Today, in this holiday special, we look back at 1968—a pivotal year in modern American history. It was a year that saw the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, historic student strikes from Columbia to San Francisco State, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Chicago Democratic convention protests and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Over the next hour, we will air highlights from our recent coverage of four key events: the My Lai massacre, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Columbia student strike and the Catonsville Nine.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, in this Democracy Now! special, we go back 50 years, to 1968, a pivotal year in modern American history, a year that saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, historic student strikes from Columbia University to San Francisco State, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Chicago Democratic convention protests and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Over the next hour, we’ll air highlights from our recent coverage of four key events, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Columbia student strike and the Catonsville Nine. But we begin in Vietnam.
Fifty years ago, on March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men, in what became known as the My Lai massacre. Women were raped. Houses were burned. Bodies were mutilated. Then the U.S. military attempted to keep the massacre a secret. In March, survivors of the massacre gathered at the site to describe the horror of what happened on that day, 50 years ago, in 1968.
PHAM THI THUAN: [translated] A hundred and seventy people, and they shot them all dead. They shot them all. They shot once, they took one minute break, and opened fire for the second, then the third time. My father, who was in his eighties, was injured and tumbling, then crawling. I lay very still in the mud as if I was dead, and I glanced at him. I saw him, but I dared not speak to him, in fear they might hear me and shoot me. I wanted to yell at him to lie down, and maybe they won’t shoot again. But they noticed him and shot half of his head away.
AMY GOODMAN: After the My Lai massacre, the U.S. military attempted to cover up what happened. But in November of 1969, a young reporter named Seymour Hersh would reveal a 26-year-old lieutenant named William Calley was being investigated for killing 109 Vietnamese civilians. In 2015, Sy Hersh appeared on Democracy Now! and discussed what the U.S. soldiers did on the day of the massacre.
SEYMOUR HERSH: That morning, they got up thinking they were going to be in combat against the Viet Cong. They were happy to do it. Charlie Company had lost 20 people through snipers, etc. They wanted payback. And they had been taking it out on the people, but they had never seen the enemy. They’d been in country, as I said, in Vietnam for three or four months without ever having a set piece war. That’s just the way it is in guerrilla warfare—which is why we shouldn’t do it, but that’s another story. And they went in that morning ready to kill and be killed on behalf of America, to their credit. They landed. There were just nothing but women and children doing the usual, as you said in your intro—cooking, warming up rice for breakfast—and they began to put them in ditches and start executing them.
Calley’s company—Calley had a platoon. There were three platoons that went in. They rounded up people and put them in a ditch. … The other companies just went along, didn’t gather people, just went from house to house and killed and raped and mutilated, and had just went on until everybody was either run away or killed. Four hundred and some-odd people in that village alone, of the 500 or 600 people who lived there, were murdered that day, all by noon, 1:00. At one point, one helicopter pilot, a wonderful man named Thompson, saw what was going on and actually landed his helicopter. He was a small combat—had two gunners. He just landed his small helicopter, and he ordered his gunners to train their weapons on Lieutenant Calley and other Americans. And Calley was in the process of—apparently going to throw hand grenades into a ditch where there were 10 or so Vietnamese civilians. And he put his guns on Calley and took the civilians, made a couple trips and took them out, flew them out to safety. He, of course, was immediately in trouble for doing that.
AMY GOODMAN: This year on Democracy Now!, we spoke to three American peace activists, two of them veterans, who returned to Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre. Ron Carver helped organize the delegation.
RON CARVER: Well, 504 civilians, noncombatants, were mowed down by soldiers. As you said, it was horrific, but it was not an isolated incident. It was part of the culture of the war that had been created and fostered and was largely a product of the Pentagon’s insistence on high body counts in order to justify their continued war effort and their continuing, escalating insistence that the U.S. Congress give them ever more money and ever more troops. This is what led to these kind of massacres. The significance to me, however, is of people like Hugh Thompson, who, at great risk, landed his helicopter, had his crew train their guns on the soldiers who were committing this massacre, and telling them that they had to stop or they would be shot themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: We also spoke to Paul Cox, who founded Veterans for Peace in San Francisco, Susan Schnall, a former Navy nurse who was court-martialed for dropping pamphlets over San Francisco Bay opposing the Vietnam War. They talked about how the war continues to harm residents of Vietnam due to unexploded ordnances and the lasting impact of Agent Orange.
