Fifty years later, Catonsville Nine draft protest inspires activists, angers opponents

The small group of marchers made their way down the cracked sidewalks of West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, singing “Let there be peace on Earth.”

A few small kids stopped what they were doing to stare, to smile, to shake hands. A few adults watched skeptically. Others shouted blessings, and thanks.

The prayer walk, hosted by St. Peter Claver’s Church, was the latest expersson of the congregation’s longstanding mission of peace and social justice. Fifty years ago this month, the Catholic Church on Freemont Avenue drew international attention when the Rev. Philip Berrigan, then a parish priest, led a group of nine antiwar activists to a Knights of Columbus banquet hall in Catonsville for a notorious and influential demonstration.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the K of C had allowed the Selective Service to use a room in the hall as a local draft office. On May 17, 1968, the activists drove the parish van to the hall on Frederick Avenue, gathered up several hundred draft cards, took them out into the parking lot and burned them with homemade napalm.

They joined hands around the fire, prayed and waited, peaceably, to be arrested and taken to jail. The Catonsville Nine would be tried at the federal courthouse in Baltimore, convicted of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967, and sentenced to prison.

The actions of the nine, which included not only Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, but also his brother, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit, stunned many — but not Deborah Holly.

“It was a normal thing for our parish to be involved in those kinds of things,” said Holly, a teenaged parishioner at the time of the protest. In the days when black worshippers were expected to sit in the back of Baltimore’s white churches, she said, she and her St. Peter Claver’s friends would march in and sit in the front row.

“If you’re gonna be in a church,” Holly said, “you’re gonna be about justice.”

Fifty years after the demonstrators burned the draft cards, supporters are honoring their protest. Beginning Sunday, an exhibition of artwork by one of the nine will be on view at the Maryland Historical Society. Vigils, symposiums and film screenings are planned. Supporters this month unveiled a state-approved sign near the site.

Not everyone is celebrating. In Catonsville and beyond, the action remains divisive.

“It’s kind of like kicking the servicemen in the teeth,” said Ron Bledsoe, a retired Anne Arundel County police lieutenant.

Bledsoe, 64, remembers hearing of the protest when he was a teenager at Annapolis High School. His uncle, cousin and friends were fighting in Vietnam, he said.

“I understand their concern over the Vietnam War,” he said. “I also know what they did was wrong. … That was one step too far. They had no right.”

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, declined to allow the state sign on its property.

“One of our core beliefs is patriotism,” said Bernie Wrisk, grand knight of the Patapsco Council No. 1960. “We have many members in our council that are veterans of that time, and they served in that war, and they didn’t agree with that whole retaliation and act of disobedience. They would have been very taken aback and upset if that were to have any connection to the council.”

Supporters of the nine applied for a roadside marker from the Maryland Historical Trust, placed on the grounds of the Catonsville public library, across the street from the K of C hall. Joby Taylor, director of the Peaceworker Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said it took nearly a year of negotiations with state officials to settle on the text.

“The Catonsville action played an important role in the antiwar movement, inspiring similar acts of civil disobedience across the country,” the sign says.

A small crowd gathered last Saturday to see the unveiling. Some spoke of their disappointment that the Knights had turned them down.

Among the group at the unveiling was Frida Berrigan, Philip’s daughter.

Philip Berrigan married the activist and former nun Liz McAlister in 1970. The couple were excommunicated from the Catholic Church. They remained in Baltimore, where they founded Jonah House, a community inspired by the pacifist Catholic Worker movement, and raised three children.

At gas stations and grocery stores, Frida Berrigan said, men would approach her father to thank him for what he’d done. Others told him he had inspired them to become radicals themselves.

“That’s how I learned the story of Catonsville,” said Berrigan, a 44-year-old peace activist and writer living in Connecticut.

Still, she said, seeing the official, state-sanctioned marker “was surprisingly moving.”

