As I was driving around the Beltway coming home from my job as sixth-grade teacher at Pimlico Elementary School on May 17, 1968, news flashed from my car radio: “A group of protesters has stolen and burned draft files in the Selective Service office in Catonsville.” At that moment I realized life as I knew it would never be quite the same. My mother, Mary Murphy, was the chief clerk of the Catonsville Draft Board and the antagonist in the ongoing drama of what was later to be called the Catonsville Nine.
As I was living at that time in my parents’ house, I knew I was going home to see what the other side of such a protest looked like. In my own thinking and actions, I had become very anti- Vietnam War, participating in Baltimore marches and protests. Strange as it may seem to some — because of my knowledge of my mother’s background, and because I knew her and loved her as a person — it never occurred to me to blame the war on my mother.
She had worked for Selective Service since World War II, when she was thanked for stepping up to take the job, through the Korean War, when her job was at least acknowledged as necessary. While Vietnam changed my thinking, it did not change hers. She continued to believe she was performing a patriotic service to her country and especially to the men who served. From at least 1968 until her death in 2001, our political views were polar opposites. Her vote canceled out mine every election as mine canceled out hers. Still, family bonds seemed to lift us to a place beyond these differences, and our relationship got even better as the years went on; we both mellowed and forgave.
Historic events throughout the years have brought to light major differences of opinion within families and have been the cause of many estrangements. I believe we are again in such a time. In my own extended family, although we have the same religious and cultural background, we look out at the world through our own filters and see entirely different realities. In the big picture, one may be more right than the other, yet who is right and who is wrong in these interactions does not seem very helpful. We are in two distinct camps fueled by like-minded friends, like-minded media.
While we can choose our friends and news outlets, we are born into a family, and maintaining that relationship makes life more challenging. Such relationships seem a microcosm of what has happened in our country — and in the world, for that matter. This division has gotten us into the political quagmire we face today. How to move forward and come to some mutual understanding if not some agreement? Putting one’s self in the other’s place, deep listening, treating each other with respect might help. Love, in this case, can be a choice not a feeling.
At the time of the Catonsville Nine action, I believed its participants to be operating at a high level of consciousness, on an enlightened plane of spirituality. However, after the trial, several student marches against the Catonsville draft board, threats of violence, naming calling, and books and articles that personalized the continuation of the war, it seemed to me anger and self-righteousness had not been eliminated as motivation. At the time of the action, my mother certainly carried her share of anger and self-righteousness.
In May 2001, my mother had the opportunity to meet and interact with two living members of the Catonsville Nine face to face for the first time since May 17, 1968. Afterward, on the ride home in the car, she said, “All this time I was thinking they were devils, and they are just people.”
Actual contact with the “other” brought about a new perspective and some closure to this seminal event in my mother’s life; she died five months later in October of 2001. I have hopes that the planning committee for the 50 year commemoration of the Catonsville Nine will provide an opportunity to explore some of these issues relevant to today’s polarization rather than simply glorifying a half-century-old historic event.
Mary Lou Murphy Quaid can be reached at email@example.com.