SUSAN SCHNALL: Children and farmers who are trying to till the land, if they come upon a scrap of metal, that can explode, it can kill them, it can maim them for life. So, that war, 50 years ago, continues to harm.
And I’ll mention also that we know that the children of American servicemen who were in Vietnam have also been born with very similar birth defects to those of the children in Vietnam. The worst part for the Vietnamese is, because the land is contaminated with dioxin, babies continue to be born and to be affected by this problem.
We want to commemorate and to respect the terrible, terrible massacre and the sacrifice that the Vietnamese suffered those years ago, and to come as servicepeople, as veterans, to say we’re sorry, we take responsibility, and we will continue to work for peace, and we will continue to work with you to try to heal some of these wounds of war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Paul Cox, how—with the veterans that you’ve known after you came out of the military, how have many of the veterans of Vietnam dealt with these issues of their participation in what most of the rest of the world continues an unjust, imperial war, but is still regarded as a tragic mistake by many leaders in this country?
PAUL COX: Well, I think there’s a range of responses. My own response to witnessing such a thing was to turn against the war, and I’ve been an activist ever since. Other people haven’t probably talked about it at all. Some people have drank themselves to death, shot themselves, jumped off of bridges. Other people have just shut it down. And then the few probably are still proud of what they did in Vietnam.
The vast, vast majority of GIs that went to Vietnam neither witnessed nor participated in anything such as this, although, you know, you have to say that the pilots that ran those B-52s and the guy that pushed the button that opened the bomb bay doors and dropped B-52 bombs did far more damage than any individual who looked his victims in the eye while he shot them. So, the war itself is an indictment of our country, and should be seen as such. And the air war and the artillery and the naval fire should all be seen as equally as horrendous and as criminal and as inhumane as those men that pulled the triggers in My Lai or the ones that, in my unit, that pulled the trigger on those civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! also spoke with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. I asked him to reflect on the significance of what happened in 1968 in Vietnam.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I wasn’t even born in 1968. I was born in 1971. But the events of that time period, I think, have become a part of the collective memory, at least for Americans and also for Vietnamese peoples, that if you go back to Vietnam, you’ll find all these memorials and monuments and museums dedicated to the victorious Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War. And so, things like the My Lai massacre and the Tet Offensive are commemorated there as either signs of American villainy or signs of Vietnamese triumph.
And, you know, my issue is that it’s a very complicated history, and to make it constantly American-centered does a disservice to Americans, who I think have a very American-centric view about the Vietnam War. And it allows, from the perspective of the American left, a certain idealization of the Vietnamese, thinking of them as the revolutionaries and the victorious Vietnamese and all this kind of stuff, the victims of American foreign policy. But all that may be true, but we should have a little bit more of a complex attitude, understanding that the victorious Vietnamese themselves persecuted their enemies, the southern Vietnamese, after the end of the war, and the victorious Vietnamese had extended the war into Laos and Cambodia. And that kind of complexity, I think, is still not really a part of the American consciousness about this history.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about—I mean, you wrote the book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, I wrote that book, and deliberately, to talk about how the war is remembered not just in the United States and Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia, and South Korea, as well. South Korea was the largest allied army of the United States, sent 300,000 troops, which the U.S. paid for. And U.S. also paid for South Korean contractors to come to Vietnam and help the U.S. military. This is part of the beginning of South Korea’s rise from a country that was poorer than South Vietnam to the country—
AMY GOODMAN: Poorer.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Poorer in 19—in the 1960s, it was poorer than South Vietnam. It had just been devastated by the Korean War, which killed about 2 to 3 million Koreans, and was carpet-bombed by the United States. Now, of course, Korea, South Korea, is what it is. But it’s—that history is tied in with the Vietnam War. That history has almost been completely obliterated.
