Sunday, May 18, 2008

40 Years Ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

On May 14, The SCLC's Poor People's Campaign began its Washington marches for equal justice and economic aid to the poorest in America. Resurrection City was coming to be. On 15 acres of West Potomac Park, the grounds around the Lincoln Memorial, marchers had arrived by convoy, sometimes in wagons drawn by mules, wearing denim overalls and country clothing, and they were building a shantytown near where the Vietnam memorial would rise years later. Rows of shacks made of plywood and plastic created a 'main street'. About 2600 or so residents, from cities and small towns in the South and in the North, would live here in squalor as the May rain turned the grounds to mud.

I know we went to see, as did many other Washingtonians and tourists. You couldn't get in without proper credentials, but could view from the snow fence around the outer limits. I wish I had taken pictures, but it was probably hard to get anything without getting close. It was probably a rainy day, anyway. It seemed to rain the whole month.

There isn't much history of this event on the web, even the Wikipedia entry is sparse. The Washington Post hasn't yet done an anniversary package, either. A public radio program has some remembrances by participants. Lots of photographs are out there, though. Lots of photographers went there to take pictures, and many are available now in online galleries, or for sale (links to some are on the radio package).

There is an original story on the Harvard Crimson's website, though, from 1968: The Poor People Take Over the Town.
...there it is, fans, just like Martin Luther King said it would be--400 A-frame shelters made of plywood and plastic. And poor people from Mississippi and Alabama right before your very eyes.

On that day the primary was held in Nebraska. Kennedy got 51.5 percent of the Democratic vote, McCarthy 31 percent. On the Republican side, Nixon won with 70% of the vote to 21% for California governor Ronald Reagan and 5% for Rockefeller. Reagan was undeclared but still was becoming Nixon's leading challenger; he wouldn't declare until the convention in August.

On May 17, nine people entered the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, removed several hundred draft records, and burned them with homemade napalm in protest against the war in Vietnam. The nine were arrested and would be tried and sentenced to jail.

Among them were two brothers, also priests, Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit, and Philip Berrigan, a member of the Society of St. Joseph and a World War II war hero who claimed to have been "a skilled and remorseless killer." according to his brother Jerome.

The previous October Phil, with three others, had entered the draft office in Baltimore and poured blood -- their own blood -- on some of the files.

This event struck home for me, as the Berrigan brothers had given talks, and conducted Masses, at Marymount College during my senior year there. I had taken communion from one of them.

Even more, Phil Berrigan would leave the priesthood to marry Elizabeth McAllister. Sister Elizabeth had been a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and taught at Marymount: I took her class in art history senior year. She was a joyous person who was involved with the students and who cared about causes like poverty and peace.

They were a stirring example. Although Phil spent much of the next several years in prison, they would raise three children and found Baltimore's Jonah House.

More at Investigation of a flame, a documentary film on Catonsville. Jonah House has remembrances, photos, Phil Berrigan's obit and tributes.

(It had been an interesting time of change at Marymount. The reforms of Vatican II were sweeping through the church, and nuns like Sister Elizabeth were bringing in new ideas, inviting controversial speakers like the Berrigan brothers. Sometime around my senior year many of them gave up the nuns' habit for street clothes, and there were evening folk music masses where everyone drank the wine, from jugs. I remember walking back to the dorm from those masses and passing young nuns on their way back to the convent, singing. Very different from my first year there when you had to wear white gloves to mandatory chapel and the teaching nuns wore elaborate habits and were called 'mother' to separate them from the sisters -- working nuns, often from Latin America, who cooked and cleaned.)

Also in the news that month, Drew Pearson's 'Washington Merry-go-Round' column reported on May 23 that Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, had authorized FBI wiretaps on Martin Luther King. The story, of course, caused an uproar and cast a negative cloud over both King and Kennedy.

On May 28, the Oregon primary gave McCarthy a win over Kennedy (McCarthy 44.7 percent, Kennedy 38.8), giving Kennedy his first loss and making the coming California race even more important. Nixon won on the Republican primary there with 65 percent.

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  • I am enjoying reading this blog. I was 16 in 1968 growing up adjacent to the symbol of the US military - West Point NY. A year later, Philip Berigan would show up "underground" at the Josephite high school I was attending in Newburgh NY - we were sworn to secrecy. Please keep these postings up. I also attended college in DC from 70-74. I reside in South Florida now, but will retire soon to Murphy, NC. You sound like someone my wife and I would enjoy knowing. Thank you for these interesting posts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:56 PM  

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