On May 17, 1968, a group of antiwar activists entered the Selective Service office on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville, Maryland. While clerks watched in amazement, nine Roman Catholics peaceably procured armsful of local draft records. They crammed files and papers into wire trash baskets, toted them to the parking lot, doused hundreds of draft board documents with “homemade napalm” and ignited a bonfire that caught the attention of the world.
Some members of the press received a statement in advance of the protest.
“We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America. We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”
Among the group of civilly disobedient demonstrators at local draft board No. 33 was a Jesuit priest named Daniel Berrigan. If you don’t know his name, learn it now.
Father Daniel Berrigan, along with his brother, Philip, and to a lesser extent, their younger brother, Jerry, were unflinching activists against the unjust (and undeclared) war in Vietnam. The Berrigan brothers staged draft card burnings and spilled pig’s blood on U.S. military draft records as part of the “Baltimore Four.” Daniel and his brother, Philip, along with activists George Mische, Marjorie Bradford Melville, John Hogan, Lasallian Br. David Darst, artist Tom Lewis, and former priest Thomas Melville torched draft documents and were tried as the “Catonsville Nine.” Although well represented by counterculture attorney William Kunstler, Daniel Berrigan was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his part in organizing and carrying out “destruction of U.S. property” and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.
He peacefully submitted to arrest at the Catonsville draft board demonstration, but the good Father did not willingly begin his prison term. In April, 1970, Daniel Berrigan fled and went “underground.” According to Daniel Berrigan’s biography at Catholic Research Resources Alliance, Daniel managed to elude the FBI for four months, during which time he tantalized FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by randomly appearing at antiwar events and then vanishing before he could be apprehended by authorities. Father Daniel Berrigan was eventually captured in Rhode Island in August, 1970, and spent two years in a Connecticut penitentiary.
The Maryland draft card incident for which he was imprisoned was not the first time the man quite publicly opposed the war in Vietnam. In 1965, he eulogized Roger Allen LaPorte, an antiwar activist who burned himself to death outside the United Nations building in protest against the untenable situation in Southeast Asia. On October 22, 1967, he was arrested for the first time at an antiwar demonstration on the grounds of the Pentagon. Four months later, Daniel Berrigan, peace movement leader David Dellinger, and Boston University professor Howard Zinn traveled to Hanoi, where they successfully facilitated the release of three American pilots who had been held as prisoners of war by the North Vietnamese.
If there is any such thing as a typical 1960s war protester, Father Daniel Berrigan was surely not that. In 1968, when the most visible antiwar protesters were college students and young hippies, Berrigan was 47-years-old. He was a man of the cloth who wore turtleneck sweaters and love beads. Decades before the internet made communication instantaneous, Daniel Berrigan wrote letters to newspapers, he wrote plays, and he wrote poetry, too. Here is one of his poems, set to music by Michael Hermiston.
Father Berrigan’s fierce stance against war did not falter in his later years. In 1980, he was arrested for his participation in a hammer-wielding protest at a General Electric missile manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. In the 1990s, he protested vehemently against U.S. military involvement in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. He publicly denounced the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, he was arrested yet again for blocking access to a military museum in Manhattan. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Father Berrigan was spotted at an Occupy Wall Street rally. As a white-haired nonagenarian, Berrigan continued to rail against a system that he so astutely saw as unjust and warlike. He preached pacifism until the end of his days.
On April 30, 2016, The Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan died at a Jesuit infirmary in the Bronx. The radical priest was 94-years-old.
[Photo by William A. Smith/AP Images]