Now, I talk about Cambodia and Laos because I think a lot of Americans don’t even know the war was fought in Cambodia and Laos, don’t know that 3 million Vietnamese people died in the war. But 3 million Cambodians and Laotians died during the war and afterwards. And it’s important to bring this up, because Americans, when they feel guilty, will say, “OK, we know that in Vietnam it’s called the American War. So maybe we should call it that.” And I’m saying even that is not sufficient, because the Vietnamese who call it the American War don’t want to think about what they did in Laos and Cambodia, and what they still do there today. So, thinking of war in just these binary terms of Vietnam and the United States just completely simplifies the history of what happened there.
AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English at the University of Southern California. Just two-and-a-half weeks after the My Lai massacre, April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. His assassination came exactly a year after he publicly came out against the war in Vietnam in a speech at Riverside Church in New York City.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home. And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
AMY GOODMAN: In the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King made three trips to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers while organizing for his nationwide Poor People’s Campaign.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation, that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.
AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was invited to Memphis by Reverend James Lawson, who we spoke to on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, as a pastor in Memphis, I was one who supported unionism. I happen to think you cannot have—we cannot make our democracy succeed, be effective, if you do not have working people in organized units who can care for their economic benefits and care for their environment, who can care for the issues of justice. We cannot anticipate that the teachers and brokers of plantation capitalism are going to offer economic equality. The people have to do that, so an engaged community, engaged people. And for that to happen, we have to have millions of working people in strong organizations locally, where they can know the issues, see one another, work with one another, to effect change where they live.
AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. King coming to—
REV. JAMES LAWSON: So those—so those who oppose—so those who oppose that are actually wanting to see the failure of this democratic experiment of ours.
AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. King coming to Memphis not once, but twice. The first time, had to leave because the march turned violent—many felt provocateurs were planted in the march—but then, not wanting that to be how he left Memphis, so did return, and the second time, of course, being assassinated?
REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, he actually was there three times. Martin King was invited, along with Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, as the speakers from the outside who would help us mobilize our mass meetings and help us to get the word across our community of the efficacy of the sanitation strike, of the rightness of that cause, and of the necessity of all of us in the community who wanted a better land, better city, to support the strike. So, he was invited as one of the people from across the country.
But he represented, of course, the icon of nonviolent action. And a strike is a nonviolent tactic. It’s in the literature of the history of nonviolent struggle. So he was our leader, our icon, our teacher, our philosopher, the man who, in fact, more than any other human being in Western civilization, has said that the violence of Western civilization must change, or, he used the word, there will be “co-annihilation,” co-nonexistence. No other spokesperson of the Western world has clearly insisted that violence is sin. Violence is unjust. Violence despises human beings. Violence prevents the emergence of new forms of human communication and human understanding, so that violence itself is a part of the problem, a part of the crime against the human race.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Reverend James Lawson. Earlier this year, Democracy Now! spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch and the writer Trey Ellis. They worked on the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Taylor Branch talked about Dr. King’s work in Memphis.
TAYLOR BRANCH: I will just talk a little bit about the origins of Memphis. The staff—he had—it took, as the film shows, an enormous effort to get the staff behind the Poor People’s Campaign. There were a lot of dissension. Some people said, “If you don’t end the Vietnam War, it doesn’t matter what we do.” And other people said, “We still have segregation in the South and in the North, and we should be on race relations.” So he finally gets them to going on the Poor People’s Campaign and their plans, and then this incident happened in Memphis.
The strike started because two of the sanitation workers were crushed to death in the back of a cylinder garbage truck, when they were not allowed to seek shelter in rainstorms, because they were all black, and their rules did not allow them to seek shelter in any white neighborhood, because it offended white people. And the only place they could find shelter is in the garbage, with the garbage itself. And a broom fell and hit a lever and compacted them, literally crushed them. That’s the origins of “I Am a Man,” meaning they picked that slogan because the whole strike was—it was economic, but it was also just essential dignity. They were being crushed like the garbage that they were picking up, and nobody cared.
AMY GOODMAN: So they carried these signs that said “I Am a Man.”
TAYLOR BRANCH: They carried these signs. And the person that was leading the demonstrations, Jim Lawson, was one of Dr. King’s old mentors in nonviolence. And he calls him and says, “Martin, can you come?” And so, that’s where the—Trey did most of the interviews about Memphis, but that’s where it was. He said, “I have to go to Memphis. If we don’t answer this—yes, it’s a diversion, but it’s from Jim Lawson, and if these people don’t personify what the Poor People’s Campaign is going to be about, nobody does.” So he once again drags his staff to Memphis as a diversion from Poor People’s Campaign.
