My Little Bit for the Movement by
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Prompted By Protests

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March on Washington May 1970

Not surprisingly, I can check the boxes in terms of attending the Vietnam protest marches during our college years: the rally on the Boston Common in October 1969, various marches and meetings at Harvard in the spring of 1969 and 1970 and, of course, the massive March on Washington in May 1970. But my participation in these is hardly noteworthy, nor does it make for a very interesting story.  (OK, there were the two dogs fornicating in the stands — or was it on the field? — during the mass meeting in Harvard Stadium in 1969, but that’s really more of a vignette than a story.  Though perhaps there is a deeper meaning there that I have missed.)

Indeed, as much as I was committed to the anti-war cause and wanted to show my support by participating, being just one of many in these huge throngs mainly just  reminded me of my own insignificant role.  I get it that the very fact of massive turnouts at protests is itself the point — much as it is with elections — but my ego seems to demand more.

But I did do my one small part in the March on Washington.  I had borrowed my mother’s much larger car  — you just couldn’t put a whole lot of protesters in a Karmann Ghia, even with the top down — and drove it down to DC with some of my college pals snugly aboard, including Suzy U., and we stayed at the home of one of Suzy’s sisters and her husband.

Friday night there was a vigil/procession that started at the Arlington National Cemetery and then went across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Monument.  My main, non-political recollection of the procession was that we were all given as “torches” those damn tiny candles in Dixie Cups contraptions. To this day, I cannot hold one, let alone march while carrying one, without putting out the flame and/or scalding myself with hot wax.  So I spent most of the march simply trying to re-light to candle and/or tending to my burns, respectively. (I had the exact same problem attending an ecumenical Christmas Eve celebration at our local Unitarian parish last year, plus I was worried to death about burning down its beautiful 250-year-old wood parish house.)

Saturday was the main event on the Capitol Mall. I had separated from Suzy and my other pals before walking over to the Mall — I think I was trying to re-connect with a former girlfriend who had come down to the rally from Swarthmore — so I was alone when a middle-aged man strolled up to me casually.  There was no effort on his part to don bell bottoms and love beads to try to pass as “one of us;” the guy had a crew cut — in 1970 — and was wearing a grey suit, conservative tie and black leather shoes.  As a matter of fact, he could have passed as Bob Haldeman’s twin brother. So let’s just call him “J. Edgar.”

(The real Haldeman)

To state the obvious, it was awfully odd for a middle-aged guy to be hanging around near the Mall right then, let alone wearing a business suit — this was a Saturday, after all. So I didn’t have to be a genius for the “FBI! FBI! ” alarm to go off loudly in my head. Anyhow, J. Edgar came up to me and said something in a very friendly manner to the effect of “Hi, son, I’m a businessman from Ohio here in DC on business and just was curious as to what you kids are up to.”  Carefully picking my words, I explained that the protest was consistent with First Amendment rights and was entirely pro-American: it was meant to save American lives and end a war with no good purpose.

J. Edgar then went to where I thought he would go: “Right; sure. But aren’t you worried about troublemakers?  What do you hear about people trying to cause violence or who maybe do not have America’s best interests at heart?”  Nice try, J. Edgar, but no dice.  Although I think we all had our concerns about violence and, frankly, the motives and tactics of some of the more radical elements of the anti-war movement, he wasn’t getting any of that from me.  So, in my best doe-eyed manner, I replied something to the effect of, “Gosh, no.  We are all about peace and being peaceful.  We just want everyone to hear what we are saying.  I’ve heard absolutely nothing about violence or revolution.” I then threw in something about how proud my parents were that I was participating in this.  (They hadn’t said so in so many words, but they did let me borrow their car and knew where I was going that weekend with it and certainly hadn’t expressed any objections. More to the point, I thought J. Edgar might be impressed by hearing about such parental approval, true or not.)

I’m not sure how long this kabuki dance went on, but at some point J. Edgar realized that I was going to be a dead end for him.  So he — as he had been throughout our chat — very cordially said good bye and we both wished each other well.  And I’m sure he then glommed onto some other kid to try to get a bit of compromising information about the March out of him or her.

In a quietly proud way, I felt I had done my small part for the Movement. ‘Ya got nuthin’, G-man!” I smugly said to myself.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting encounter with a G-man, John, there in that huge crowd. You were smart to give him NOTHING (not that you had anything to “give” him). But how creepy that those guys were spying on all you peaceful protestors. I’m sure the same thing is happening today…but maybe not even in such a benign way.

  2. Marian says:

    Interesting encounter with the FBI, John, and I love the way you handled it. Didn’t these folks realize how obvious they must have been? I agree that your parents gave tacit approval by letting you borrow their car. In the early 1960s my father had grown rather conservative and we had many discussions (not arguments) at home over a number of issues. The Vietnam war and his distrust of Nixon turned him around, to his credit, and while he didn’t protest, he was staunchly anti-war and remarked on the luck of the kids’ birth order. As the older child, I wouldn’t be drafted, and the war ended just as my brother turned 18.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. I think, at least back then, the FBI just wasn’t that sophisticated in such things. I mean, at least they could have gotten a younger agent to grow his hair long and try to “infiltrate” the Movement. Not that I’m complaining about this guy’s obviousness.

  3. You had me at the tiny candle in the Dixie cup, John! A little “light” humor in these troubling times. And you done good with the g-man…rightfully smug.

  4. Suzy says:

    John, it’s amazing to me how much more you remember from that trip to D.C. than I do. I have racked my brain trying to pull up memories of the candlelight vigil on Friday night, and I’m getting nothing. I do remember Saturday, as well as the drive down from Cambridge, and staying at my sister’s house. I imagine I did fine with the tiny candle in the Dixie Cup, but who knows? Anyway, good work with the G-man, I’m sure you set the FBI back a great deal in their intelligence-gathering operation!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, John, about your brief encounter with “the man.” My parents, unlike yours, were “patriotic” (idiotic?) about the war, so my brothers and I argued mainly with them. It took a while for the Greatest Generation to admit that the war in Vietnam was nothing like WWII. Perhaps when their sons were given draft numbers and one took off for Canada for a year just in case his number was up? Love the picture of H.R.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. And you raise a good point that I am reminded me when I get in conversations with contemporaries about our protests in the 60’s. Namely, just how lucky I was to have parents who, while not exactly manning the barricades, nonetheless agreed with the politics of the protests and supported my right to participate in them. (“Just be careful!”)

  6. Thanx as always John for your deconstructionist take on our weekly prompt!
    And bravo for your many bits for the movement over the years!

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