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David Harris in Denver – Challenges of Social Movements – From the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War Movements of the 1960s to the threat of war with Iran and Global Warming…

October 24, 2012

David Harris at West Side Books (3232 W.32 Ave, NW Denver). Harris spoke of past horrors – the war in Vietnam – and future challenges – stopping global warming…

(thanks to Margie Stewart and Ron Young of Bird Runner Wildlife Preserve on Lower McDowell Creek, outside of Junction City Kansas)

(More photos of the event)


Now 66 years of age, with knee and hip pain, no longer able to give speeches off the cuff as he once did or play pick up basketball that he so loved, still, David Harris, anti-Vietnam war resister and author,  has not lost any of the moral compass that propelled him to national prominence a half century ago as a spokesman for the draft resistance movement during the Vietnam War era. He might have to work off notes now – and use spectacles to read them – but he is still as thoughtful and articulate as he was a half century ago, as militant at heart, as humane as ever. The heart and mind are still willing even if the body needs a late afternoon nap.

The fire still burns.

Sentenced to three years, Harris spent two of them in a federal prison for his refusal to go to war in Vietnam.  He was in Colorado reminding his audiences of the social movement’s past accomplishments, and the even more daunting challenges facing us, and by `us’ he means the whole world, no exceptions. To those of his/my generation his message – beyond the analysis – was clear enough although not perhaps in these words: push yourselves for peace and justice, to preserve this great planet from global warming, don’t be stupid but show a bit of courage, eat more simply, take care of our disintegrating bodies and carry on – for ourselves, for our country, for the world.  And…

Do good deeds with the time remaining.

To the country’s youth the message was also unambiguous: we’re with you, but it’s your struggle; you have to lead the way. We’ll be there, too. The hand that history has dealt you ain’t the best. You are facing challenges even bigger than the ones we faced a half century ago – the fate of the earth, the stealth-like ever speeding up insidious effects of global warming that will take an unprecedented global effort to bring under control, and which threaten life on earth as we know it. We, who are losing our hearing , forgetting our keys and the cell phones we never really learned to use, getting hip replacements and heart pacemakers can help, perhaps in our experiences are useful lessons and insights…but now it is your show, young-uns , and unless you wake up and get on with it soon, the irreversible consequences of global warming will consume us all… Apocalyptic, but accurate.

Harris leaves Denver today (October 24, 2012) after three speaking engagements in the Mile High City, two at the University of Denver, and one at West Side Books (3232 W. 32 Ave in Northwest Denver). At the latter, several local draft resisters who did prison time were in the audience. Harris was originally invited to Denver to discuss a book he wrote 32 years ago, Dreams Die Hard. In it he pens the journey through the 1960s of three social activists whose lives touched and then separated: Allard Lowenstein, Dennis Sweeney and Harris himself. All three were involved – as middle class American whites – in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s.

Lowenstein, a protege of Eleanor Roosevelt, would spearhead what was called the `Dump Johnson’ Campaign – the successful effort within the Democratic Party in 1968 to prevent Lyndon Johnson from seeking a second term, largely because of his Vietnam war policies. On the one hand, this was a genuine and one might say even `brilliant’ achievement that few thought possible.

On the other hand, Lowenstein, who would become a one term U.S. Congressman from Long Island had, what seemed to be something approaching a visceral contempt for social activists working to the left of the Democratic Party. He was a terrible factionalist, was broadly distrusted by young Black radicals in the Student Nonviolenet Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The fact that he always seemed to have the money to fly all over the country (and the world) raised a lot of unanswered questions as to who was funding him. He had another bad habit: according to Dreams Die Hard, Lowenstein was not averse to sexually seducing young male activists whom he mentored, including Sweeney and Harris himself. In the end, Lowenstein’s end anyway, years later, in 1980, Dennis Sweeney, suffering from severe mental illness, walked into Lowenstein’s Manhattan office and put six bullets into his chest, killing him, a tragic end for both.

Harris would watch Sweeney drift away from reality, and Lowenstein attempt to climb the power ladder within the Democratic Party. As the war in Vietnam deepened through the 1960s, Harris and his circle of political friends came to the conclusion that the best way to help end the war was to target the draft – the forced recruitment of young men into the military — that targeted working class, poor and minority youth, sending them as cannon fodder to die or become drug addicts in the swamps of the Mekong River Valley. He was among the founders of  the draft resistance movement, urging young American men of draft age to return their draft cards and refuse military service.  He comes out of prison to organize draft resistance once again until the end of the war, after which he becomes a journalist, first for Rolling Stone Magazine and then for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

In his Denver appearances, Harris spoke of social movements past and present – of his work in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi for Black voting rights, of draft resistance against the war in Vietnam and of the present organizing challenges of global warming. At West Side Books he zeroed in on the stupidity of the United States and/or Israel attacking Iran. That event was sponsored by the bookstore, the Colorado Coalition Against Attacking Iran and Front Range Jewish Voice for Peace.

