September 19, 2003

Sixties Peace Activist Returns

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This weekend, Cornell will remember the work of Father Daniel Berrigan, the former associate director of Cornell United Religious Work who served from 1967 to 1970. Berrigan will be visiting Cornell for a weekend entitled “Celebrating Peace Activism: America Is Still Hard to Find,” honoring the life and legacy of the late Rev. Jack Lewis, former CURW director during the ’60s and ’70s.

The Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy has planned a weekend of events including a festival on the Arts Quad, performances by the bands Michelle Shocked, Stephan Smith and Bread and Puppet Theater, and several talks by Berrigan.

Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who has been a writer and activist for decades, was active in leading the antiwar movement at Cornell and abroad. According to CRESP executive director Anke Wessels, who organized the weekend’s events, “Father Berrigan played an instrumental role in the national peace movement of the late ’60s while he was the associate director of Cornell United Religious Work.”

Wessels explained the link between Berrigan’s activism and his role at Cornell during the late 1960s.

“In early 1968, he and historian Howard Zinn traveled to Hanoi to successfully cause the release of three American military fliers who had become POWs after being shot down by the Vietnamese,” she said. “[Berrigan] and his life are so incredible. The fact that this is part of Cornell’s history is something to be celebrated. Hopefully this will encourage students at Cornell to know more about that history and be inspired to be more vocal.”

Wessels added, “He is perhaps best known for direct actions such as the ‘illegal’ napalming of draft records in protest of the ‘legal’ napalming of Vietnamese villages.”

In 1968 during his time at Cornell, Berrigan and a group of Catholic activists, now known as “The Catonsville Nine,” napalmed 378 draft cards from a selective service office in Catonsville, Md. After being sentenced to three years in prison, Berrigan decided to go underground “on the very day he was scheduled to begin his prison term” on April 9, 1970, Wessels said. “He left his office keys on a secretary’s desk in Anabel Taylor Hall and disappeared. Calling himself a ‘fugitive from injustice,’ he decided to stay out of jail to continue the work of nonviolent resistance to the war.”

On the day he was to begin his sentence, Berrigan made an appearance at the “America Is Hard to Find” weekend, a music and political festival with performances by Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Country Joe and the Fish, planned by Berrigan and activist students for the weekend of April 17-19, 1970.

Wessels continued: “The weekend culminated in Barton Hall, when Dan Berrigan, disguised in a motorcycle helmet and tinted goggles, walked past the FBI agents posted at the doors of Barton Hall to the rousing applause of an audience of 8,000 to 10,000 people. Though Berrigan’s presence there clearly placed him in danger of being apprehended, the Bread and Puppet Theater continued with a scheduled performance. During the performance, the lights dimmed and Berrigan, hidden under an enormous puppet, was escorted out the back of Barton Hall to a waiting car. Successfully eluding the FBI for the next four months, he became kind of a peace movement folk hero.”

This weekend’s festival, to include a performance by Bread and Puppet Theater, is a direct reference to the original “America Is Hard to Find” festival, which was “instrumental in helping [Berrigan] escape Barton Hall and go underground,” according to Wessels.

The festival will also include performances by Colleen Kattau, Radio London and Hank Roberts and Wiggy Dog Boy. The weekend kicks off on Friday evening with a poetry performance featuring Yi Ping, Ogaga Ifowodo, Michelle Berry and Hippee Harlem, and music by Wimmin in Black at the First Baptist Church in DeWitt Park at 7 p.m.

On Saturday, the video This Is What Democracy Looks Like will be shown at 11:30 a.m. in Uris Hall, followed by a roundtable discussion entitled “This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Is Voting Enough?” Panelists will include local representatives of the Republican, Democratic and Green political parties, in addition to Prof. James Turner, Africana studies.

According to a press release from CRESP, “At his first public address of the weekend on Saturday, Sept. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Barnes Hall, Berrigan will use the showing of a 20-minute documentary on Jack Lewis, his friend and advocate, to reflect on their common concerns for peace during the late ’60s but distinctly different means of demonstrating them, his own engagement in the nonviolent civil disobedience of destroying draft records during the Vietnam War and his continued witness to peace.”

Berrigan will also give a sermon at Sage Chapel on Sunday morning.

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman