“I would like to be able to love my country, and justice too.” — Albert Camus
All across the US, people are marching in parades and visiting gravesites and listening to Dubya Bush try to justify the unjustifiable in honor of the women and men who served in the nation’s Killing Brigade. It’s Veterans Day. Hail to the thief.
As much as I abhor violence and disagree with the decision to join the military, I won’t speak ill of soldiers. Many — including my late grandfather, who served in World War II (and spent decades as an active dissenter) — were drafted into service and sent abroad with weapons by orders of murderous leaders. Others who opted to go did so out of adherence to their personal convictions. That was their right, their choice. So be it.
As such, I do not celebrate Veterans Day as most do. The people I choose to honor are the true patriots: social-justice activists who gave their all to make the world a kinder, safer, fairer, more peace-loving place.
To mark the occasion, we’ll focus on a precious few — some you’ll know; others are Baltimore-area figures. Do know, though, that my thoughts and prayers and thanks are wafting on the wind and toward the skies for all of the real heroes, those still working for justice and peace and those who have gone on to their reward.
Mohandas K. Gandhi This onetime lawyer and caste-system supporter experienced a radical change in worldview, and the ensuing enlightenment led him to become a savior to many in India. Gandhi worked to improve conditions of immigrant Indians and, in the 1940s, fronted the movement that brought about the country’s independence from British rule. His weapon: the morality and power of passive resistance. Gandhi’s central belief: satyagraha, a confluence of love, nonviolence, and voluntary redemptive suffering taken on for the betterment of the self and the world. This thinking — loosely translated as “soul force” — later informed the US civil-rights movement of the 1960s and the present work of the nonviolent GLBT-rights direct-action group Soulforce. In 1948, a fellow Hindu shot Gandhi to death, but in many ways, those who mourned him were correct: Gandhi is immortal.
Dorothy Day This journalist and socialist was a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. Her desire to combine her progressive beliefs and her faith led her to found the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement, which ministered to poor Americans during the Great Depression and spread the unpopular message of pacifism. “We will print the words of Christ who is with us always,” Day wrote. “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount.” The Catholic Worker movement was about works of mercy, not works of war. She urged “our friends and associates to care for the sick and the wounded, to the growing of food for the hungry, to the continuance of all our works of mercy in our houses and on our farms.” Day continued her good work and ardent pacifism for decades; she died in 1980.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Arnie Alpert wrote about the civil-rights legend and nonviolence in 2002’s “Are We Ready to Listen to Dr. King?”
In an airport restaurant on his way to Jamaica for a rare vacation in early 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. picked up a magazine article on “The Children of Vietnam” and the impact of American napalm.
King “froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam,” Bernard Lee, a King aide, told author David Garrow. “He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, ‘Doesn’t it taste any good?,’ and he answered, ‘Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.'” …
King’s opposition to the war stemmed primarily from his philosophical commitment to nonviolence. As King preached to his congregation early in 1966, “It’s just as evil to kill Vietnamese as it is to kill Americans.” According to Garrow, one member of the church, an Atlanta police officer named Howard Baugh, was troubled by his pastor’s dissident views, but later recalled that King told him, “Never could I advocate nonviolence in this country and not advocate nonviolence for the whole world.”
Thought of then-and now-primarily as a civil rights leader, Dr. King accepted his Nobel Peace Prize as an obligation, not just as an honor. When he received it he told the Oslo audience, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Monsignor Juan Gerardi Juan José Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala was the driving force behind the Recuperation of Historic Memory (REHMI) report, which documented the worst human-rights violations that took place during the years of the nation’s internal armed conflict. The man many knew as “Monsignor Juanito” revered truth, justice, God, and the poor. Yes, he was made a Catholic bishop in 1967, but he remained a simple priest who emulated Christ in his own life, so that others would follow the example of searching for truth, no matter the cost. Like Jesus, Gerardi’s ministry centered around the poor and the marginalized. A dedicated pacifist, Gerardi spoke out against violence in his country — which angered the violent Lucas García government. After the bishop’s 1980 visit to Rome, he was barred from re-entering Guatemala. Gerardi found asylum in Costa Rica, where he stayed until the García regime was overthrown two years later. Back at home, he established the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, out of which came the controversial REHMI report in 1998. Two days after the report’s appearance, the brave and outspoken peace-and-justice advocate was bludgeoned to death with a cinderblock.