Philip Berrigan died in 2002. Liz McAlister is being held at a detention center in Georgia after a protest last month at the Kings Bay nuclear submarine base. McAlister and six other members of the anti-nuclear-weapon Plowshares movement face charges of trespassing and defacing government property.

Frida Berrigan said the fearlessness and teamwork of the Catonsville Nine have informed her own acitivism. In 2005 and 2015, she and others traveled to Cuba in defiance of U.S. law, to protest the detention of terror suspects at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

“We certainly felt like we were going in the spirit of Catonsville,” she said.

The example of the nine inspired a Baltimore group to coordinate a protest last weekend. They burned military recruitment posters and an American flag.

“We were commemorating a militant, brave act,” said Miranda Bachman, a senior at Johns Hopkins and a member of Youth Against War and Racism. The group has protested CIA recruiting events at Hopkins.

George Mische, one of the Catonsville Nine, speaks of the student walkouts and demonstrations that have spread since the February shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The year 1968, he says, had much in common with 2018.

“It was a great time to see the young in the country try to waken the conscience of America,” he said. “And that’s exactly what’s happening now.”

Filmmaker Joe Tropea’s fascination with the nine began in 2006, when he began doing research that later turned into a documentary he co-directed called “Hit and Stay,” about the group and the efforts it inspired. After Catonsville, dozens of groups nationwide raided draft offices, including in Silver Spring and Washington.

One group that called itself Women Against Daddy Warbucks shredded draft records and threw them in the air in downtown New York as if it was confetti.

President Richard Nixon ended the draft in 1973. UMBC’s Taylor gives credit to the activists.

“Because of the actions of these individuals, you’re not thinking: ‘Is my number going to get called?’ ” he said.

Philip Berrigan, a white priest born in Minnesota, arrived at the predominantly African-American St. Peter Claver’s in the 1960s. As parish priest, he celebrated funerals for local men who had died in Vietnam. He also worked with Catholic activists to oppose a war that he believed was unjust and illegal — and that affected blacks and poor people disproportionately.

Brendan Walsh, a former seminarian who worked with Berrigan at St. Peter Claver’s, summed up the argument: “The rich send their kids to college, the poor send their kids to Vietnam.”

Walsh drove the parish van to Catonsville. He later founded Viva House, a soup kitchen in the Union Square neighborhood of Baltimore.

The road to Catonsville began in Baltimore. In October 1967, Berrigan and three other people broke into the Customs House, where draft records were stored, and poured on them a mixture of animal blood, and their own.

During the trial for that action — they were called the Baltimore Four — they learned that the government kept only single copies of the 1A files. If they were destroyed, they could not be replaced.

George Mische had an idea: “We’ll burn the goddamn things,” he told his wife, Helene.

Over beers in the basement of the Misches’ house on S Street in Washington, they mixed Ivory soap flakes and gasoline to make napalm.

“I thought that was a fabulous idea,” said Marjorie Melville. She and Mische are the only two members of the Catonsville Nine who are still alive.

“They had a Green Beret manual,” she said. “It showed how to mix your own.”

The Nine were methodical. While antiwar protesters of the 1960s were dismissed as “longhairs” and hippies, the Catonsville Nine wanted to present an image that wouldn’t be written off so easily. They were all clean-cut. Philip Berrigan had served as an infantry officer in World War II. Both Berrigans wore their priests’ collars to the Knights of Columbus hall.

“We figured the media would really be more apt to take a look at this if we weren’t in the same mold of the protesters of the campus world,” Mische said.

Catonsville was chosen as a location both for its accessibility — other draft offices were protected by armed guards — and its symbolism. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, owned the building. To the protesters, it was vital to show that not all Catholics agreed with the war.

May 17, 1968, was, a witness later said, “a typical Catonsville, Maryland beautiful spring day.”

The Knights of Columbus building had a creaky front door. But Phyllis Brandt, a clerk in the draft office, said neither she nor her coworkers heard the protesters enter. When she looked up, she saw a priest in the doorway, holding a wire trash can.