TREY ELLIS: Yeah, I think it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: So, Trey, take it from there.
TREY ELLIS: Well, I think what’s really amazing about it, we have this—every time that, you know, when he wanted to go north, when he wanted to go against the war, he was getting this pushback from his staff. And then, now there’s such dissent, that they actually—he has a little hunger strike, right? That like he’s just—it’s the first time that, Andy Young will say, that he can’t get through to them. And he just has to do something really extreme, so they will—they will listen to him.
To me, an extraordinary moment is like when he goes to the first Memphis March, and it goes badly, and some people, for some—it’s unclear what all their reasons were, but some people in the back are taking those “I Am a Man” wooden placards and using them to break some windows, or they’re agent provocateurs. Things are happening, and the march is a disaster. I am most impressed by Dr. King when he’s on the film and he says, “Yes, it was terrible, and I should have done a better job organizing this march. I shouldn’t have just jumped in, and sight unseen, into this march.” You never see—there’s not a single politician I’ve ever heard in my life who would admit to that kind of a mistake. And then, when he comes back, he’s really redoubling his efforts to come back next time and make it right.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the clip of Dr. King the night before he was killed. This was April 3rd, 1968.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord!
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking April 3rd, 1968. He was assassinated the next day in Memphis. He was just 39 years old. Uprisings would soon break out in cities across the United States. When we come back, we’ll look at what happened weeks later on the campus of Columbia University in New York. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Fifty years ago, on April 23rd, 1968, hundreds of students at Columbia University here in New York started a revolt on campus. Students went on strike. They occupied five buildings, including the president’s office in Low Library. They barricaded themselves inside the building for days. They were protesting Columbia’s ties to military research and plans to build a new gymnasium in a public park in Harlem. The protests began less than three weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The 1968 Columbia uprising led to one of the largest mass arrests in New York history, as more than 700 people were arrested April 30th. It also inspired student protests around the country. We begin with excerpts from the documentary Columbia Revolt by Third World Newsreel.
STUDENT ORGANIZER 1: We now demand—we no longer ask—a say in decisions that affect our lives. We call on all students, faculty, staff and workers of the university to support our strike. We ask that all students and faculty not meet or have classes inside buildings. We have taken the power away from an irresponsible and illegitimate administration. We have taken power away from a board of self-perpetuating businessmen who call themselves trustees of this university. We’re demanding an end to the construction of the gymnasium, a gymnasium being built against the will of the people of the community of Harlem, a decision that was made unilaterally by powers of the university without consultation of people whose lives it affects. We are no longer asking, but demanding, an end to all affiliation and ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Department Department venture that collaborates the university into studies of kill and overkill that has resulted in the slaughter and maiming of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.
STUDENT ORGANIZER 2: In order to show the solidarity of people with six strike leaders who they had tried to suspend, they decided to take Hamilton once again.
CAMPUS OFFICIAL: You are hereby directed to clear out of this building. I’ll give you further instructions if this building is not cleared out within the next 10 minutes.
STRIKE LEADER: I’m asking how many of you here are willing now to stay with me, sit-in here, until…
STUDENT ORGANIZER 3: After three votes, a majority decided to stay.
STUDENTS: Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!
CAMPUS OFFICIAL: If you do not choose to leave this building, I have to inform you that we have no alternative but to call the police, and each student who is arrested will be immediately suspended.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Columbia Revolt, Third World Newsreel. One of the participants in the Columbia strike was our own Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who reflected on what happened 50 years ago this spring.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, there was a major rally called by the Students for a Democratic Society, as well as the members of the Student Afro-American Society, who joined the protest, as well, basically continuing the ongoing protest against the university’s involvement in research for the Institute for Defense Analysis, a group that was doing a lot of research for the Pentagon for the Vietnam War, and against the construction of the gymnasium that Columbia was trying to build in Morningside Park. And a variety of forces came together—the SDS students, the SAS students, a lot of other folks who were involved in the community struggles around the gym. And everyone gathered at the Sundial and, initially, marched to the gym site and then came back on campus. And we all ended up in Hamilton Hall, which was the main undergraduate classroom building for the Columbia College students. And that’s when the sit-in began.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ray Brown, describe the role of the Afro-American Society, your role. What happened that day?
