Faith and Resistance: The Catonsville Nine

Next year, Shawn Francis Peters will publish The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford 2012).  The book chronicles the events surrounding a group of Catholic antiwar activists’—men and women, including Catholic priests—storming a Baltimore draft board and burning hundreds of selective service records in May, 1968.  These so-called “Catonsville Nine” were tried in federal court, receiving sentences of two- to three-years’ imprisonment for their actions.

Shawn Francis Peters has also studied the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (Univ. Press of Kansas 2000), which details the persecution by the United States’ government, and American citizens generally, of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. who refused to participate in World War II.  (Tellingly, the Nazis imprisoned 8000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and interned 2000 in concentration camps—where some 950 died—for their refusal to conform to the demands of the Third Reich.  See Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power 254–56 (2005).  Rudolf Hoess describes, with a disturbing mixture of admiration and disdain, the “fanatical” Jehovah’s Witnesses at Sachsenhausen in his memoir, Commandant of Auschwitz 88–91 (Constantine FitzGibbon trans., Phoenix 2000).)

For any male of my generation, whose eighteenth birthday was also marked by receiving his Selective Service registration card and a Gillette Mach III razor (replete with shaving gel) the book should provide an interesting perspective on religious protest against unjust war.  The publisher’s abstract follows the jump.

On May 17th, 1968, a group of Catholic antiwar activists burst into a draft board in suburban Baltimore, stole hundreds of Selective Service records (which they called “death certificates”), and burned the documents in a fire fueled by homemade napalm.  The bold actions of the ”Catonsville Nine” quickly became international news and captured headlines throughout the summer and fall of 1968 when the activists, defended by radical attorney William Kunstler, were tried in federal court.

In The Catonsville Nine, Shawn Francis Peters, a Catonsville native, offers the first comprehensive account of this key event in the history of 1960’s protest.  While thousands of supporters thronged the streets outside the courthouse, the Catonsville Nine–whose ranks included activist priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan–delivered passionate indictments of the war in Vietnam and the brutality of American foreign policy.  The proceedings reached a stirring climax, as the nine activists led the entire courtroom (the judge and federal prosecutors included) in the Lord’s Prayer.  Peters gives readers vivid, blow-by-blow accounts of the draft raid, the trial, and the ensuing manhunt for the Berrigans, George Mische, and Mary Moylan, who went underground rather than report to prison.  He also examines the impact of Daniel Berrigan’s play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, and the larger influence of this remarkable act of civil disobedience.  More than 40 years after they stormed the draft board, the Catonsville Nine are still invoked by both secular and religious opponents of militarism.

Based on a wealth of sources, including archival documents, the activists’ previously unreleased FBI files, and a variety of eyewitness accounts, The Catonsville Nine tells a story as relevant and instructive today as it was in 1968.

Features:

  • First comprehensive history of the Catonsville Nine
  • Draws on archives across the country, as well as on previously unreleased FBI files

Enjoy.

—DRS, CLR Fellow

One response

  1. Dan, thanks for the post about the Cantonsville Nine. Another very similar event occurred closer to campus in 1971. The Camden (NJ) 28 were a similar group of predominantly Catholic anti-war protesters that led a raid on a NJ draft board. A member of the raid, however, was an informant for the FBI and the other members, including a Catholic priest, were arrested when they broke into the building. The twenty-eight were brought to trial but they were found not guilty by jury nullification.

    For an interesting presentation of the event, and the moral questions faced by the members, I suggest “Catholic Under the Hood” podcast episode #257. The host, Father Seraphim Beshoner, TOR, is a professor of history at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Here is a link to the episode: http://catholicunderthehood.com/2011/07/09/257-the-camden-28/

    Like

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