Chapter 3—"I'm A Believer"
The sounds of If I Had a Hammer greeted me as I entered Bradley Hall for the anti-war meeting. The couches against the wall were full and the floor space occupied. I stood in the back and joined in the last verse. Marty pushed the hair out of his eyes, came over and reintroduced himself.
Ginger led the singing. I wish I’d come sooner. The songs rolled over me like gentle waves of familiarity. I knew them all having cut my teeth on Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The leader of the group took the floor, the overhead light reflecting in his wire-rimmed glasses. “Thanks for coming out. I’m Jake Stedman and together we’ve got a lot of work to do to end this war. I’m counting on all of you.”
Jake spoke with authority and charisma. “Most of us grew up feeling ‘my country right or wrong.’ We said the Pledge of Allegiance every day and felt our country was always on the right side of history. In recent years we have seen our country go very wrong.” There was complete silence in the room except for Jake talking.
He continued, “Our government says we are defending freedom in Vietnam. They say if we don’t fight in Vietnam, Communism will reach the shores of California. How is fighting in Vietnam a defense of my freedom right here?” By then there were murmurs in the crowd.
“Right on, Jake.”
“Tell it like it is.”
“End this war.”
A chant started. I didn’t see who started it. “What do you want?” “Peace.” “When do you want it?” “Now.” With each “Peace” I got louder. With each “Now” I raised my fist.
My parents were pacifists and fierce defenders of equal rights and social justice. They participated in civil rights marches in Kentucky in the early 1960s. My mom gave me the button she wore when they heard Martin Luther King at a rally at the state capitol in Frankfort on March 4th, 1965. It says “March Fourth to Justice.” The same year my mom quit buying grapes in support of migrant farm workers in California.
My dad, with seven of his colleagues, forced the integration of the movie theater in town. A sign on the ticket booth said, “Whites only downstairs—$1. Colored balcony only—50 cents.” The balcony, where the seats were broken, the floor sticky and the bathrooms didn’t work.
Every Saturday night for two months eight professors went to the theater and asked for tickets to the balcony. Saturday after Saturday the manager said, “I can’t sit you in the balcony. You don’t even want to go up there.”
All eight walked away.
The movement grew and the owner finally relented. During that whole time, Dad wouldn’t let me go to the movies. “Not until everyone can sit together,” he said.
He was right.
Now was my time. My regret at writing the essay supporting the war stared me in the face. I would redeem myself. I would work to end this war. For my brother’s best friend.
Jake’s timing was perfect. He let the murmurs murmur, he let the chants chant, then started back in. “The war continues to escalate. Young men are coming home in body bags in greater numbers. We must stop it. Our voices must be heard.”
“All across the country, the movement is growing. It’s not just a protest movement, it is a movement that goes deep to the core of American values. It is a movement to rebuild the creative energy of America. It is a movement to support the young men who refuse to go and the young men who feel they have no choice. It is a movement that says we will not tolerate the escalation of the war. A movement to change the world.”
The room exploded in cheers and applause. Jake gave his big finale. “If it requires civil disobedience. If it requires we put our bodies on the line, so be it. Our lives. Our future. The future of the entire world depends on it.”
By the time Jake was done, I would have walked through fire for him.
It took an hour for the group to decide on five major projects for the year. A table in Commons every day during lunch. The march in downtown Lake Forest coordinated with the National Mobilization Committee. Leafletting commuters as part of a national initiative. A Be-In during the spring semester. A letter writing campaign. Jake and Marty handed around clipboards and people signed up for what they wanted to help with.
I signed every list. Here was my grape boycott, my movie theater, my English essay rewritten. I wouldn’t let it pass me by.
I lingered as people left. I helped Marty move furniture and gather up the clipboards. “What’s Jake’s story? He’s pretty convincing,” I handed Marty two of the clipboards.
Marty smiled. “That he is.” We moved a couch to the center of the room. “Senior government major. Wants to be a lawyer someday. Madly in love with Ginger.”
I looked over at Jake hugging Ginger. “I see.”
“He was granted his conscientious objector status last summer. He’s going to work in a state hospital outside of Chicago instead of going to Vietnam. Ginger is a junior.”
We moved a couch perpendicular to the first. “What are you doing about the draft?”
“Hoping we end the war before I graduate in three years. I’ll apply for CO status but it’s never a given. What did you sign up for?” Marty asked as we moved the last couch into place.
“I signed every clipboard.”
“I need someone to help staff the table tomorrow, twelve o’clock. Available?”
“Perfect. I’m out of bio class at eleven forty-five.”
“See you there.”
By the time I turned to leave, Jake had untangled himself from Ginger and was packing materials in a torn cardboard box. He waved as I walked out the door.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 16,680