RAYMOND BROWN: Well, the black student role has often been ignored, especially by the media. The New York Times managed to cover this in detail for days and never mention us. But we got a telegram from Chairman Mao. Somehow, the People’s Republic of China knew what the black students were doing, New York Times did not.
But certainly, the black students played a pivotal role, because, first of all, we were more disciplined than any other group. We determined—we were the first to determine to barricade buildings. We asked, in a manner that’s become controversial in the ensuing years, the white students to leave and grab other buildings. And we barricaded that first building.
Our role was strategically pivotal because city had just erupted weeks earlier after Dr. King’s death. There was a perception that Harlem might rise, and we did have a lot of community support. And so, the reason this lasted for seven days was because nobody wanted to arrest the black students, and, subsequently, that meant they couldn’t arrest white students. So, our role was pivotal, though ignored historically and journalistically.
AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Biberman, describe what you were doing there that day, April 23rd, 1968.
NANCY BIBERMAN: So, at noon, we all gathered at the Sundial in the middle of the college campus, and there was a rally. And the rally was about, you know, the ongoing anger at the war in Vietnam and, in particular, our university’s affiliation with research for the war. And we were also very much aware, as Ray said, Dr. King had just died. You know, we were—had been assassinated. You know, we were all in the streets, and I think everyone was in high-tension mode.
And, you know, what we were able to focus on—I mean, symbols are as important as facts sometimes, and in this case, especially, the gym was the most powerful symbol of racism that we could see in our neighborhood. It was right there. It was on a bluff, the proposed gym between the university and Harlem. It was a public park. And it was, you know, designed for students, with a backdoor entrance to the community. It was offensive, and we were all rallying behind that.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of women?
NANCY BIBERMAN: So, the role of women is more complicated. I would like to say, however, for a couple of my sisters who are listening out there, that two women were the ones to yell, after we couldn’t get into Low Library, having just run from the Sundial, “To the gym!” Two women said, “To the gym.” And it was from that moment that we all ran to the gym and, you know, jumped into the bulldozers.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Mark Rudd to step in. Mark, your name is probably most associated with the Columbia strike of all of the protesters, yet today, in today’s The New York Times, you attempt to try to correct the history or the narrative that has developed over the decades.
MARK RUDD: Right. There’s a lot to be said, of course, about the Columbia strike, but that point that the leadership of the black students has got to be made. It’s relevant today because too often the narrative of contemporary struggles focuses on the white kids. Well, it’s going to be—this particular movement that we have now, or movements, are being led by women and also by nonwhite people. So, this is a good time to look back and see what relevant history there is.
RAYMOND BROWN: I think it’s important to point out that Mark and some of the leaders have been not only historically accurate, but gracious, in the last decade, in saying, “Look, there was a misperception as to how this happened at the time.” Mark asked me to speak at his book launch. Bill Sales and other black students like myself get calls from the media: Mark Rudd said you should talk to you instead of him. So, there has been a recognition by some leadership. But that hasn’t taken away the tension that still exists at a number of events on the part of white students who feel they were expelled improperly from Hamilton Hall, a very interesting kind of tension.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Juan, let’s go back to you, 50 years ago. This is Democracy Now!’s own Juan González speaking during the strike.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now we want to go into the dorms with all of you, with some of you who may not—who may not agree with a lot of what we’ve been saying here, who have questions, who support us, who want to know more. Let’s go to the dorms. Let’s talk quietly, in small groups. We’ll be there, and everyone in Livingston—in Livingston lobby, in Furnald lobby, in Carman lobby. We’ll be there, and we’ll talk about the issues involved, and we’ll talk about where this country is going and where this university is going and what it’s doing in the society and what we would like you to do and what we would—and how we would like to exchange with you our ideas over it. Come join us now.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Mark Rudd, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where you live now, this whole idea, as Juan is announcing the teach-ins, the different places to have discussions during the strike, talk more about this, and talk about your being head of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society.
