sweden. Muste was impressed, even captivated by Trotsky, but was ultimately unconvinced by the great revolutionary to stay within the movement. By the time Muste had returned to the United States, Muste had decided to retry the revolutionary Christian pacifist path, but now with all that had learned in the labor movement. He would stay that course for the rest of his life.
But for Muste, leaving a college, a church, a political party, or a movement did not mean having to burn bridges. He served as the executive director of FOR from 1940-1953. He joined the national committee of the War Resisters League. He became a close friend and ally of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the direct-actionist Catholic Worker Movement. He mentored the great civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who claimed that he never made a difficult decision before discussing it with Muste first. He organized for years against US nuclear weapons policies. He led opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War, even traveling there with the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1966. But even as Muste made more connections with new people all the time, he also kept in touch with his past allies: even the communists during the height of McCarthyism, when so many other allies abandoned them. He was trusted by anarchists and pacifists, housewives and union guys, New Left youth and old school socialists. His integrity was legendary.
A year after his death in 1967, the War Resisters League began to rent the building at 339 Lafayette Street in Manhattan; they bought the building in 1974 before selling it to the A.J. Muste Institute four years later. From 1978 to 2015, 339 Lafayette Street was known as the “Peace Pentagon” for the number of social justice organizations that were headquartered there, including the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party USA, the Metropolitan Council on Housing, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Political Art Documentation/Distribution, and more. For decades after his death, the leftists, pacifists, and progressives inspired by A.J. Muste’s example continued to work, if not side-by-side, then under the same roof: a fitting legacy for a person who directly and indirectly affected so many lives.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Reyes, Gwen, editor. “WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action.” 1967.
The turn of a new year can often feel significant, but this one feels especially so. The vaccines for covid-19 are starting to be distributed now, and with the incoming Biden administration taking over from the catastrophically incompetent President Trump, many have good reason to feel optimistic about 2021. But covid-19 did not simply reveal the vulnerability of this country’s healthcare and pandemic response system; it also exposed the economic fragility of so many working Americans’ living situations. Despite moratoriums and ban orders, people are continuing to lose homes at unprecedented rates. And even for those who do not suffer eviction, most are still forced to pay rent even as their working hours have been reduced. Many are falling further into debt just to survive. As important as the vaccine will be in the months ahead, it will not solve the debt and homelessness crises that this year have exacerbated. But looking forward to the turn of this new year, and ahead to the inauguration of a new President, perhaps we can take some lessons from the ancient past to give us inspiration on how to recover from the immense trauma our society has recently experienced.
In the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kingdoms, debt seems to have been invented before writing. According to anthropologist David Graeber, the concept of debt and its twin, interest-bearing loans, was likely invented by government administrators to incentivize local traders and still receive a cut. But the concept quickly jumped from commercial debts to consumer or individual debts. By around 2400 BCE, it was apparently already common practice for peasant families suffering bad harvests to take advance loans from wealthy merchants or officials, having their goods, lands, and even family members taken as collateral. People taken in this way were debt-peons: a kind of enslavement in which one is forced to work for the “lender” (merchant/official) until the “borrower” (peasant) can redeem the person in peonage with the debt owed -- but of course, this became more difficult to do as more the borrower’s assets would be seized and family broken apart.
To make matters worse, this was not simply an individual or family-level problem, but one that threatened to rip society apart completely. Bad harvests usually result from a regional issue like drought or flooding. Consequently, every bad harvest meant that large portions of the peasant population would be thrown into complete crisis. From Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years: “Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization” (Graeber 65). Therefore, to avoid the periodic threat of absolute societal collapse, it became customary for new leaders to enact “clean slate” general amnesty to all outstanding consumer debts upon their ascensions, as well as periodically throughout their reigns. Indeed, redemption from debt-peonage appears to be the first recorded use of the word “freedom” at all.
