Vietnam-era anti-war act in Catonsville still resonates

Mary Murphy looked up from the paperwork on her desk one day in May 1968.

A man stood in the doorway of her office — a Catholic priest. He was staring at her.


"Can I help you, sir?" said Mary Murphy.

The man in the doorway didn't hesitate.


"We're clergymen — here to prevent war," the Rev. Philip Berrigan told the startled Catonsville clerk.

A moment later, the Baltimore-based Josephite father was leading seven other Vietnam War protesters (another remained on the front porch as a lookout) into the offices of Local Board 33, where they quickly began ransacking cabinets and throwing U.S. Selective Service System files into two wire trash baskets.

It happened on the afternoon of May 17, 1968 — 45 years ago Friday — when nine Baltimore-Washington peace activists successfully pulled off what a historian later called "the single most powerful anti-war act in American history."

The raid lasted only a few minutes. When Murphy and the two other Catonsville draft board clerks under her supervision tried to resist, "Berrigan shoved her out of the way," according to the FBI, and the invaders hauled nearly 400 draft files down the back stairs of the old Knights of Columbus Hall on Frederick Road, which housed the local Selective Service office, and poured homemade napalm on them.

While Murphy reportedly screamed "My God, they're burning our records!" each of The Nine tossed a burning match onto the pyre and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan (Philip's Jesuit brother) began distributing a prepared press statement: "We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men, but [also] because these records represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America."

One of The Nine, Tom Melville, a former Maryknoll missionary who at the time had recently been sent home from Guatemala for allegedly inciting revolution among disenfranchised peasants, said recently that he still believes the raid served a vital purpose by calling attention to the injustice of both the Vietnam War and misguided U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

"When people ask me, 'Are you happy you did it ?' I always say, 'You're damn right I am! I'd do it all over again.' But I never had any idea that anybody was going to remember it, and today I feel embarrassed by the fact that people make all this fuss over it. We were nine simple people who performed an act their consciences told them to perform. That's all.

"We did what we did, and I'm satisfied with that. But I don't want any kind of monument. I was just a simple slob who fell in love with the people of Guatemala and thought they were getting a raw deal."

Melville went on to lament the fact that the Catonsville Nine were sometimes idealized as saintly war resisters without flaws — especially in a famous play and in films.

"Sometimes people [are] thinking we're better than we are," he said. "But lots of times when they get closer and scratch the surface, they find out we're not so great. But we never intended to be great — and I certainly didn't believe in May of '68 that I was doing anything fantastic or historical."

'Many interpretations'

Forty-five years after the events at the white-clapboard Knights of Columbus Hall at 1010 Frederick Road, Catonsville residents remain deeply divided over the meaning of the demonstration by The Nine — all of whom were eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for destroying government property and interfering with the draft.


"There's always been ambivalence in Catonsville," said historian Shawn Francis Peters, a Catonsville native who today teaches at the University of Wisconsin and recently authored a highly regarded book on the subject, "The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era," Oxford University Press.

"At the time it happened, I think lots of people in Catonsville thought it was just an embarrassment, and that it had given the town a bad name," Peters said. "And today there's no monument to The Nine [in town]. But they did have an impact on many peace activists, and they do have [their admirers in Catonsville].

"I think we still have this ambiguity about the event, and there are so many different interpretations that I don't think you can settle on a fixed, best meaning."

Maureen Keck, a 73-year-old lifelong Catonsville resident who lives on Oak Drive only two blocks from the site of the raid, agrees with Peters that its meaning is difficult to evaluate.

"I was a Catholic who was proud of what many Catholic activists were doing back in the Sixties," she recalled. "I remember an action to integrate Gwynn Oak Park. And I did think the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. To this day, I have a sign on my lawn: 'War is not the answer'

"But I also believe the Catonsville Nine probably went too far, and I understand why some believed there was arrogance in Phil Berrigan. The demonstrators destroyed government property, and Mary Murphy was slightly injured."

But Keck also confessed to feeling "a bit of chauvinism," while pointing out: "I love Catonsville — and that event put us on the map."

Another longtime resident with ambivalent feelings about The Nine is Mary Murphy's daughter, 73-year-old Mim Murphy Quaid, who noted with some irony that her mother had been seen as a "hero" during World War II and the Korean War, when she volunteered for the tedious job of running local draft boards.

Even more ironically, Mim Quaid was herself a Vietnam War-protester who frequently marched in 1960s antiwar demonstrations, although she "never blamed my mother for the war."

Describing the long-term impact of the raid, Quaid said that both her mother and Philip Berrigan had "mellowed" in later years (Murphy died in 2001 and Berrigan a year later) and that they'd sat down to dinner with some other members of The Nine more than a dozen years ago. During the meal, she said, the two former antagonists had engaged in an emotional conversation.

"I thought that evening brought closure to her," said Quaid, "and I've never forgotten what she said on the ride home.

"She told me, 'All these years, I've thought the Catonsville Nine were devils — and really, they're just people."

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