“It was shocking that it was priests,” remembered Brandt, now 87. “You expect a lot more from people.”

After burning the files, the protesters said the Our Father and waited to be arrested. A WBAL-TV reporter caught the event on film, later confiscated by the FBI. Willa Bickam, who is married to Walsh, hand-delivered press releases to the local newspapers.

“We believe some property has no right to exist,” they said in a statement.

Many disapproved. The widely circulated image of priests burning draft records in a parking lot in Catonsville astounded Americans in what had already been a tumultuous year. A month earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis. Baltimore and other major cities erupted in riots.

“It was a very controversial act,” Taylor said. “I don’t think the majority of people in Catonsville wanted to be on the news” for such a reason.

One such person was Wilbur Baldwin. Baldwin landed at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion and helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau.

Baldwin, now 95, sat at the bar of the Knights of Columbus hall one recent afternoon. To him, he said, the antiwar protesters were “longhairs and whatever else.”

But to others, particularly members of the antiwar movement, the Catonsville Nine were heroes. Their trial at the federal courthouse in Baltimore that fall drew some 1,600 people to Baltimore, and grew into an extension of the original protest. Many marched in support from Wyman Park to the courthouse. Others heckled. “Why don’t you get a haircut?” a man shouted from a car, according to coverage in The Baltimore Sun.

Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, stayed with Walsh and Bickham at Viva House. Brandt attended the trial, too — to testify against the nine.

“It was so ridiculous,” she said. “It was all publicity. I think that’s all they wanted.”

The Rev. Ray Bomberger, now pastor of St. Peter Claver’s, did not know Philip Berrigan well, but says he made an impression.

“He wasn’t out for fame and fortune,” he said. Though the draft card burning might have looked drastic, he said, “Some drastic action was kind of needed to wake people up to what was going on.”

All of the nine were found guilty and sentenced to federal prison. Several, including the Berrigans, went underground rather than surrender and begin their sentences. All except David Darst eventually served at least some time. Darst, a Christian brother, was killed in a car accident shortly after the trial.

One of the nine, Tom Lewis, who was also part of the Baltimore Four, created an extensive body of artwork about his time incarcerated. His paintings will be on view at the Maryland Historical Society.

Joe Tropea, who curated the exhibition, hopes that learning about the nine will motivate people today “to think about how to get creative” in their protests.

“You can’t be complacent and sit on the sidelines,” he said.

Lewis’ was not the only art created by the nine. “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” a play written by Daniel Berrigan, is to be performed through the end of May by the Salem Players in Catonsville.

Marc Gopin, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, praised the nine.

“We need more people willing to stand up against crimes of injustice against the poor,” he said. “It is time for millions to follow the way of nonviolent resistance.”

And, increasingly, Americans are taking to the streets.

“We’re just in another period like this,” said Holly, the longtime St. Peter Claver’s parishioner. She says the student-led protests against gun violence in schools remind her of the activism in the ’60s: “It’s a wonderful thing to behold.”

As they look back with the hindsight of half a century, some of the participants wonder about the legacy of the Catonsville Nine.

The Vietnam War is over, and the two nations are now friends. But the U.S. military presence in the world has only spread.

“Nothing really has changed militarily, except we don’t see Americans dying,” Walsh said. In his neighborhood, poverty and drug addiction are increasing.

“Militarization of the police is Vietnam come home,” he said.

Melville, who now lives in Mexico, returned to Catonsville this month to speak at a symposium at UMBC.

“A lot of the things that we were arguing for are still going on,” she said.“So we say, ‘Hmm. Did it do any good?’ ”

Over the years, participants sometimes heard from men who said their actions had prevented them from being sent to war.

“There were quite a few guys who didn’t have to go to Vietnam,” Melville said. “I think we might have saved a few lives there.”

Mische remembered later eating with Philip Berrigan at a restaurant on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. When they rose to pay the bill, a man approached — to thank them for what they’d done.

“You got my file,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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