MARK RUDD: Well, first of all, I just want to say how exciting it is to be on with my old comrades. I wish I were present with you in the studio.
The couple of things that occur to me in regard to the conversation we’re having at the moment is that the university was not prepared for the black students. Ray and other people have written about this. And I’d like to hear more from Ray about that, about the ways in which the university failed the black students. And I think probably most of us white kids, too, failed the black students. So, let’s talk about that.
But I just wanted to say that the story of any action, any protest, usually goes way back. And in this particular case, it has to do with, in part, years of organizing that SDS engaged in. When I got there in September of '65, what became SDS, the students who became, who formed SDS, had already been organizing against the university's racism, in the form of the university refusing to allow black and Latino cafeteria workers to form a union—it was clear racism—and also the university’s involvement in the war, which had just began, in April and—well, with main force troops. The university was training naval officers.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mark Rudd and Nancy Biberman of the Students for a Democratic Society, Raymond Brown, former leader of the Student Afro-American Society, and our very own Juan González—leaders of the Columbia revolt 50 years ago this spring. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Catonsville Nine, protesting the war in Vietnam 50 years ago, led by the Berrigan brothers, Father Phil and Dan Berrigan. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “They Had No Right,” Dar Williams, here on Democracy Now!, about the Catonsville Nine. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue to look back at the spring of 1968, 50 years ago, we turn now to May 17, 1968. On that day, in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville, Maryland, a group of Catholic priests and lay activists stood around a small fire of their own making, praying and singing. They had gone into the local draft board office and taken 378 draft records, for the young men in the 1-A category who were most likely to get drafted to go to war in Vietnam. They set fire to their draft records using homemade napalm, made from gasoline and laundry soap, to symbolize the U.S. military’s use of napalm on Vietnamese civilians. They became known as the Catonsville Nine. Video of the act of civil disobedience was seen around the world.
I want to turn to the 2012 documentary Hit & Stay, which chronicles the stories of the activists, including Fathers Phil and Dan Berrigan.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We make our prayer in the name of that god whose name is peace and decency and unity and love. We unite in taking our matches, approaching the fire. We’re all part of this.
GEORGE MISCHE: While people throughout the world, and especially Vietnam now, are suffering from napalm, that these files are also napalmed, to show that these lives can fall on the same fate as the Vietnamese.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Amen.
DAVID DARST: Napalm, which was made from information and from a formula in the United States Special Forces handbook published by the School of Special Warfare of the United States. We all had a hand in making the napalm that was used here today.
JIM HARNEY: Napalm is a very old weapon. It goes back to the Byzantines. But it really came to public attention during the war in Vietnam, in the pictures of napalmed people. So that was the kind of quintessential symbol of the war: We were burning babies, literally, in Vietnam. So that’s why we wanted to come up with something symbolic and also something that would really destroy the files.
TOM MELVILLE: Our church has failed to act officially, and we feel that, as individuals, we’re going to have to speak out in the name of Catholicism and Christianity. And we hope our action to inspire other people who have Christian principles or a faith similar to Christianity will act accordingly, too, to stop the terrible destruction that America is wreaking on the whole world.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We regret very much, I think all of us, the inconvenience and even the suffering that we’ve brought to these clerks here.
FATHER PHIL BERRIGAN: We sincerely hope we didn’t injure anyone.
PRIESTS: Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: The Catonsville Nine were prosecuted and, in 1970, given prison sentences of up to three years behind bars. Earlier this month, a ceremony was held in Catonsville to mark the unveiling of a new historical marker to commemorate the action. I spoke to Margarita Melville, one of the last surviving members of the Catonsville Nine.
AMY GOODMAN: Margarita, can you tell us where we are right now? What is this building?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: This is the—the Knights of Columbus rented out the second floor to a Selective Service registration office.
