Once prosecuted, now honored, Catonsville Nine get a memorial marker

Police once arrested Margarita Melville on Frederick Road in Catonsville. They drove her to jail and handcuffed her, and FBI agents knocked on her parents’ door.

But times change. Fifty years after authorities arrested Melville, her husband and seven friends for stealing and burning draft records, the state recognized the Catonsville Nine on Saturday with a memorial sign on the grounds of the Catonsville Public Library.

The 88-year-old Melville returned to the scene of the crime, where she and her fellow pacifists seized and burned 378 draft records in protest of the Vietnam War.

They would be 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. But their protest drew international attention, and inspired dozens more across the country.

More than 100 people gathered on the library lawn to see the state-sponsored sign unveiled.

“Don’t cause too much trouble,” someone called out. Melville grinned.

Their small ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of the protest led by brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both Catholic priests, in May 1968. Melville, one of two surviving members of the nine, was the only one to attend.

“We were burning draft cards in Catonsville to protest the government’s burning of children in Vietnam,” Melville said, quoting Daniel Berrigan’s famous line.

The memorial marker was installed outside the library — not outside the Knights of Columbus banquet hall across the street, where they burned the records.

Organizers said the Knights of Columbus declined to let them place their sign on their grounds. During the 1960s, the Catholic-based fraternal organization allowed the draft board to use an office in the hall.

Activist Brendan Walsh was a student of Daniel Berrigan.

“Rather than say we cannot put the marker where it belongs,” he said, “they should say we repent and ask for forgiveness.”

Two women who answered the door at the hall on Saturday declined to comment.

The Catonsville Nine inspired similar protests around the country, including in Silver Spring and Washington. Under increasing pressure, Congress ended the draft in 1973.

Daniel Berrigan was teaching at Cornell University when Philip Berrigan asked him to join the activists for the Catonsville demonstration. At the time, Philip Berrigan was awaiting sentencing for an earlier protest in Baltimore in which he and three others — the Baltimore Four — drenched draft records with blood.

The nine spent weeks planning their raid on the Catonsville draft board. On May 17, 1968, they entered and began ransacking cabinets and throwing Selective Service System files into wire trash baskets.

In the parking lot, they doused the records with a homemade napalm of Ivory soap flakes and gasoline — a recipe from a U.S. military handbook, Melville said.

“I personally put a match on them,” she recalled. They all shared the culpability.

The nine encircled the small fire, held hands and prayed. They waited for police.

“The Catonsville action played an important role in the antiwar movement, inspiring similar acts of civil disobedience across the country,” proclaims the sign sponsored by the Maryland Historical Trust and state highway department.

Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan, an internist in Ellicott City, paused at the words of “civil disobedience.” He noted that the federal government prosecuted the nine and sent them to prison.

“How did you ever get that text approved?” he asked.

“It took a long time. We’ll just say that,” said Joby Taylor, director of the Peaceworker Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Taylor helped arrange for the sign. He said it took about a year of negotiations with state officials. He has also helped plan a series of events to commemorate the anniversary over the next two weeks.

Melville served nine months in a federal prison in West Virginia. She lives in Mexico now.

After the ceremony, she walked to the Knights of Columbus parking lot and stood on the very grounds where she burned the records. When she continued down Frederick Road, people stopped and thanked her.

Once she went down this road in a police van. Saturday she traveled it again, hurrying to a panel discussion at which she was a guest of honor.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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