Photo: Members of the military police keep back protesters during their sit-in at the Pentagon, January 1967. (U.S. Military/NARA/Wikimedia Commons)
By Bill Ramsey
Norman Mailer dubbed us “armies of the night.” But I retreated before sunset to what I thought would be safer ground. As our protesting “armies” lit camp fires outside the Pentagon for the night, I was thumbing a ride back to North Carolina.
October 21, 1967 was a long stretch of a day. Three days earlier I had approached a table in the corner of the cafeteria at my school, High Point College. Jim stood behind the table, offering draft counseling literature and urging those who stopped at the table to go with him to the March on the Pentagon. I had first met him when I volunteered as a tutor with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), the domestic Peace Corps of the 1960s. I had watched him work in a low-income neighborhood, attempting to bring African Americans, Native Americans and whites into common community development projects. I trusted him and decided to go to Washington with him. It would be my first public demonstration.
Jim picked me up from my dorm at midnight on Friday in a 1953 black coupe. The front passenger seat was already occupied by Kate, also a VISTA volunteer. I took the back seat and settled in for the long ride. We wound along the smaller roads connecting piedmont North Carolina with the nation’s capital. Jim said that the car’s engine could not handle highway speeds. He and Kate alternated driving and sleeping, so the trip was short on conversation.
A pole was wedged out the back passenger window, displaying a black flag with a white omega — the Greek letter that was the symbol of the emerging draft resistance movement. With the window partially open, I became chilled, and buttoned the wool topcoat that my father had bought me in a Lower Manhattan garment shop. It was a “going off to college” gift — Dad’s idea of what the well-dressed freshman would wear to winter classes. I had seen newspaper pictures of young men in coats and ties in New York City turning in and burning their draft cards at Sheep Meadow in Central Park just a few days before, on October 15th. I assumed that since I was going to a similar event in the nation’s capital, the topcoat would be the proper attire.
It was mid-morning when we crossed the 14th Street bridge. The streets of Washington, D.C., were filled with armored personnel carriers, and rifle-toting soldiers were stationed at nearly every corner along the National Mall. It was my first-ever visit to Washington. In November of 1963, as John Kennedy’s body was being carried through the streets on a horse-drawn caisson, my family drove around the city on our way from New Jersey to Thanksgiving in Georgia with our extended family. That was as close as I had come to visiting the capital.
I asked Jim if the presence of troops was usual. He replied, “I’ve never seen it like this.” I wondered, what exaggerated sense of threat had prompted orders for this show of force? We parked the coupe and joined others, as our restless “army” took up its own positions on both sides of the Reflecting Pool leading up to the Lincoln Memorial.
A week later, the High Point College campus newspaper would carry a column by its editor, who had also traveled to the D.C. area the weekend of the march. He said he had a “front row seat” watching the march on television in his parents’ living room on Andrews Air Force Base. Out the living room window early Saturday morning, he watched as squadrons of helicopters shuttled troops into D.C. He opined that the march was a futile protest, since he was certain that no one worked in the Pentagon on weekends.
As we gathered among others unfurling omega flags, Jim warned me that he would be marching with those who had recently turned in their draft cards — the tie-and-coat gang from October 15th, who I could see had definitely dressed down for the march. They were among the initial waves of thousands who would burn or turn in their draft cards in the months following the march.
I was welcome to join them, Jim told me, but he predicted that the “omega contingent” would likely be infiltrated by FBI informants. If I did not want an FBI file opened on me, I should march with others, he said. A decade later, I would discover through a Freedom of Information Act request that my FBI file opened with quotes from a letter to my draft board explaining why I subsequently had turned in my own draft card.
But on that day, I was not prepared to join the omega contingent. After a walk along the Reflecting Pool in search of others to march with, I found a “non-aligned college student contingent” near the stage erected on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where I was about to see and hear Peter, Paul and Mary and Phil Ochs live for the first time. David Dellinger, the coordinator of the National Mobilization Committee that had organized the demonstration, opened the rally. A year later, he would be one of the Chicago Eight, charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The special commission appointed to investigate that event later issued the Walker Report, which concluded that police had committed unrestrained and indiscriminate acts of violence against protesters, characterizing it as a “police riot.”
Pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, author Norman Mailer, comedian Dick Gregory and singer Peter Yarrow followed David with rousing speeches. When a member of the British Labour Party took the stage to announce his opposition to the war, members of the American Nazi Party rushed the stage and turned over the podium. I do not remember, nor have I found any reference to, women among the rally speakers. As I reflect back on those who spoke from the stage that day, it seems providential that I would have occasions to work alongside three of them in the decades that followed.