AMY GOODMAN: This was where the draft board was in Catonsville?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: That the draft board was, on the second floor of this building.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do when you came here May 17th?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Well, somebody had cased it out for us, because, I mean, Tom and I had just gotten back to this country from Guatemala and Mexico. So, somebody had cased it out, and we thought it was very—they looked for a place where it would be safe to run down, that we could get out quickly, and that we had a place to burn them that was nearby. So we ran up—but I can’t find—I can’t remember exactly where the stairway was. I remember rushing down the stairway. And then we stood here. It wasn’t paved, so it was just dirt, and it was easy to put out the fire afterwards, you know, once everything was burned.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what you were burning was?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: The files out of the—this was before computers. So there was only one copy of each file.
AMY GOODMAN: And these were the draft files.
MARGARITA MELVILLE: These were the A-1 draft files, not just the draft files. Those who had 4-A, or whatever the other categories were, were not affected. I just met two men who were deferred because they were in school. And they said, “Why didn’t you burn ours?” One of them had to go and serve two years after he got out of school. We got as many as we could. We put them in baskets. Mary and I kept the two women clerks from stopping us. I kept in—they were ready to tackle us.
AMY GOODMAN: You were standing in front of the clerks?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: I kept—I stood in front of one. There were two. And Mary in front of the other one. If they wanted to use the phone, we—fine, call the police. But we—that was not our interest, because we were going to get finished before they got here.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you brought these files down, the group of you, the Catonsville Nine.
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you take any, personally, down?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: No. I personally put a match on them. So we made sure that each one of us participated in the actual burning.
AMY GOODMAN: And you brought them out here and put them in a trash can?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: No, no, no, no, in the middle of the parking area. We circled it and burned the files. And when—Tom, my husband, was very sure that every last file was out of the basket, so none got left tucked in there. And so, we burned them all, kicked the can or the basket around. It was a wire basket. And so, we each threw in a match, and we were able to burn them all right there.
AMY GOODMAN: And as you did this with Father Dan Berrigan and Father Philip Berrigan and your own husband—
MARGARITA MELVILLE: And John Hogan and George Mische and Tom Lewis and Mary Moylan.
AMY GOODMAN: And you had come from Guatemala?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Tom and John and I had been missionaries in Guatemala, where we had seen Green Berets beginning to work with the Guatemalan army and teaching them how to use napalm. Later on, they taught them how to do strategic villages. Andthey had the pattern down.
AMY GOODMAN: And you burned these files with?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Napalm. That was—the recipe was in the Special Forces handbook: soapsuds, suds, in those days, like Ivory soapsuds, and gasoline.
AMY GOODMAN: And why the suds?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: So that it’d stick to your body, and it’ll burn and burn and burn, and you can’t wash it off real fast.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what the power of napalm was.
MARGARITA MELVILLE: That was napalm. And soon thereafter, my brother-in-law, Art Melville, and Catherine Sagan and a group of them went up to the Dow Chemical offices and went into the file and got all the recipes for napalm and threw them out the window.
AMY GOODMAN: Because Dow is the one that manufactured napalm.
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Dow Chemical was manufacturing the napalm. They manufactured napalm. We did the Special Forces handbook recipe, which was very simple, but very effective.
AMY GOODMAN: And how was it used in Vietnam, napalm?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Remember those words of Father Dan saying it’s better to burn paper than to burn children? Do you remember that picture of that little girl running down the road with no clothes on, because they had been burned off of her, with the horrible look on her face? That was part of our inspiration. We didn’t want that to continue.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you afraid, as you stood here, having burned the files?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: No. I knew what was coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you planning to run away?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: No, no, no, no, no. This is civil disobedience. We stay put, what happened. We stayed put. We waited. We said the “our father.” We held hands and said the “our father.” And when police came, “Hi, guys.” And we got into the paddy wagon, and we went to the local jail.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel, standing here on Knights of Columbus property, when the monument, the plaque, for what you did, is a ways away?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: You know what? It’s symbolic. It just shows the fact that we’re not really in this together as a society. So, the—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened. Why is the marker down the road?
MARGARITA MELVILLE: Because the Knights of Columbus—there’s no Selective Service office anymore—they just weren’t happy with the idea of that kind ofa marker on their property.