The concept of “clean slate” debt amnesty was not unique to the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. In the Book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible, a similar debt-bondage crisis gripped Judaea. Families were broken apart, with some children going to serve in the households of wealthy neighbors, while others being sold into slavery abroad. In 444 BCE, a Babylonian-raised Jewish governor instated policies of debt forgiveness in Judaea, the most famous of which was the Law of Jubilee: “in the Sabbath year” (i.e. after seven years) all debts would be cancelled and all those in debt-peonage would be released. This theme of liberation from bondage echoes through much of ancient Jewish history, and was taken even further in Christian theology with the redemption of Christ: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
In ancient Greek history, Solon “the Lawgiver” is viewed as an especially important early reformer who laid the foundation for Athenian democracy. By his time, the debt-peonage crisis had spread to Greece, and Athenian society was terribly divided by the few wealthy creditors and the masses of farmers forced to sell themselves and their family members to them. Seeing this primarily as a moral problem of society originating in unrestrained greed, Solon included in his famous reforms the policy of seisachtheia, the “shaking off of burdens.” All debt-peons were returned home, all current debt contracts were cancelled, and future debt slavery was forbidden. In the popular imagination, if not in fact, Solon’s reforms ushered in a golden age of Athenian civility, sophistication, and heroism which ultimately came to fend off the much more powerful Persian Empire.
Perhaps to many of us today, the concept of debt forgiveness sounds absurd, even unethical. Don’t those people owe that money though? If they couldn’t pay it back, then maybe they shouldn’t have gotten the loan in the first place. Don’t their creditors have a right to get back what they had agreed upon? And yet, that line of thought only obscures the unjust reasons for having acquired that debt in the first place. Yet, for hundreds of years and across diverse peoples, the practice of periodically canceling all outstanding debt was commonplace, popular, and to a large degree, the practical and necessary policy to avoid massive social crises. In more modern times, the very first community land trust in the United States, started by Black civil rights activists as a safe haven for Black farmers, was foreclosed upon after years of being denied the same government debt forgiveness their White neighbors received. Americans are saddled with enormous debts, mostly from credit cards, auto loans, and student loans. Due to the overwhelming personal debt that so many Americans face today, it is not uncommon now for a college-graduate to return home to their parents for a few years. Many of those with the best training and education are financially unable to create, innovate, and enact the plans they have made. Countless couples have put off having children indefinitely for fear of an uncertain future. And now, despite ostensible legal protections preventing this very thing from happening, record numbers of people have lost their homes this year through no fault of their own. This is our modern consumer debt crisis. No vaccine will cure this cycle of debt; no vaccine will prevent evictions. Recovery from covid-19 will take so much more than mass immunization. This was a landmark year. A dramatic change in leadership is just a few weeks away. The time feels right to wipe the slate clean. It’s time to bring back the debt jubilee.
David Graeber was a cultural anthropologist, one of the primary theorists of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and the thinker behind many recent analyses of modern life, such as the significance of political direct action, the meaning of “bullshit jobs,” and, of course, debt. Something of a radical academic, his writing style is at once familiar and approachable while also conceptually challenging. David Graeber suddenly passed away this year at the age of 59.
If you would like to learn more about debt-cancellation and the modern consumer debt crisis, check out Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt which formed out of the Occupy Wall Street movement (http://rollingjubilee.org/).
The South-Eastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SECT CLT) is a nonprofit dedicated to establishing permanent affordable housing using a unique and equitable system first pioneered in the United States by civil rights activists. With a recent change in staff, SECT CLT is getting ready to renew a push to continue its mission in 2021 (https://sectclt.org/).
If you are interested in assisting local community members who have recently lost their homes in the Norwich area, a new group has formed for that purpose. The first project is to create a directory of services and essential information, especially for those who are newly unhoused and thus might not know the systems in place to help them. Visit the Norwich Homeless Resource Volunteers group page to learn more (https://www.facebook.com/groups/658687648159825)
Sources & Further Reading:
Amadeo, Kimberley. “Current US Consumer Debt.” The Balance, updated 28 December 2020. https://www.thebalance.com/consumer-debt-statistics-causes-and-impact-3305704
Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House, 2011.
