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:
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