AMY GOODMAN: Margarita Melville, speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine in Catonsville, Maryland. The late Father Dan Berrigan once wrote in a statement explaining their action, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.” In 2006, I interviewed Father Dan Berrigan and asked him how he became involved in the Catonsville action and why he went underground after his trial.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, I was teaching at Cornell. And Philip came up. He was awaiting sentencing for a prior action in '67 in Baltimore, where they poured their blood on draft files in the city. And he came up to Cornell and announced to me, very coolly, that he and others were going to do it again. I was blown away by the courage, and the effrontery, really, of my brother, in not really just submitting to the prior conviction, but saying, “We've got to underscore the first action with another one.” And he says, “You’re invited.” So I swallowed hard and said, “Give me a few days. I want to talk about pros and cons of doing a thing like this.” And so, when I started meditating and putting down reasons to do it and reasons not to do it, it became quite clear that the option and the invitation were outweighing everything else and that I had to go ahead with him. So I notified him that I was in. And we did it.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was after you had been to North Vietnam.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Right. This was May of ’68, and I had been in Hanoi in late January, early February of that year.
AMY GOODMAN: With historian Howard Zinn.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Freeing prisoners of war?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes, we brought home three flyers who had been captured and imprisoned. It was a kind of gesture of peace in the midst of the war by the Vietnamese, during the so-called Tet holiday, which was traditionally a time of reunion of families, and so they wanted these flyers to be reunited with their families.
AMY GOODMAN: In Catonsville, was this the first time you were breaking the laws of the United States?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: No, I had been at the Pentagon in ’67 in—I think it was in October. And a great number of us were arrested after a warning from McNamara to disperse. And we spent a couple of weeks in jail. It was rather rough. And we did a fast. And we were in the D.C. jail, which was a very mixed lot. So I had had a little bit of a taste during that prior year.
AMY GOODMAN: You and your brother, Phil Berrigan, had an unusual relationship with Secretary of Defense McNamara. You actually talked to him, wrote to him, met him?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Yes. I met him at a social evening with the Kennedys in about '65 and after this very posh dinner, which was welcoming me home from Latin America. One of the Kennedys announced that they would love to have a discussion between the secretary of war and myself in front of everybody, which we did start. And they asked me to initiate the thing, and I said to the secretary something about, “Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening.” So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, “Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in.” And he stopped. And the next morning, when I returned to New York City, I said to a secretary at a magazine we were publishing—I said, “Would you please take this down in shorthand? Because in two weeks I won’t believe that I heard what I heard. The secretary said, in response to my request to stop the war, quote, 'Vietnam is like Mississippi: If they won't obey the law, you send the troops in.’” And this was supposed to be the brightest of the bright, one of the whiz kids, respected by all in the Cabinet, etc., etc., etc. And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Dan, after the trial, you went underground. Why did you decide to do that?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, the war had worsened, and the spring of '70, the campuses were aflame. Nixon had invaded Laos. There was secret bombing going on. The war had widened. It was a bad time to turn oneself in, and we were comparing that order to military induction. It was like saying, “Well, I'm going off to war. I’m going to obey them and go off to war. I’m going to take the penalty for what we did to make the war evidently, evidently unwinnable and unwageable. So, a group of us said, “No go,” and went underground.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean when you go underground?
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: Well, it meant that the FBI was on your tail and that Hoover was outraged and very angry and kept marking up sheets—that we got out, Freedom of Information, later—saying, “Get him! Get him!” and scrawling all these orders around and putting extra people on our tail.
AMY GOODMAN: But you were showing up in the strangest places.
FATHER DANIEL BERRIGAN: All sorts of places, including preaching in church and getting on national television with a good interview and so on and so forth. So, it really increased the edginess of the whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Dan Berrigan, speaking in 2006. The Catonsville action inspired hundreds of other actions at draft boards across the country. It also led to a global protest effort to end the threat of nuclear war, known as the Plowshares movement. In 1980, Dan Berrigan, again with his brother Phil and others, broke into a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in the the first Plowshares action.
The most recent Plowshares action took place this past April 4th—on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination—when seven Catholic Plowshares activists entered the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia, the largest nuclear submarine base in the world. They were armed with just hammers, crime tape and baby bottles containing their own blood. One of the seven is Elizabeth McAlister, the widow of Philip Berrigan, a priest at the time he led the Catonsville action 50 years ago.