Hudson, Michael. “A debt jubilee is the only way to avoid a depression.” The Washington Post, 21 March 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/21/debt-jubilee-is-only-way-avoid-depression/
The child’s parents lived in an old, proud country that had come under the “influence” of a much more powerful country across the sea. Conflicts had led to civil war, and the country was only just starting to recover. To appease his imperial bosses, the king of the country coordinated a census, requiring all citizens to go register in their families’ ancestral town. The child’s parents would have to join the many other people on the roads and travel to Joseph’s hometown to register.
But there was a problem: the teenaged Mary was very pregnant. She could only move so fast. And so when she and Joseph finally arrived at an inn to stay the night, they found that they were too late: all the rooms were already full. But they could stay in the barn; at least it would be a roof over their heads. That night, among the hay straw and animals, Mary went into labor. One can only imagine how scared the two young parents must have been, trying to deliver their first baby with no one to help them. Some local shepherds, considered rather low-class in that country, were collecting their sheep in a field nearby and must have heard the commotion of Mary giving birth -- they discovered a young couple with their newborn son in the stable: the parents weak and tired, but filled with joy at the health of this perfect child.
Many are familiar with the Christmas nativity story, but the story is worth reconsidering specifically through the lens of 2020. Despite the eviction ban under the Covid-19 pandemic CARES Act (which ended in July) and the subsequent executive order to halt even more evictions in late August through to the end of the year, people in the United States have been losing their homes at record rates. And yet, even with the shutdowns, lost wages, the bare minimum of federal aid, and all the other attending difficulties of the pandemic, many Americans still believe that it must somehow be due to a personal failing that someone loses their job, or has to sleep outside, or gets pregnant at 14. It is practically the default narrative of hardship in our country. The nativity story, however, is specifically about a young, itinerant, pregnant couple dealing with difficult challenges due to circumstances outside of their control. No one has ever accused Joseph of being an alcoholic and waking up too late, or blamed Mary for being lazy and not walking fast enough -- Christians have long understood that the occupied inn and the lowly circumstances of the birth were the cards dealt to the couple, and a message to us.
Many more people today are being dealt worse hands for reasons outside of their control. This was true before the pandemic arrived, but Covid-19 has exacerbated the problems. But Covid-19 has also broken open new possibilities, new visions for the future. Like Mary and Joseph of the nativity story, we live through a transitional period in which the old world is dying and the new struggles to be born. Moments like this are full of real, suffering people. So let us regard each other with the same generosity of spirit as Christians have always regarded Mary and Joseph.
We leave you with this poem from Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and committed promoter of social justice.
“Room in the Inn”
Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power, because
they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
- Thomas Merton
Eichenberg, Fritz. “Christmas 1954” (or, “A Christmas Meditation for a Troubled World”).
Goldstein, Matthew. “Landlords Jump the Gun as Eviction Moratorium Wanes.” New York Times, 23 July 2020 (updated 2 September 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/business/evictions-moratorium-cares-act.html
Jones, Zoe Christen. “COVID driving record homelessness figures in NYC, advocates say.” CBS News, 11 December 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/covid-driving-record-homelessness-figures-in-nyc-advocates-say/ar-BB1bR7TU
Merton, Thomas. "No Room in the Inn.”
In 1914, New York City experienced its worst winter in years. Massive snowstorms repeatedly drove upon the city while temperatures would dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In just two nights, 16 individuals died of sheer cold, and scores more had to be hospitalized from frostbite. Those who could find shelter at all lit fires indoors in desperate attempts to survive the frigid nights, risking the safety of other buildings nearby. Those who could not find shelter often suffered injuries or illnesses, ending up at the hospital and occupying a bed for longer than a typical patient. Some others would purposely choose arrest; at least jail guaranteed some food and a warm place to sleep.
