Draft Resisters as the Anti-War Freedom Riders

March on the Pentagon 1967

New Orleans   I was surprised recently when I saw a note mentioning the 50th anniversary of the March on the Pentagon on October 21, 1967 in Washington, D.C., one of the seminal events of the anti-war protests against the Vietnam War. We’re seeing a lot of these golden jubilee events these days. It was only a couple of years ago we were commemorating critical events in the civil rights movement, and now the clock has advanced from there to the Vietnam War, short by the clock of modern wars like our longstanding, never ending engagements in Afghanistan and to some degree, Iraq, but still as bloody as many, body to body.

I finished reading a book recently that I had missed somehow when it was published in 2003, by historian Michael Foley called Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War. I had discovered when some quote popped up as people relived those hard old days, where he either said or was quoting someone else saying that there was an argument that “draft resisters were the freedom riders of the anti-war movement.” That notion grabbed my attention and found me scurrying to read the book.

Interestingly, Foley concentrated on the anti-war activities around Boston during those days, especially between 1967-1969 or so, and even more determinedly focused on two groups that defined the efforts there during those days, the Boston Draft Resistance Group and the New England Resistance. As it happens, I living in Massachusetts in college at the time and was a foot soldier at both the Spring Mobilization in March 1967 in New York City and in the March on the Pentagon in 1967 and either later that fall or early in 1968, it’s impossible to remember now, went to Boston one weekend to be trained as a draft counselor by the BDRG. Not long afterwards I dropped out of college and headed to New Orleans to try to organize draft counseling there in March 1968.

The book brings back memories of a generation, particularly young men, at a crossroads, not common today, but because of the mandatory draft administered by the Selective Service system, everyone of us was forced to make life-and-death decisions about our futures in the face of the war. Foley’s book is excellent on the inequities of the draft as well as the pressure that both anti-war activities and the more limited resistance put on the White House to end the war.

His position in the book on the earlier question of individual and collective action is more nuanced. He poses the proposition as a paradox and a continuing head scratcher, saying that some,

argue that draft resisters were the antiwar movement’s equivalent to the civil rights movement’s Freedom Riders and lunch-counter sit-in participants; today, Americans regard those dissenters as heroes while they view draft resisters as selfish, cowardly, and traitorous.”

Perhaps, but it is easy to understand the contradiction, and, like so many things in American public life, it is firmly rooted in differences in race and class. Going through several draft physicals while I was was classified as 1-A from 19 to 26 years old in the period before there was a lottery, the draft physical lineup was strikingly lower income and working class, black in New Orleans and black and brown in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Part of what attracted me to the BDRG was not just the skills they offered in understanding the draft system and its byzantine practice in order to competently advise people facing these life choices adequately, but what Foley cites as its philosophical “adherence to community organizing.” It’s also why I have often described my time in New Orleans during 1968 trying to organize something like a draft counseling operation in the communities as my wake-up call to the difficulties of organizing and the weight of constant and powerful failure that hovers over such valiant work. Where I wanted to work in communities didn’t work out well at a time the South was still overwhelmingly supportive of the Vietnam War, yet I was inundated by requests from white college kids trying to figure out a good way out of the draft, more in the manner of an escape hatch than any resistance.

I didn’t give up on organizing, but it was a life lesson that taught me that counseling was in high demand, but alone solved nothing unless integrated in a deeper program of organizing for power.

Nonetheless, it is a small comfort to read that the cumulative work of so many, of which I was a small, small part, had value in stopping the war then, partially because of the horror and power of the draft, compared to now when so many ignore that we are even involved in a war, so far away from their lives and the choices they have to make about how to live them.

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The Toil of an Organizer Seems A Lot The Same Even 100 Years Ago

New Orleans    Matilda Rabinowitz was a little heralded organizer for the International Workers of the World over 100 years ago. She became an active Socialist while doing factory work in Bridgeport, Connecticut beginning at 14 years old, and migrated to the IWW, as many Socialists did, as they became more active and visible in pioneering a unique organizing style on one hand and the belief in industrial, rather than craft unionization on the other hand.

The most famous women organizers connected to the IWW were Mother Jones, one of its co-founders, and a legendary figure particularly in coal country when coal was king, enslaving many workers, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, known for her prominent role in the biggest of the IWW strikes in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey. Matilda Rabinowitz hasn’t shared the front-page-news of labor and organizing history, but her story of five years as an organizer behind the scenes at the backbone of the movement and its organization is a story that could be told thousands of times by workaday organizers that are the soldiers of the peoples’ army, even if not the generals.

Matilda was unfamiliar to me until I had the opportunity to read a labor of love in a book of her memoirs, Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century, with commentary and illustrations by Robbin Legere Henderson, her granddaughter, who I also spoke with on Wade’s World. We covered the highlights of her organizing experience when she was called by the IWW to cover the Little Falls, New York strike, and later even more difficult organizing in Greenville, North Carolina. Her biggest accomplishment may have been helping run the strike at Studebaker Auto in Detroit, perhaps the first union-based wildcat strike that many in the city believe forced Henry Ford to institute his famous $5 per day wage to prevent unionization at least for a time in his giant plants.

What really struck me about Matilda’s memoirs where several passages that spoke deeply to the life experiences of organizers, generation after generation.

She spoke of her weeks supporting the strike in Little Falls this way,

“For me the days and nights were crowded with work. The picket line at six in the morning. Coffee, break, and perhaps some stewed fruit after that at the commissary. The daily meeting with the strike committee in the forenoon with a report on the response to appeals, funds, developments. Correspondence and bookkeeping: details of the office. A general meeting was held for all strikers every night at Sokol Hall, and once a week a social get-together with a fiddle or a harmonium for dancing and singing.”

Substitute the stewed fruit and the harmonium, and welcome to strikes for one-hundred years and counting.

Matilda was powered by her politics and her commitment, but like so many organizers, found life’s details dragging far behind. Her later comments also echoed universal organizing experiences:

“From Little Falls I carried away an increased sense of responsibility to the IWW, but I had a great reluctance at the same time to becoming a professional organizer. Some money was coming in, and I kept the accounts and was charged with the running expenditures of the strike, but there was no financial arrangement between me and the organization. I went to Little Falls at my own expense and had about forty dollars when I got there. When this was gone I didn’t know how I was going to get along. I paid room rent to the striker’s family where I was living, ate at least one meal in a restaurant, and there were incidental personal expenses: laundry and carfare, for example. I received no money from the national office and I did not know that the local organization was meant to assume my expenses while I was there.”

Big Bill Haywood set her straight on that account when he passed through, and she was a national organizer for the IWW for several years as she traveled later, but concluded that the organizing life was not for her when she decided to become a single mother.

Nonetheless it is clear from her memoir that her organizing time was a defining moment that gave meaning to her life, as it has for so many. She may have gotten off of the organizing track, but her politics and commitment to justice and equality never faltered. Her granddaughter, Robbin Henderson told me that a half-written column for the Socialist newspaper in Los Angeles was in her typewriter when she died in her mid-70s.

What a life and what a contribution!

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