We shall overcome only if we make it so
A pivotal act of civil disobedience sparks a lifetime of exploration, reflection and resistance.
On a raw, drizzly day during the winter of 1969, I met a young man named Allen at the Chicago office of the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Quakers. I was working there as a draft counselor, helping young guys file as conscientious objectors. This was a tough process designed to discourage and deny, sparing few from Vietnam. All I remember of him was his long reddish sideburns, the peace buttons pinned to his jean jacket, and his sad eyes.
We talked for almost an hour about whether he would report to a U.S. Army boot camp the next day. He picked up an anti-war flyer off my desk announcing an upcoming “die-in” protest in front of the Chicago Induction Center. He asked me if I intended to go. I glanced at the photo on the flyer of a naked Vietnamese child running down a dirt track in panic. Her village had been set on fire by napalm, dropped by American aircraft. I could hear her terrible screams, almost audible on the page. I told him that our government was responsible for so much suffering and death, and yes, I was going but unsure if I was willing to be arrested.
At the time, I never learned what he decided to do, but I guessed, like me, he ultimately chose resistance. Anti-war rallies and marches weren’t enough for me anymore, small tokens of conscience without much risk. What could I do that would be real and visible, yet align with my non-violent ideals?
A few months later, I attended a secret meeting organized by Father Phil Berrigan. He, his brother Dan, and seven others had carried out an exceptional act against the Vietnam War in May 1968, burning hundreds of draft files in Catonsville, Maryland with a kind of home-made napalm. Phil proposed a much larger action than Catonsville, linking war and racism by targeting the central repository of twenty different draft boards in Chicago which contained the papers of hundreds of thousands of young men, mostly from the sprawling, southside black ghetto.
This act of civil disobedience would not be an anonymous hit and run. Instead, we would bear public witness against the carnage of the war by being arrested. He asked for a show of hands. Eighteen people, including me, agreed to participate.
On the night of May 25 1969 we clustered in a dark hallway, directing our flashlights at the frosted glass door of the draft boards building. For a moment we stopped, listening for any sound. Hearing nothing, our mallets pounded the flimsy wood and glass. Jagged pieces crashed to the floor as the door frame sprang back.
Once inside, we crowded around a long bank of metal file cabinets. Our focus was the ‘1-A’ records and file cards: in draft speak ‘1-A’ meant ‘eligible for military service,’ with no deferment or approval as a conscientious objector. In this immense paper ghetto, 1-A files filled most of the cabinets in the room.
We pried open the drawers and out flew a stream of paper. We shoved as many as we could into our bags, filling them up with thousands and thousands of records. Whatever consequences followed for us, these ‘paper men’ would have a far better fate than death in a paddy field because of our actions.
The street was still sleeping as we grappled with the bags and gasoline cans. A street light flickered on the corner of S. Western Avenue. We dragged our heavy sacks down the sidewalk to the middle of the parking lot, dumping their contents to build a paper mountain.
We drenched the pile in gasoline and tossed lit matches. A column of pulsing smoke rose above the buildings. We all linked arms, swaying back and forth, as the blaze leapt upwards into the night sky.
Then we heard growls, the whines of car engines, at first faint but growing louder and louder. One of the priests in our group scampered to the street to look. “Here come the reporters! Mother of Jesus, the police are right behind them!” He ran back to us, crossing himself.
Revolving blue lights trailed behind a troop of converging cars and TV vans turning onto 62nd Street. My legs were quivering, soaked with sweat. I couldn’t think, and dreaded what came next.
One by one, the press zigzagged around other cars to secure the best view. With cameras around their necks, about 15 reporters scrambled out of their cars and gathered on the sidewalk, astounded by the whipping bonfire in front of them. The press stared and snapped pictures, too nervous to get any closer.
“Who are these kids?”
My legs begged me to escape, but I stayed fixed to the spot. The wailing from the squad cars was growing ever louder, screeching to a halt behind the press vans, honking to get them out of the way.
I hurled the last unscathed records as far as I could, watching them crinkle and then explode in flames. I tried to find a place inside myself where there was no paralyzing fear. That was the same place from which I spoke up to my father when I was in college, when I told him I was in love with a woman. That place sustained me now.
The cops maneuvered to aim their headlights on the parking lot. Their blue revolving beacons whirled in a mad tandem dance. The blaze was collapsing on itself. We had no more paper to give it, only ourselves.
At least a dozen police ran towards us with their guns drawn. I took a deep breath, trying to slow my shallow, panicky breathing. Everyone sang the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, the words of Dr. King’s final sermon. Our voices were hardly audible in the chaos around us. We sang to ourselves, to the person next to us.
“We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.”
Later, in the back of a squad car, with my handcuffed hands behind my back, I shut my eyes. My head burst with fragments of the last 24 hours: the silence in the hallway before we shattered the door; the fire burning away the bracing air of night. Taking some deep breaths, I pressed down a belly of dread as we turned the corner onto Western Avenue, headed to the precinct station.
Allen contacted me a few months ago through my publisher. Almost fifty years had passed since my draft counselling session with him at the Quaker’s office. Strange to say, our life stories had taken parallel paths. He never showed up for army boot camp. Instead, he fled to Canada and became a wanted-by-the-FBI fugitive. He’s still up there, teaching creative writing, a free man.
And me? My federal trial for the Chicago draft action began in May 1970, shortly after the National Guard killed four Kent State students peacefully protesting the war. The country then, as now, was polarized, angry and violent. In this atmosphere, the court didn’t want to hear why we burned the draft files, but only to make an example of us, especially the two leaders, a priest and myself. I didn’t stay for Judge Robson’s day of vengeance. I learned of my 10-year prison sentence followed by 10 years of probation at a safe house in Detroit.
I could only watch as the idealism of the 60s and 70s gave way to backlash, as the powerful sought to undo all that our generation achieved at such great risk. I’ve lived in many cities, running from the FBI for nearly twenty years and using three different aliases.
In 1989, I voluntarily surrendered, as the years underground had taken its terrible toll. I told the simple truth to the federal probation officer: “I regret fleeing to an invisible prison. I regret living a false, aloof life. I regret lying to those I care about the most. No matter what happens next, my life is stamped by these years as a fugitive.” However, I never disavowed the draft action or walked back my belief in social justice and peace.
Allen and I were young during the terrifying, confusing, and exhilarating times of the 1960s when everything sacred - our nation, our personal identity, our relationship to family - imploded and forced us to reinvent ourselves. We both had vivid, unromanticised experiences of commitment and loss. We both valued our conscience above all, spoke truth to power, and endured a hard road with an uncertain future. What we were and are is much more than a name, a family or a job.
Yet our common struggle goes on, made even more fateful by the existential crisis of our time: climate change. We shall overcome only if we make it so.
Emily L. Quint Freeman’s new book is Failure to Appear: Resistance, Loss, and Identity, published by Blue Beacon Books and released on March 1, 2020 for Women’s History Month.
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