Nationally, unemployment had been on the rise, reaching a staggering ⅓ of available workers out of a job. In New York City, hundreds of unhoused people, mostly recently-unemployed men, lined the buildings to soup kitchens and shelters. Formerly the sole domain of religious groups, new charitable organizations sprang up to support and oftentimes shepherd the economically vulnerable into this or that cause. Favorable interpretations for these new organizations viewed them as modern, scientific, and wholly apolitical -- seen as an advancement over the improvised system of neighborhood power brokers developed by Tammany Hall. But critics pointed out the immense sums these groups brought in, the comparatively meager and low-quality food and accommodations provided for those in need, and the quick manner in which the biggest charitable groups banded together to create a monopoly on the whole enterprise. One couplet became popular among some in that time: “The organized charity, scrimped and iced / In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.”
On February 13, in the middle of the worst blizzard the city had seen in years, a wealthy socialite went out dancing, leaving her chauffeur to wait in the car. The unfortunate chauffeur was found in the car frozen to death later that evening. Over the next couple weeks, the city government would work on establishing its first “municipal employment bureau”: a system to match unemployed workers and their skills to open jobs. When the city found that it suddenly needed many temporary workers to clear the streets of snow and ice, the list at the new bureau was invaluable in finding the necessary labor. However, the workers quickly realized how even this new system was rigged, and some became completely disillusioned with the new system. From Thai Jones’ More Powerful than Dynamite:
‘Thirty-five cents an hour was no fortune, considering the severity of the work. And that old foe, graft, incised deeply into even this meager sum. Each person sent from the employment bureau was directed to a private contractor who took twenty-five cents off the top plus a dime to hire the shovel. After an eight-hour day, and another nickel for the foreman, a man might have a dollar left. But he didn’t get a dollar, he got a ticket, which he could use only at a particular saloon. There he was charged 20 percent to cash the thing and was forced to buy a drink…’ (Jones 70)
It was in this difficult situation that a young 19-year old man by the name of Frank Tannenbaum started leading an “army” of unemployed and unhoused men into the churches of Manhattan. Frank was a passionate member of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. aka “Wobblies”) and fully believed in the union’s message of establishing true justice and human brotherhood through solidarity and direct action. Night after night through the snow and cold, the “Boy I.W.W. leader” Frank Tannenbaum lined up the other homeless men who wished to join him into marching ranks and led them through the city, politely but firmly demanding from the priests of these churches to live up to their Christianly values and provide food and shelter for just the evening. Some nights there were several dozens of men with Frank; other nights, well over a hundred. Word spread quickly: the wealthiest churches requested extra security from the police, while the press ran typical slanderous stereotypes of rabble-rousers. And yet, neither violence nor property destruction was ever reported to the police by these churches. From Thai Jones again: “The out-of-work army had shown the highest qualities of anarchism. It was spontaneous, nonviolent, dignified, and viciously subtle in its revelation of hypocrisy” (Jones 94).
After just over a week of demonstrating the power of direct action, Frank and his “army” were led into a trap by police, and Frank was promptly arrested, had bail set to to an incredible $5000, and was soon after sentenced to the maximum sentence: a year of hard prison labor. Frank would eventually leave prison and become a respected professor, but his actions in early 1914 seemed to inspire seasoned revolutionaries like Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman as well as lesser-known anarchists and direct-actionists to continue this new revolutionary chapter.
We live in a different world, but some similarities are striking. After over a decade of steadily decreasing numbers of homeless people in the United States, that number has started to increase again in the last two years. Unemployment rates skyrocketed earlier this year due to covid-19 and have only recently begun to drop primarily because, without government assistance, people are being forced back to work. We have a new incoming government, but few harbor genuine hope in its competency or political will, despite Biden and Harris’ progressive posturing.
And then there’s the snow.
Because more people are losing their homes, the government systems in place to support those people, which were already underfunded and stretched too thin, are in crisis. Our local shelters are full. Camps are a temporary solution, but are unsafe and unsanitary, especially for women, queer people, and people with disabilities. And, of course, being unhoused makes every other part of one’s life more difficult.
Addressing homelessness, however, is complex and multifaceted. Does that mean trying to prevent homelessness, or does it mean supporting people who are already homeless? Does preventing homelessness mean physically defending tenants from evictions? Does supporting already unhoused people mean helping them where they are, or does it mean finding them a new home? How can we balance immediate needs with long-term solutions? Frank Tannenbaum’s solution in 1914 was not a permanent one either, but it was a way for the men to win some dignity, survive the night, develop solidarity with each other, and inspire others. That is the beauty of direct action.
