Last week, we shared some general descriptions of a wave of mass civil disobedience that swept through the US and UK in the Easter season of 1961. The demonstrators objected to the “civil defense drills” promoted by the US and UK governments, pointing out what a meager defense that duck-and-cover could provide in the face of a doomsday scenario that their own governments had started. Common people were forced into the role of pawns in a global chess match between the nuclear-armed powers, and some of those common people had had enough.
(See our post from last week here: “Thousands in Civil Disobedience; Hundreds Arrested in US and England” (1961))
This week, we have a brief description of the largest civil defense protest in the US that season: the roughly 1500-strong civil disobedience action in New York City. The author of the article, Mary Meigs, had at the time only recently become involved with the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), having been introduced to the group by her partner Barbara Deming. Despite the relatively short time that Meigs was involved with the CNVA, she is especially notable for being the person to purchase Campbell Farm in Voluntown, Connecticut in 1962, which she gifted to the CNVA to ultimately become the Voluntown Peace Trust.
Meigs’ description of the NYC civil defense protest is particularly evocative of the mood of such mass civil disobedience actions. A few details may seem familiar to those who have participated in similar demonstrations: the outsized number of police, the sudden and arbitrary mass arrests, the undercounting of participants by the press, and the many unanswered questions — but also the feeling of determination, solidarity, and even joy shared between the diverse participants.
At the bottom of this clipping, there is a brief notice about the summer program organized by the New England CNVA. While CNVA member Brad Lyttle was the primary organizer of the summer program, others contributed to the project. One was the then-Chair of the Chemistry Department at Connecticut College, Dr. Gordon Christiansen, who also wrote a pamphlet on nuclear detonation scenarios in and around southeastern Connecticut (see this link to read his pamphlet: Survival in Nuclear War: A Vanishing Probability). We will return to Brad Lyttle and the 1961 New England CNVA summer program later. For now, let us reflect on all of the grassroots political activity that was swelling at the time. In the South, the civil rights movement was already picking up momentum. In the North, the movement against nuclear weapons and war in general was also gaining strength. Many elements of these movements would eventually merge, culminating with Dr. King’s powerful and controversial speech on the Vietnam War in April 1967. Already in 1961, these confluences were developing: campaigns like the Quebec to Gauntanamo Walk and the Southern Peace Walk addressed militarism and racism as interconnected issues. Still, in the midst of organizing civil disobedience actions, summer trainings, and the communications to coordinate all of this activity, people like Mary Meigs, Barbara Deming, Brad Lyttle, Gordon Christiansen, even Dr. King didn't know how their work would turn out. But despite their own uncertainties, something compelled them to keep pushing the movement forward. Let us follow in their footsteps and continue to push past where they left off.
(Click the image below to download the PDF version of the original clipping)
The CT Committee for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons organizes pro-disarmament demonstrations throughout the year. To participate in these demonstrations against nuclear arms and in support of the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, please get in touch with us on Facebook at facebook.com/voluntownpeacetrust or email us at email@example.com.
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Meigs, Mary. “The Civil Defense Protest at City Hall Park.” Polaris Action Bulletin. 6 May 1961 (Bulletin #22), page 6.
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