Twenty years after that march, David Dellinger would sit on my couch in St. Louis, with one of my daughters on each side as he told them stories of his life as a “hobo” in the 1930s after graduating from Yale Divinity School. He stayed in our home on three occasions while on speaking tours, helping us mobilize a new generation of students against the Gulf War — still “hoboing” around the country decades later. My now-grown daughters still remember him as “Dad’s hobo friend.”
Dick Gregory, a native of St. Louis, would return periodically to help us with disarmament campaigns in the early 1980s and human rights struggles in the ’90s. In 2005, Peter Yarrow, at our encouragement, broke away from preparations for a St. Louis concert to lend his voice and experience to support a 19-day student sit-in at Washington University over the administration’s refusal to recognize the labor rights of campus service workers. As a member of Jobs with Justice, I served on the students’ community support committee. It was a particularly tense, yet centered, evening — the students hanging out the windows of the office they occupied as Peter sang in the fading light while police surrounded the building, poised to remove the protesters.
Back in D.C. in 1967, when my contingent headed out toward the bridge over the Potomac River, we were directly behind those who had spoken from the stage. I marched feeling inspired but anonymous. Alone in my dressy topcoat, I was concerned that I might be mistaken by other marchers for an FBI informant. I later learned that federal agents usually dressed down for their undercover excursions to demonstrations in an effort to blend in — although there was an instance in 1972 of an informant dressing up in clerical garb to infiltrate the National Union of Theological Students and Seminarians (NUTS) as we organized civil disobedience actions against the war.
I seemed to have lost my college contingent. On my left was a priest (or perhaps an informant dressed like a priest?) and on my right a man with his seven-year-old son. We introduced ourselves as we crossed the bridge. Our line of march was as wide as the bridge, and I could see those up ahead, but not the end of the line behind us. Once across the bridge we turned east on a service road and the line of march narrowed.
We entered a parking lot as the first contingent of notables, all dressed in coats and ties, attempted to lead us in an encirclement of the Pentagon. Blocked by a line of soldiers, they knelt and were promptly arrested. My contingent now became the front line of the march. Someone suggested that we proceed up an embankment to the steps and try to enter the Pentagon.
We climbed the side steps and found the center landing occupied by a line of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with rifles and bayonets ready. The priest and the man and his son were no longer at my side. Only a few feet separated the new front line of the march from the tips of the bayonets as thousands of marchers pressed forward, filling the steps behind us. I felt trapped as the stand-off ramped up.
We stood shoulder to shoulder with each other and eye to eye with the helmeted soldiers. Their stance looked determined, but there was something in their eyes that said they did not want to be there. At first we sang together, celebrating in song that we had come this close to the doors. Eventually, we began to look to each other for clues of what we should do next.
A young woman plucked a flower from her hair and stepped forward, placing it in the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. I heard the click of a camera’s shutter. The young soldier looked confused, his eyes riveted on the flower. His face seemed to mirror the same fear that I felt. I wondered, did he also feel trapped?
Someone urged us to stage a sit-in on the landing in front of the soldiers. Another person shouted, “No, we did that in Berkeley, and they came down on our heads.”
The march leaders who were not already arrested arrived on the landing. One suggested that we attempt to crawl between the soldiers’ feet. Several marchers dropped down on their knees. As they maneuvered under and between the soldiers, I feared their outstretched arms would be grazed by bayonets.
The crawl-in did not work, but it did distract the soldiers long enough for two marchers to clambered up the stone wall which bordered one side of the steps. Once beyond the line of soldiers, the two men sat down on the upper terrace and having arrived prepared for what was to come, put on football helmets. One had a megaphone and began addressing the crowd on the lower landing and calling on the soldiers to let us pass. MPs appeared from inside the Pentagon with batons raised. They beat our helmeted companions and carried them away.
With the stand-off uncertain but feeling clearly unsafe, I jumped ship. Actually, I jumped a wall by the landing’s side stairs and headed up the embankment to the southbound highway. Relieved to be out of the fray, I stuck out my thumb. A red sports car stopped, and the young driver asked me where I was headed. When I said “High Point, North Carolina,” he responded, “I’m headed back to Camp Lejeune — get in.”
Knowing Camp Lejeune to be a Marine base near the North Carolina coast, I warily lowered myself into the passenger seat. He asked, “Where have you been?” In not much more than a murmur, I answered, “The Pentagon.” And he said, “Thanks. I was there, too.” He told me that he was expecting orders to be deployed to Vietnam any day and that this was his first, and maybe last, chance to speak out.
