Exactly fifty years ago, on April 15, 1967, the cherry trees were blooming in central park when a sea of 150,000 young protesters, led by Dr.s Martin Luther King Jr and Benjamin Spock, converged on the Sheep’s Meadow to start their march against the war. Called the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, the New York demonstration, along with a simultaneous 60,000 strong march in San Francisco, were the largest shows of dissent against the war to date. They were major wake up calls to the Johnson administration, and marked the beginning of the popular, mass, antiwar movement that would explode over the next four years, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
As we enter a movement moment today in response to the Trump administration, and millions of Americans express their dissent again by taking to the streets, a moment of reflection about these dedicated progressive predecessors teaches critical truths about how passionate belief can, and cannot change the political landscape. I recommend listening to the leaders of the last great movement for social change, and as a start, I’d suggest David Harris.
Addressing thousands of protesters in San Francisco fifty years ago, David Harris, the Stanford University student body president, and former civil rights worker, announced that he had started a new antiwar organization called the Resistance. Harris explained that he refused the privilege of his student deferral, and planned to send his draft card back to the Selective Service Administration knowing full well that he would be committing a felony that could cost him five years in jail.
Harris told the crowd: “This war will not be made in our names; this war will not be made with our hands. We will not carry rifles to butcher the Vietnamese people, and the prisons of the United States will be full of young people who will not honor the orders of murder." He asked young men to take a page from the civil rights movement and commit nonviolent civil disobedience. “Our message to the government was very simple,” Harris told me. “Here we are. We’re not going anywhere. If you’re going to prosecute this war, then you’re going to have to prosecute us in order to do that.”
At the time, a steady flow of draft-age men had begun to head north to Canada, a move Harris opposed. “Whose country is it? Let Lyndon Johnson move to Canada. My attitude was we're standing up here. We're going to force the issue and make them lock people up in order to prosecute their war—because, if nothing else, people were going to notice.” Two months after the Spring Mobilization, in June of ’67, the world noticed. Mohammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavy weight boxing title, passport, and boxing license, giving more impetus to a new coalition of black and white draft resisters.
Six months later, Harris’s message had the power and moral authority to convince more than 3,000 young men in 20 cities to hand in their draft cards at the first national draft card turn-in day on October 16. By then, tens of thousands of young activists had joined the draft resistance movement, and Harris had dropped out of Stanford to become a full-time activist. He also became the heartthrob of the antiwar movement, and married folk singer and political activist Joan Baez. Soon after they married, Harris lived out the consequences of his action and set an example by going to jail for three years rather than fight in Vietnam.
The military draft politicized a generation. Between 1965 and 1973, 27 million young men reached the age of 18, and by the end of the decade, 100,000 resisters fled to Canada, 400,000 men deserted the armed forces, and 3,250 draft resisters were sent to prison. By 1970, US troop casualties surpassed 50,000, and the military had to call up three men for every one they could conscript. The “great refusal”--started in large part by David Harris’s powerful message of civil disobedience and personal responsibility--had crippled Nixon’s war machine.
Today, Harris has some advice for this generation of young protesters. Stay peaceful and avoid violence. He blames the militant groups in the Sixties for discrediting the antiwar movement. “You don’t win over people by breaking windows,” he said recently. Be inclusive and reach out to the other side of the political divide. “It’s not enough to just to square off with our friends. We need to go into those red states and change the political dynamic there. Politics is talking to strangers and we need to do more of that.”
Fifty years later, a felon who served three years behind bars and never graduated from college, Harris has no regrets. “At the time, I said I wanted to get to 70 years old and look back at this period of time and feel good about it,” Harris said earlier this year. “Well, I’m 70 now and it feels real good. We did the right thing. More importantly, I think we were a prime factor in helping save what little was left of the American soul from that enterprise [the Vietnam War].”