Jones, Thai. More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy. Bloomsbury, New York: 2012.
Moon, Robin J. “Where do homeless patients go after being treated for COVID-19?” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/where-do-homeless-patients-go-after-being-treated-for-covid-19
Today is the 72 anniversary of the publication of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document for international human rights law. Its purpose was primarily to serve the UN mission: to maintain freedom, justice, and peace in the world so that individuals can best develop themselves. That mission can only be achieved by a universal recognition of all humans’ inherent dignity and equal rights, which the UN detailed in the 1948 document. Despite some flaws and ambiguities, it is a remarkable political document -- one that feels both familiar to the American reader due to similarities with the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights -- yet it also feels new, bold, and exciting.
It is no use to anyone if this Declaration was made and never read. The Declaration explicitly states that the system of values it lays out can only function if there is common understanding about the meaning and purpose of those values. To that end, here is the powerful, Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its entirety.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
Article 11. (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Article 13. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Article 14. (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Article 15. (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
Article 16. (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
Article 17. (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Article 21. (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
Article 23. (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
Article 27. (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Article 28. Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
Article 29. (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Article 30. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html
This passed Tuesday marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. On December 1, 1960, sixteen committed individuals took off from San Francisco’s Union Square on foot, determined to walk across the United States and Europe to Moscow in order to spread their message of nuclear disarmament to Americans, Europeans, and Russians alike. Bradford Lyttle, one of the main organizers of the Walk, wrote an account of the experience, including the unique opportunities and encounters that walking across 6000 miles revealed.
Almost everywhere they went, people of all kinds were drawn to the artists, anarchists, academics, and idealists who took part in the Walk. What is striking about so many of these interactions is how they revealed the sometimes surprising private feelings of ordinary citizens about war, peace, conscience, nuclear weapons, and the future of humanity in an era of extreme conformity. In our current culturally divided moment, perhaps it is a good reminder that not everyone who disagrees with us is the enemy, that one’s actions do not always reflect one’s beliefs, and that a single interaction can inspire great acts of kindness from ordinary people.
The following are excerpted accounts of the first few weeks of the Walk from Bradford Lyttle’s book You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace.
Our alarm went off at 5:30 next morning. Everyone was so sore and tired that we decided to sleep until 7:30. Then we took two hours to repack our luggage. All of us had too much gear. We were afoot by 11:00. At Millbrae, police forbade leafleting for one mile. We complied, feeling it would shock the Executive Committee [of the Committee for Nonviolent Action “CNVA”] in New York, if we were jailed the second day out. Joe Glynn led us a mile off the route to picket a Liquid Carbonics plant and other industries with military contracts. In the evening, several marchers met with members of the Palo Alto Peace Center. We reached Redwood City and separated to spend the night in homes of supporters.
December 3, we began walking earlier, and passed through Stanford University. Students readily accepted leaflets. In Redwood City’s municipal park, we held an open air meeting at noon with more than 100 sympathizers. A Rabbi and a minister brought their Sunday School classes to meet us. Sympathizers gave us cookies and money. From 4:30 to 5:30 we picketed Moffat Air Force Base. UPI sent a reporter. A man stopped his car. He said he recently had left his job building Polaris [intercontinental nuclear] missiles at a nearby Lockheed factory. He couldn’t square manufacturing missiles with his conscience. He pressed $5 into my hand.
Members of the San Jose Quaker Meeting prepared our supper and we talked with them afterwards. Then we held an internal meeting. Since we were already eight miles behind our schedule, we decided we should walk from 6:00 AM until noon every day, with no time out for picketing or meetings. A moment of truth had also arrived in regard to personal belongings. Each marcher was asked to reduce his gear to a minimum and be responsible for his things.
We reached the Monterey Peninsula on December 6. Milton and Jane Meyer served us supper at their Carmel home. Later, Berkeley station KPFA interviewed us. [The Hilary Harris filmmakers] Saul Gottlieb and Ray Wisniewski arrived in the middle of the interview. A breakdown of their Volkswagen had delayed the mobile movie-takers for three days.
The Mayers knew that radical peacewalks seldom come to Carmel. They had decided to work us hard. At 7:00 the next morning we and half a dozen local sympathizers picketed Fort Ord. Reporters were on hand. At 7:30, we walked through the town of Seaside, leafleting. At 8:00, a car whisked us to picket the Naval Air Facility Base near Monterey. The Monterey Police Chief was on hand and very amiable. “Everyone has a right to express themselves. If you believe this is the way to do it you are welcome to do so in Monterey.” So ran the gist of his statement.
We proceeded through the campus of Monterey Peninsula College. Throngs of students gathered to read our leaflets and discuss our views. We were permitted to leave only after we had promised to send marchers back in the afternoon to speak in classes and debate in the student lounge. We walked through downtown Monterey. A drugstore owner gave us a canvas waterbag. After picketing for 25 minutes at the Presidio, an Army language school, we walked and leafleted in Pacific Grove.
A parade through Carmel and meetings in classes at Carmel High ended our whirlwind tour of Monterey Peninsula. In the afternoon, half a dozen marchers returned to Monterey Peninsula College and went also to Emerson College. Everywhere, students were eager to discuss our ideas, although few seemed to agree with them.
We marched into Santa Maria, a town near the missile testing range at Vandenberg AFB, on the 14th. Santa Maria is “The Missile Capital of the Free World” according to the masthead of its newspaper. A courageous Methodist minister opened his church to us. Likely more than half his congregation was directly or indirectly involved in testing military rockets.
In the afternoon, we reached the main entrance of Vandenberg. An Air Force officer threatened me with violence if I took his picture. On the way there, I was hitchhiking, and two men who earlier had lingered at the fringe of a public meeting in Santa Maria, gave me a lift. They were hostile. I feared they might be planning to “give me a ride”. But they only wanted to talk. One was a jet fighter pilot on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. He was a troubled young man.
“In training class an officer said, ‘You men are killers now. Don’t forget that!’” The boy shook his head and grinned uneasily. “I’m a killer. I’m supposed to be a killer,” he said.
His companion serviced missiles at Vandenberg. He was more detached from his work than the pilot, and argued the strategy of deterrence with me. I was unable to shake his conviction that the missiles would never be used.
On the 15th, we resumed the March at Vandenberg’s main gate. CNVA Committee member Sam Tyson and Joe Glynn had been picketing. Police gave them tickets for parking by the side of the road -- on Government property.
About two miles out from the gate, out in the lonely, hilly dunes, a man stopped his car and took movies of us. I talked with him. He was a physicist who worked with Convair on Atlas missiles. His heart was heavy, his conscience raw. A Catholic and a Thomist, he justified his work on the grounds that the missiles were being used for peaceful space exploration, as well as to carry H-bombs. But the rationalization obviously was thin. “I’m due for a promotion soon,” he said gloomily. How many employees felt as he did in the great, sprawling Base, whose gantry cranes squatted like some strange animals on the beach, blinking their red and green warning lights?
At least one more. A pretty young lady stopped her car where we were resting and gave us $5. She taught grade school on the Base. A powerful impulse drove her to join us, but she had a family to support. She drove beside us about two miles, discussing our program.
On the 19th, the March picketed recruiting offices in Oxnard. On the 20th, we attended a public meeting in the Santa Monica Unitarian Church. Every night we succeeded in finding accommodations in churches or private homes. Much of the walking was inspiring and exhilarating. In the winter, the countryside is beautiful in Central and Southern California.
Roberta Ridley, a Los Angeles mother who had been deeply moved at the Santa Monica meeting, provided hospitality for three nights. I warned her about the dangers of having 16 individualistic peacewalkers in her home. She was undaunted. When she was able, she took responsibility for our meals, too, and I don’t think we met many people in 5000 miles whose devotion and generosity exceeded hers.
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.