There we were, side by side in a sports car headed south, an anti-war student attending college with the aid of a student deferment from his draft board and a Marine about to be sent to fight a war that he believed was wrong. We were two novices returning from our first demonstration. This was my initial hint that those refusing to fight and those forced to fight the Vietnam War would join forces to eventually end it.
This notion of the convergence of civilian and military resistance to the war was counter to the popular myth of animosity, but the convergence surfaced more clearly as the years passed. As my activism grew and the movement struggled to end the air wars over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a young former Army private from rural Ohio who had refused three times to board a plane to Vietnam and then became a Quaker, coached us in the tactics of nonviolent campaigns. At a 1972 National Council of Churches meeting on the war in Kansas City, Missouri, I was among a group of anti-war seminarians who took over the stage and immediately turned the podium over to members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, so that they could address the gathering whose leadership had denied them a place on the program.
One January morning in 1973 in New Bern, North Carolina, I watched from the gallery of a federal courtroom as a retired career Marine officer testified on behalf of his son, who was on trial for draft resistance. It was hard to tell for sure from across the room, but it appeared that even a juror or two were in tears. However, the following day the jury found the resister guilty and the judge sentenced him to prison as nine of us fellow draft resisters stood with him for sentencing, risking contempt of court.
I was honored to counsel two St. Louis Marine Reservists from north St. Louis who refused orders to Iraq in 1991. After lending their voices to our efforts to prevent the Gulf War, they spent the duration of the war and months beyond in the Marine brig at Camp Lejeune. A decade later, a Korean War veteran who was the executive director of Veterans for Peace and I watched on a television in the basement of the World Community Center in St. Louis, in disbelief and fear for what was to come, as the second tower of the World Trade Center fell.
The Marine in the sports car dropped me off in Virginia at the point where one highway headed southeast to Camp Lejeune and the other southwest to High Point. I stuck out my thumb again. A Virginia State Patrol cruiser rose over the hill. The trooper turned on his flashing lights, pulled over and told me to get in. Noticing for the first time that I had failed to remove the peace buttons from my wool coat, I then endured a long lecture about my lack of patriotism. “You got to love this country or leave it. You wouldn’t have the freedom to demonstrate if I had not fought for it. It’s disloyal to protest while our troops are in a war.”
Suddenly, the cruiser stopped and I looked up to see only corn fields. “Get out!” the trooper ordered. “Where am I?” I asked. “Get out!” he repeated more forcefully. Again I asked, “Where am I?” He refused to answer. I stepped out and, with all the indignation I could muster, I slammed the door. Not a good decision.
The officer got out with baton in hand and strode around to the passenger door. He opened it, then grabbed me by the collar of my coat and backed me up on the cruiser’s hood with his baton raised. “Go back and close the door softly!” he yelled. I did, and he pulled away.
After a very long walk, I found my way into downtown Petersburg, Virginia, where I secured a room in a less-than-reputable hotel for $2.50. As I checked in, a group of men and women were huddled around the television in the lobby, watching the news reports from the Pentagon. At that moment, the protesters’ campfires on the Pentagon lawn seemed like they might have been the safer option for the night.
I caught a ride early the next morning with a salesman on his way to the High Point furniture market. Back on campus, as I made my way down the hall to my room, my fraternity brothers greeted me with reprimands. They were particularly angered a week later when an interview with me about the march appeared in the campus newspaper. I was, in their words, “an embarrassment to the brotherhood.” They urged that I be expelled. Not long after that, I obliged their concern and left fraternity life behind.
One might think after all this that I would have decided that my first demonstration was my last. I did hang up my wool topcoat, but not my determination to end the war. In many ways, the sun has never set on that long stretch of a day, and I have remained on that crowded Pentagon landing — launched for a lifetime.
Bill Ramsey is a native of Georgia whose experiments in activism have included draft and war-tax resistance, farmworker boycott organizing, nuclear disarmament campaigns, racial and economic justice projects and movements to oppose U.S. military interventions from Indochina to Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for the American Friends Service Committee in the Southeast and in St. Louis, where he lived in inner-city neighborhoods for 32 years and founded the Human Rights Action Service. Bill and his spouse, Joyce Hollyday, live on a wooded ridge outside Asheville, North Carolina. Presently, he coordinates a congregational working group of the Western North Carolina Sanctuary Movement, manages a war-tax resistance alternative fund, and serves on the local steering committee of Just Peace for Israel/Palestine.