In all his presentations, Harris reminded his audiences of the sacrifices, tribulations of past struggles. He told of a 72 year old Black woman from Mississippi in the early 1960’s who was arrested and tortured with electric cattle prods by local police for having dared try to register to vote. Her story was something of an epiphany for then 19 year old Harris from Fresno, California. At her release from jail she immediately walked back to the town hall and again asked to register.  He also spoke of the human consequences of the Vietnam war, not only mentioning the 53,000 Americans who died there and the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who returned state-side with shell shock and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but of the more than 2 million Vietnamese victims  killed in that war. He spoke of the U.S. use of plastic cluster bombs whose wounds cannot be detected by x-rays; of tiger cages and the Phoenix Program that profiled Vietnamese for assassination – and of the moral outrage which was at the heart and soul of that generation’s anti-war movement.

At West Side Books, Harris’ remarks probed the current drive for war against Iran. He called for the United States to end its diplomatic isolation from Iran and to re-open diplomatic relations as a prelude to a diplomatic solution that would include making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone in which not only Iran, but also Israel, Pakistan and India would participate. He warned that the consequences of unleashing a war against Iran would certainly lead to a  regional war of dramatic proportions. `Once you let the toothpaste out of the tube, you can’t put it back in again’.

Harris reminded his audiences of something they might have forgotten – that the social movements of the 1960s made a difference – that the United States and the world is a better place because of them, that although they are difficult to get going,  and they don’t accomplish all their goals, social movements  can strike a deep chord, and that change, change for the better is possible.

But if ending legal racism in America and helping to end the war in Vietnam were hard enough, today’s youth have been handed an even bigger challenge, one that threatens nothing short of the fate of the earth: global warming and the coming avalanche of horror that will accompany it for all living things. The ship of life has already sunk and humanity is `in a lifeboat’. Can we deflect the worst of global warming’s consequences? What will it take (sacrifice, giving up our fetish for things, cutting back – all on an unprecedented scale)? How do we begin…for we hardly have?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2012 7:45 am

    Comment from an old friend in California…(by email)

    thanx much. haven’t heard asshole lowensteins name in a long time.

  2. October 25, 2012 7:48 am

    Comment from an old friend now living on the East Coast…(by email)

    Rob: I enjoyed your article about David Harris. I’d never heard of his book about Lowenstein and Sweeney, so I’ve ordered it from the NYPL.

    I was one of Al Lowenstein’s disciples for a while. As you may know, Al Lowenstein was an early advocate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the idea that if blacks were excluded from the Mississippi Democratic party caucuses and conventions, they should organize their own parallel party. Their first parallel campaign, in 1963, was to run Medgar Evers’ brother Charles for Governor. I think Al was an Asst Dean at Stanford then. Anyway, after the fall campaign he was travelling around, talking up the coming Freedom Summer of 1964. I’d been involved in a human rights seminar, he got my name from someone, and around Christmas he passed through Gainesville GA and arranged to meet me for coffee, where he urged me to volunteer. Eventually my college roommate and I became SNCC volunteers in Mississippi that summer.

    Al was in and out of Mississippi that summer. He took me along to a weekend convention of college chaplains at U Ky to talk up the Freedom Democratic party, which was then holding its own precinct meetings and conventions to send a delegation to the Dems’ Atlantic City Convention to challenge the all-white Miss regular Dems (LBJ stonewalled them). That weekend we were in Lexington, the FBI dug up the bodies of Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman in Neshoba County. I think the Tonkin Gulf “incident” happened then too.

    Al was an extremely articulate, brave, funny and energetic liberal. He seemed to know everybody worth knowing, and he had no interest in material things. But he definitely had a homoerotic thing about his young male disciples, although he was engaged to Hale Boggs’ daughter for a while. Once I attended a civil rights meeting in Nashville when I was in my senior year at Sewanee, and Al invited me to stay in his motel room. There was only one double bed, so we slept there together. When he tried to embrace me I brushed him off, and he tried to guilt trip me for misinterpreting his manly affection as a sexual overture. I think a number of his proteges had similar experiences. I never talked to anyone else about it at the time, but years later various memoirs addressed it. The next to last time I saw Al was 1966, when I was in the MAT program at Harvard and going to SDS meetings there. Al had come to debate the direction of the antiwar movement. On his side was Irving Howe, and on the other side was Paul Booth of SDS and maybe Rennie Davis or Stokley Carmichael (I can’t remember).

    The afternoon before the debate Al invited me to work out with him at the Harvard wrestling gym. I’d been an indifferent second-string wrestler at Sewanee, but I was bigger than Al and 15 years younger. He quickly pinned me. Then we had a bitter argument about whether the antiwar movement should openly support the vietcong. Lowenstein and Howe were from the anti-Stalinist left, shaped between 1945 and 1960, and they couldn’t believe we would reject the lessons they thought they had learned the hard way.

