47 Years Later: The Catonsville Nine

Catonsville 9Today is the anniversary of the Catonsville 9 action in 1968. Here’s how Howard Zinn chronicles it in his classic The People’s History of the United States (1980):

The following May, Philip Berrigan-out on bail in the Baltimore case-was joined in a second action by his brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest who had visited North Vietnam and seen the effects of U.S. bombing. They and seven other people went into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, removed records, and set them afire outside in the presence of reporters and onlookers. They were convicted and sentenced to prison, and became famous as the “Catonsville Nine.” Dan Berrigan wrote a “Meditation” at the time of the Catonsville incident:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise…. We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.

When his appeals had been exhausted, and he was supposed to go to prison, Daniel Berrigan disappeared. While the FBI searched for him, he showed up at an Easter festival at Cornell University, where he had been teaching. With dozens of FBI men looking for him in the crowd, he suddenly appeared on stage. Then the lights went out, he hid inside a giant figure of the Bread and Puppet Theatre which was on stage, was carried out to a truck, and escaped to a nearby farmhouse. He stayed underground for four months, writing poems, issuing statements, giving secret interviews, appearing suddenly in a Philadelphia church to give a sermon and then disappearing again, baffling the FBI, until an informer’s interception of a letter disclosed his whereabouts and he was captured and imprisoned.

The one woman among the Catonsville Nine, Mary Moylan, a former nun, also refused to surrender to the FBI. She was never found. Writing from underground, she reflected on her experience and how she came to it:

… We had all known we were going to jail, so we all had our toothbrushes. I was just exhausted. I took my little box of clothes and stuck it under the cot and climbed into bed. Now all the women in the Baltimore County jail were black-I think there was only one white. The women were waking me up and saying, “Aren’t you going to cry?” I said, “What about?” They said, “You’re in jail.” And I said, “Yeah, I knew I’d be here.”

I was sleeping between two of these women, and every morning I’d wake up and they’d be leaning on their elbows watching me. They’d say, “You slept all night.” And they couldn’t believe it. They were good. We had good times…

I suppose the political turning point in my life came while I was in Uganda. I was there when American planes were bombing the Congo, and we were very close to the Congo border. The planes came over and bombed two villages in Uganda.. . . Where the hell did the American planes come in?

Later I was in Dar Es Salaam and Chou En-lai came to town. The American Embassy sent out letters saying that no Americans were to be on the street, because this was a dirty Communist leader; but I decided this was a man who was making history and I wanted to see him… .

When I came home from Africa I moved to Washington, and had to deal with the scene there and the insanity and brutality of the cops and the type of life that was led by most of the citizens of that city—70 percent black. …

And then Vietnam, and the napalm and the defoliants, and the bombings. …

I got involved with the women’s movement about a year ago.. . .

At the time of Catonsville, going to jail made sense to me, partially because of the black scene-so many blacks forever filling the jails.. .. I don’t think it’s a valid tactic anymore…. I don’t want to see people marching off to jail with smiles on their faces. I just don’t want them going. The Seventies are going to be very difficult, and I don’t want to waste the sisters and brothers we have by marching them off to jail and having mystical experiences or whatever they’re going to have…

One thought on “47 Years Later: The Catonsville Nine

  1. Our organization, the Br. David Darst Center, is named for one of the Catonsville Nine. We are a peace, justice, spirituality, and education center in Chicago. It is our mission expose youth and young adults to social justice issues and give them some basic tools to advocate for whatever issue inspires them.

    Talking about civil disobedience can be challenging, and we discourage using napalm, but we are very glad to see the actions of the Catonsville Nine and other inspired groups on your site.

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