I have been asking myself how I can best be useful towards the evolution of our (humanity’s) collective consciousness for most of my life, beginning, perhaps, when I was twelve years old, and in some ways, going back to when I was six. Asking what can I do myself, and what would be useful for those of us who share the desire to serve, to do collectively. What can I do, and what can we do? These two questions have been the driving force of my life.
I was born, of a Jewish family in the Bronx, in October of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. When I was six in 1945, I experienced the nature of the Jewish Holocaust in a very deep way, for one who was not there and never in danger. I knew that a very large portion of my family had perished in various concentration camps. I remember the eyes, from Movietone News, which they showed at the neighborhood Saturday movie matinees: big Jewish staring eyes, staring out at me, at us, from skeleton like human beings, staring through the bars; the stiff bodies, stacked like in piles of wood; and the many images, especially of the parents in their long coats, with a suitcase in one hand, and a child in the other, standing on line, waiting to board the train and knowing, deep inside, what was coming.
In those days, in the middle 1940’s, kids all across America went to Saturday matinees at our local movie theaters. We saw the same news that adults would see later in the afternoon and evening movie programs. In 1945, there would be some news about the Concentration Camps at least monthly, and frequently weekly. I would see the same horrible images over and over again: “Allied” troops liberating Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Belzec, Ravensbruck, Treblinka. The images burned into the core of my being, just under the surface, always there.
I was very angry with God. At ten, I became an atheist. I could not believe that there could be a God who would let such things happen. When I was twelve, my father gave me a copy of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I was halfway through the book before I realized that the protagonists were German. At twelve, in 1951, I had still believed that all Germans were Nazis (and there was a piece of that which lingered inside me for many, many years). I was shocked that the characters to whom I had given my heart were Germans. What could that mean? I realized that the problem was larger than I thought it was. It was not simply that Germans were evil, as I had thought. It seemed then, perhaps, that the problem was war. That “war” was some kind of a disease which humanity suffered from, and that, therefore, I needed to find a cure.
Since then, I have pretty much been primarily interested in how to bring an end to war, and an end to the horrible ways we can treat one another. I have led a rich and interesting life, but always in search of trying to understand what would be useful; what needs to change; where is, as Archimedes put it, the place to stand from which one can have the leverage to move the world.
I graduated college in 1961, and entered the Peace Movement. What else could I do? My first involvement with the social change movement, beginning in 1961, was with the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), the War Resister’s League (WRL), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). I was involved in marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of protest activity. I met and greatly admired Bayard Rustin, then Executive Secretary of the War Resister’s League (WRL), who became my hero and role model. I had first met him at a WRL weekend workshop, where, amongst other things, he sang the song, “Uhuru (Freedom)”, and moved me to tears. He had just come back from Africa, where he had been working with Julius Nyerere, and Jomo Kenyatta. He spoke of plans to form a Peace Brigade and march into South Africa. But then the WRL gave him a year’s leave to be an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and if he ever went back to Africa, I did not hear of it. Bayard was a truly great man.
Actually, Bayard was the primary organizer of the famous March on Washington. Most of the time, during those days, he kept himself out (or was kept out) of the public eye, because, at that time (and, unfortunately, now as well) being a homosexual was unacceptable to most of the black churches, and there was always J.Edgar Hoover looking for ways to discredit the movement. However, Bayard did play a primary role in organizing the coalition that brought into being what was known as (from Wikipedia):
This was the time of the famous “Freedom Rides.” All the staff and many members of the War Resister’s League took direct part in these rides, many of them were beaten and jailed over and over again, and some were so severely beaten that they never fully recovered. (Jim Peck, David McReynolds, Dave Dellinger, Ralph Di Gia, amongst others).
In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, there was a degree of franticness, within the Peace Movement, in our responding to one crisis after another, leading up to Cuban Missile Crisis, during which it became appallingly clear to me that we were at the brink of World War III. I felt this so strongly, that after taking part in organizing an 8,000-person protest march to the UN, I solemnly bade my friends good-by, telling them that we might not see each other again, and went home to prepare for the end. Some of my friends felt that I was being excessively melodramatic. But, as you may know, there was a meeting of the Ministers of Defense of the various countries involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was convened by Robert McNamara in 2006 (he had been the US Secretary of Defense at the time of the confrontation), during which it was reported that the situation had been even worse than I had thought it was. McNamara, himself, had bade his family good-by that night as well, telling his wife that they might not see the morning. It turned out that the decision as to whether or not to fire the Soviet missiles, which were in place in Cuba, was entirely in the hands of the Soviet Captain in charge of the missiles, at their base in Cuba. If the United States Navy had fired a shot to stop the Soviet vessels that were cruising towards Cuba, from crossing the line that President John F Kennedy had stipulated, he (the Soviet Captain) would have opened fire on the USA with nuclear missiles, and then, Armageddon.
In any event, it was a turning point in my life as an activist. I had never been able to figure out what connection there was between our (those of us in the Peace Movement) actions and the change we hoped to bring about – that is, I could not see how our actions would lead to bringing about the desired changes. But there seemed to be no time to develop long range plans, as it seemed that our time was always running out. We were always responding to one crisis after another with no overall game plan, and no coherent strategy. I felt much like Chicken Little, running about and shouting, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Certainly the demonstration we put together was not in any way a factor in the events of the day. I was up all night. As I had no spiritual practice at the time, had never heard of meditation, and was a stranger to prayer, I spent the night listening to Gregorian Chants and drinking white wine, while dwelling upon the situation.
Continue with part 2