    The last time I saw Al was in 1980, when he spoke to a big crowd at the Ethical Culture Society about repression in Chile. I think he was there to introduce the leader of Chile’s Radical Party. I made no attempt to speak to Al that night. A short time later Dennis Sweeney came to Al’s law office and shot him. I remember Dennis Sweeney from the Mississippi Summer. I never knew him, but my college roommate took his ex-wife, Mary King, on an R&R trip to Mexico when the Freedom Summer ended.

    All so long ago.

  3. October 25, 2012 8:37 am

    from a `retired’ (although he’ll never really retire) socialist from NYC…(by email)

    Thanks Rob – a fascinating look back at one of those who made a real difference during the Vietnam War days.

  4. October 25, 2012 11:15 am

    Comment from a close friend in Kansas…(by email)

    This is really beautiful writing, Rob–so glad the event went well. And thanks for writing this–there is a surge of energy that comes with it!


  5. October 25, 2012 2:41 pm

    From a local Unitarian-Universalist…(by email)

    Very interesting story of a courageous man and movement, including his wisdom about Iran. Sorry I couldn’t make it, but I had a conflict that evening.

    Too bad we don’t still have a draft to greatly increase the number and scope of likely protesters, or full employment at a living wage to dampen recruitment to a crawl.

  6. October 25, 2012 2:47 pm

    from Phil Woods, local Denver poet, teacher, who introduced David Harris at West Side Books.

    for Richard Wong & David Harris

    Coming full circle, juxtapositions,
    The water planet turning & turning,
    Just as the days of your life constantly turn.
    When did I decide I couldn’t,
    I wouldn’t be drafted?
    In the Spring of ’66
    General Hersey said the Service
    Just didn’t have enough draftees.
    The green monster was swallowing
    too many, too fast.
    A Test. Goddamn-it they were going
    to give a test.
    Low grade point,
    Low score, you lose your deferment.
    The jaws of the green monster,
    Those huge Jaws, that Maw in the jungle
    wanted your young soul.
    Like a frightened animal
    I signed up.
    But, the, the day of the test
    I got a gig to unload a boxcar.
    I wrote my Board why I hadn’t shown up
    I had an excuse, but frankly,
    I was scared shitless.
    I was just emerging as a real person.
    I liked college; college was
    allowing me to breathe.
    & now you bastards
    want to cut it short?
    The Great Democracy, the Great Meritocracy
    Where class doesn’t matter;
    Well friends, class spoke up
    loud & clear.
    The Ivy League squawked.
    A C grade at Yale was no doubt
    an A at Mesa College.
    You can’t take our blue blood kids
    The blue bloods let Congress know.
    So, you lower standards
    & start taking borderline special education,
    Blue collar, no collar, even if
    They’re hard to train
    & dumber than a fucking post.
    The Green Monster won’t care.
    Westmoreland’s strategy is attrition.
    So, you need bodies; dumb doesn’t matter.
    You’re feeding the Big Mouth.
    By Spring of ’68, after Tet,
    I started working on my CO application.
    I knew one thing I wasn’t going!
    Then, it became jail or Canada
    If you couldn’t get a CO designation.
    The day I was to walk across
    A stage in Greeley
    I was waiting in the lobby
    At my Pueblo Board’s office.
    They said NO,
    But there’s a new form
    In January, try again.

    In January they again said NO.
    My life felt on hold.
    Dangling over a fire.
    Nixon was in. Tet had driven LBJ
    Back to Texas. RFK was dead.
    Humphrey had lost
    Wearing his cheerleader
    hair shirt.
    My life seemed fettered.
    So did my friends.
    Then, I heard David Harris
    And Joan Baez at DU.
    They counseled active resistance.
    Refuse, fill the jails,
    Up the ante!
    Would my family understand that
    Or a mad dash
    to the Canadian border?
    I stayed up all night.
    My blood pressure shot up.
    One Y, my life had a reprieve.
    But now my friend Richard
    had refused
    & I stood with him in court.
    The liberal judge
    gave him probation
    After two years of service
    in a group home.

    Now, Richard is gone
    & I’m introducing David Harris
    to a small bookstore crowd.
    He is still what he always was:
    A voice of moral clarity.
    And he praises our tiny group
    Trying to prevent an attack on Iran.
    Yes, the wheel turns
    On each life, each Nation.
    When Emerson asked Thoreau
    What he was doing in jail
    Henry asked back
    What are you doing out.

    It’s always a matter
    of choices
    during finite days.
    David Harris answered
    that call of choice
    with moral clarity.
    And many unknowns like
    my friend Richard
    joined him.
    Young people what are you
    going to do?
    Like it or not,
    you too face
    moral choice.
    The Stoics tell us
    the quality
    of your soul
    is all you
    can ever really
    own. It always
    comes down
    to soul & choices

  7. October 27, 2012 9:06 am

    from a musician friend in a Denver coffee shop…(over coffee)

    “What I liked most about the guy was that he was not full of himself”

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