Civil Rights, Peace, Anti-nuclear Activist: 1923 - 2002
Philip Berrigan was no stranger to the prison system, having spent eleven years of his life in jail. At one time, Berrigan and his brother Daniel were on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for destruction of government property and other acts of vandalism committed in protest of the Vietnam War.
An internationally renowned American peace activist, Christian anarchist and former Roman Catholic priest, Berrigan devoted his life to breaking down “prison walls” in order to expose and oppose American militarism, the use of nuclear weapons, social inequalities, avarice, and police brutality.
In 1943, after one semester at Holy Cross University, Berrigan was drafted to World War II combat duty. Deeply affected by his exposure to the violence of war and the racism of boot camp in the South, he entered the Josephite Fathers Seminary, a religious society of priests dedicated to serving Americans of African descent dealing with the repercussions of slavery and segregation. Berrigan became active in the Civil Rights movement, marching for desegregation and participating in sit-ins and bus boycotts. He was ordained a priest in 1955. The church removed him from the priesthood in 1973 when Berrigan married Elizabeth McAlister, a nun.
In the 1960s, Reverend Berrigan took radical steps to bring attention to the anti-war movement. In 1967, he and three others—they would be called the "Baltimore Four"--poured blood on Baltimore Selective Service records at the Customs House. As they waited for the police to arrive and arrest them, the group passed out Bibles. Berrigan calmly lectured draft board employees, “This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.” He was sentenced to six years in prison.
In 1968, after his release on bail, Berrigan decided to repeat the Baltimore protest. Joining eight other activists, who became known as the “Catonsville Nine”, he walked into the draft board of Catonsville, Maryland, removed 378 draft records and burned them outside the building. The group stated, “We confront the Roman Catholic Church other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”
Shortly thereafter, he was arrested by the FBI and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Together with a loosely affiliated group that called itself the “Catholic Left”, Philip Berrigan planned or inspired as many as 30 non-violent actions between 1968 and 1975 in protest of the Vietnam War and the government-military complex.
Among these actions were the following:
· The DC Nine: A group of seven priests and two nuns protested Dow Chemical’s production of napalm that was used as a weapon in Vietnam. After serving time in jail for destruction of property and burglary, The DC Nine´s conviction was overturned by a Washington, D.C. court.
· The Milwaukee 14: In the fall of 1968, fourteen men took 10,000 draft files from the Milwaukee draft board and burned them in a public square. After being arrested, bail was set at $415,000. Almost all spent time in jail.
· The Boston Eight: Priests and nuns stole files from four Boston draft boards to prove that the State of Massachusetts was drafting a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans and poor whites to fill their quotas.
· The Camden 28 Group: This action against the Camden, New Jersey draft board, FBI and Army Intelligence offices attempted to expose the methods used by J. Edgar Hoover and his agency against war protesters. Their trial against them resulted in a hung jury.
· The Buffalo Five: These men, in coordination with the Camden 28, intervened the Buffalo draft board.
· The Harrisburg Seven: Led by Berrigan, this group planned to make a citizen´s arrest of Henry Kissinger for waging an illegal war in Vietnam. Although they had only discussed the idea, Berrigan and his fellow plotters were arrested for conspiracy. Their prosecution was unsuccessful.
On September 9, 1980, Berrigan, his brother Daniel, and six others started what became known as the Plowshares Movement. Entering the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where warhead nose cones were manufactured, the activists hammered on two nose cones, poured blood on documents and offered prayers for peace. They were arrested and initially charged with over ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. On April 10, 1990, after nearly ten years of trials and appeals, the Plowshares Eight were re-sentenced and paroled for close to two years in consideration of time already served in prison.
Since then there have been over seventy Plowshares actions against weapons of war around the world. Berrigan’s final Plowshares action was in December 1999, when he and others banged on warplanes in an anti-war protest at the Warfield Air National Guard Base in Baltimore. Convicted of malicious destruction of property and sentenced to thirty months in prison, he was released December 14, 2001.
Said Berrigan, “The Plowshare movement began, and it must continue, because the government has no intention of disarming its nuclear arsenal. Atomic weapons protect the rich and powerful. That’s why they were designed, built, tested, and deployed. That’s why the establishment is willing to threaten other countries, and our own people, with atomic annihilation.”
Philip Berigan died in 2002 at the age of 79. Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus at Boston University, now deceased, paid this tribute to Berrigan:
“Mr. Berrigan was one of the great Americans of our time. He believed war didn't solve anything. He went to prison again and again and again for his beliefs. I admired him for the sacrifices he made. He was an inspiration to a large number of people.”
Berrigan was buried in Baltimore on the grounds of Jonah House, the faith-based community center that Berrigan and McAlister founded around “non-violence, resistance and community”.