Philip Berrigan Phil is more than a hero — he was a teacher, an inspiration, my late father’s priest, and our friend. This is what I wrote after attending the legendary activist’s 2002 funeral:
Baltimoreans and activists from across the country gathered yesterday with roses and prayers to say farewell to one sweet priest. The funeral for Philip Berrigan began with a solemn procession that followed the plain wooden coffin (recently constructed by his son Jerry and painted by friends), which rested in the back of a pickup truck, through the streets of west Baltimore to St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church. I’ve been to (too) many funerals, and they all are a mixture of tears and laughter, but this one was probably the most spirited, yet thoughtful one I’ve attended. We all loved and admired Phil tremendously, but more than anything, I believe we all felt (and feel) a great deal of gratitude to and for the man, the hero, the priest who is remembered as a “saint of our time.” His presence will be missed. His good works, through those he inspired and mentored, will continue. Interesting that I finally got to meet actor/activist Martin Sheen. Even more interesting that meeting a “president” more real than the one in the White House really did not matter to me… There was too much to think about and there is much too much to do. Wage peace, people. Arm the world with hugs, not bombs.
And his final official statement: “I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself.” You are so missed, Phil. Take good care of my dad up there.
Rev. Richard Fenske A Lutheran pastor, champion of the poor, and a Chicago civil-rights activist, Dick Fenske really came into his own as co-founder of Sister Parish, an NGO that linked US churches with faith communities in Central America, Mexico and along the Tex-Mex border. Dick passed away in Baltimore in May, 2003. From Sister Parish’s web site, this remembrance:
Richard Fenske, a man feeble of tongue in Spanish, a foreigner insecure culturally in Latin America, a fool for Christ’s sake living among the poor in Upavin outside Guatemala City, that he found his mission and understood God’s call in that most unlikely place. It was Dick Fenske –in his humble, self-effacing way, without judging or alienating anyone — who reminded his North American compañeros about John of Patmos who wrote in the Apocalipsis about the angel of God who said to the faithful in Laodicea that you, too, are also pitiful and poor, blind and naked…for all whom I love, I reprove and discipline. (Rev. 3:14-23)
So it was among the poor and oppressed in Central America that Richard Fenske found the deeper community he had always been searching for. It was among them, the wretched of the earth–as Franz Fanon used to call them–that Dick Fenske felt at ease, at home, at peace. And he knew something most American Christians don’t know, that those folks will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before we do… “the last shall be first.” Indeed, if they don’t get in, we certainly won’t. … Dick Fenske found what he’d been looking for all his life, a microcosim of the Promise that all of us, all God’s children, will one day sit around the same table on equal terms and no one shall make any of us afraid anymore in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Sam Schmerler Samuel Schmerler was not famous, not recently anyway. He sold carpets for a living when he lived in Baltimore’s Pikesville neighborhood. But members of the city’s peace-and-justice community — even those who, like me, never had the privilege of meeting him — mourn his June death at the age of 90. From the Baltimore Sun‘s obituary:
He went to work in the 1930s in the fingerprinting department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then joined the fledgling Social Security Administration in Washington as a field representative. He was transferred in 1942 to SSA’s office, then located in the Candler Building in downtown Baltimore.
Mr. Schmerler’s left-wing activism brought him to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s.
“He believed in progressive politics and was also a union organizer. He was called before the [committee] twice and was pursued by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Eventually, he lost his job,” said a son, Gil Schmerler.
Mr. Schmerler became a carpet salesman for Kaye’s Carpets and Interstate Floor Covering in Baltimore until retiring in 1985.
He remained active in Democratic politics, and through the 1970s
participated in numerous civil rights marches and peace demonstrations. He was a member of the Baltimore chapter of SANE/FREEZE, an anti-nuclear and peace group, and had served on the organization’s national board.
Bless you, Mr. Schmerler, and thank you.
Louise Franklin-Ramirez Activist, pacifist, and mother Louise Franklin-Ramirez passed away at 96 on Aug. 6, 2003. Ellen Thomas at NucNews offered a wonderful tribute:
Louise Franklin-Ramirez died on Hiroshima Day (August 6) at 3:20 p.m. after nearly a century of local and global activism.
That Louise died on Hiroshima Day is significant. She was co-founder of
the Metropolitan D.C. Area Gray Panthers’ “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace
Committee,” which every year since 1981 has brought Hibakusha, or
survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, to Washington, D.C. She
and her husband, John Steinbach, traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki
several times to participate in the huge commemoration ceremonies
sponsored by Japanese peace activists. News of her passing will have a
big impact across the Pacific Ocean.
Louise, who was born in 1907, joined Gray Panthers in the mid-1970’s.
She was active with Women Strike For Peace before that, and was a close
friend of D.C. activist Josephine Butler, who helped create D.C. Home
Rule, and with Louise and Arjun Makhijani founded the Gray Panthers’
Hiroshima-Nagasaki Peace Committee in 1981.
For much of her life, Louise was a teacher (and a mother). After the
Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools, she went to
Farmington, in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to tutor African American
children who would otherwise receive no education when their public
schools were closed down and private schools were opened for white kids
only as Virginia fought Lyndon Johnson’s desegregation policies.
The list of causes that Louise Franklin-Ramirez joyously embraced is a
mile long. Among them: Toys for Peace demonstrations at Christmas time
to protest war toys. She was arrested in front of the Supreme Court for
protesting the death penalty, and at Fort Benning, Georgia, for
protesting the School of the Americas. She supported Native Americans,
especially the local Piscataway Indians, and the imprisoned Leonard
Peltier. She protested the death penalty, and supported Mumia
Abu-Jamal, the journalist who is condemned to die, although there is
question whether he committed any crime.
She was among the first to recognize that the anti-nuclear vigil outside
the White House, 24 hours a day since 1981, was not (as commonly
thought) peopled by lunatics, bums, crackpots, and communists, but by
idealists who want to make the world a safer place.
Her husband issued a challenge to all of us when he wrote, “Louise has left us with many fond memories and an unfinished agenda. Her dream of a nuclear-free world with justice and peace remains unrealized. Our deep gratitude for the precious gift of her life can best be expressed by honoring the example she set for us.”
Rachel Corrie This tireless defender of the disenfranchised did not have the century-long vocation that Louise Franklin-Ramirez did. Rachel Corrie of Washington state did not get that luxury. But she fully lived her convictions — and died for them. On March 16, 2003, the 23-year-old peace activist was killed by a bulldozer by an Israeli soldier ran over her as she protested the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip. It’s an unimaginable loss. We must continue her work, as does her family. Her parents took a message to the US Congress, as was reported by The Nation:
“We are speaking out today because of Rachel’s fears about the impact of a war with Iraq on the people in the Occupied Territories. She reported to us that her Palestinian friends were afraid that with all eyes on Iraq, the Israeli Defense Forces would escalate activity in the Occupied Territories. Rachel wanted to be in Gaza if that happened,” explained Cynthia Corrie. “In the last six weeks, Rachel became our eyes and ears for Rafah, a city at the southern tip of Gaza. Now that she’s no longer there, we are asking members of Congress and, truly, all the world to watch and listen.”
The Corries expressed particular concern for international activists and Palestinians who are seeking to prevent home demolitions, as Rachel Corrie was on the Sunday she was killed. “We are asking members of Congress to bring the US government’s attention back to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to recognize that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is an overwhelming and continuous act of collective violence against the Palestinian people,” said the Corries. “We ask that military aid to Israel be commensurate with its efforts to end its occupation of the Palestinian Territories and to adhere to the rules of international law.”
We must all join the struggle to stop the violence and to stop the occupation. Let’s do it for Rachel, and for future generations.
What a great, if incomplete list. The deeds and courage of these great do-gooders will not be forgotten.
In honor of the day, please feel free to share other progressive veterans (not the military kind) and heroes via Comments. Let us remember them all, their sacrifices, and why they are the true patriots. Then, let us go into the world and follow their lead — whatever the price.