David McReynolds: Peace Movement Titan Is Gone

Another Eminent Pacifist leader Is Gone: David McReynolds
I only sort of knew David McReynolds, but he hovered significantly in the background of peace work during my apprenticeship in the Vietnam years.
David McReynolds, pacifist organizer stalwart, October 25, 1929- August 17, 2018.

My most vivid memory of David was not a personal encounter, but in the pages of WIN Magazine, a “radical pacifist” journal published by the War Resisters League. In 1969 he joined several other elder eminences in coming out there. These were the first confrontations I had had with homosexuals as sympathetic figures and colleagues.

 His article was more personal than political, often embarrassed about how much his struggles in and out of the closet had cut into his driving impulse to organize nonviolent action against war and imperialism. Its candor and humility cut right through my unthinking, reflexive homophobia, pointing a way forward from it which I have worked ever since to follow.

 Otherwise, his principal habitat was New York City’s intense but esoteric subculture of leftist sectarianism, which I followed for a bit but never really got drawn into. It gave him a base, in the Socialist Party (which was not communist, but look it up if you want to know more), from which he carried on his long organizing career in the War Resisters League, which made a big but mostly unheralded impact during the long, bleak Vietnam years.
One of his most visible protests came on December 6, 1965, when he joined a small group for draft-age men in the public burning of their daft cards. It made the front page of the New York Times.

A local paper reported a reunion of some of the group two years ago:

“McReynolds, [raised in Los Angeles, as a serious Baptist, but now] an atheist who lives in the East Village, described his decision to burn his draft card as “an act of penance” for supporting President Johnson the year before.

“I thought he would stop the slide to war,” he recalled. “I felt so betrayed by the horror of Vietnam.”

McReynolds (the tallest one) burns his draft card, December 6, 1965.

All of the five draft-card burners were eventually arrested and most served short prison sentences, except for McReynolds, who by then was too old to be inducted. Jim Wilson, now about 70 and active back then in the Catholic Movement “by way of Selma,” received the harshest penalty — two years of hard time behind bars from a three-year sentence for failing to report for induction. He was 20 or 21.”

 I smiled to read in the New York Daily News online obituary to discover that Dave’s first foray into politics as a teenager was with the Prohibition Party. Later, it says, he was the first openly gay candidate for president, running on the Socialist Party ticket in 1980 (when he got 6898 votes) and 2000 (when his tally dropped to 5602).

From a 2011 speech he gave at a book party for a dual biography of him and his feminist contemporary, Barbara Deming:

McReynolds, awaiting arrest, again.

It has been a good life in which, looking back, I am moved by the thought that at one time or another I walked in the company of giants such as Alvin Ailey, Norma Becker, Karl Bissinger, Maris Cakars, Sam Coleman, Dave Dellinger, Barbara Deming, Ralph DiGia, William Douthard, Peggy Duff, Allen Ginsberg, Gil Green, Arthur Kinoy, A.J. Muste, Grace Paley, Igal Roodenko, Bayard Rustin, Myrtle Solomon, and Norman Thomas. And was arrested with more than half of them.

I am deeply moved by those who organized this event and by WRL, which put up with me for nearly four decades, and the Socialist Party, which twice honored me with their nomination for President. . . .

First, do not be dismayed that we are in such troubled time. Large numbers of Americans seem impressed by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, or Donald Trump. Would you rather have found yourselves in a comfortable time when your voice wasn’t needed?

Think back to the other times we have lived through. The great war for Four Freedoms when we put Japanese in concentration camps on the West Coast. McCarthyism, when people were jailed for their political beliefs.

I remember, at UCLA, a group of us young radicals met at the beach shack in Ocean Park, 132 ½ Ashland Ave., for a serious discussion of whether we should not all leave for Costa Rica. One of us was taking flying lessons, and one of us was arranging for renting or buying a plane.

We voted not to go — though we were convinced we would all end in prison, as indeed some of my close friends at the time, Vern Davidson and others, did, for refusing the draft. Think of the fact that south of the Mason-Dixon line whites and blacks were separated on buses and trains, and blacks in the South had no vote.

Dave’s NY Daily News obit. Full text here: https://tinyurl.com/yafywg7q
Even in defeat we are victorious, for we have given our lives a meaning others should envy. In struggling for something greater than ourselves, we will be transformed.
Thank you, Dave.

3 thoughts on “David McReynolds: Peace Movement Titan Is Gone”

  1. I first met David in the early 1970s as far as a I recall when I visited the WRL office. He was always an inspiration to me with his movement history. We crossed paths at many other WRI events over the years. I will miss him. Vale David.

  2. Dave was an icon certainly for all of us in the Vietnam era 1960’s, when we identified as “the Movement” without all its harsh present divisions. But why wouldn’t present urgencies of never-ending wars abroad and multiple domestic oppressions justify a “Movement Rebirth”? Must identity politics now condemn us to political impotence?

  3. Just to complete the historical record, the SPUSA, whose logo is included above, forced David from the party over a semantic dispute. It was instigated by a small clique of party ageists whose understanding of the sense-reference distinction in linguistics fueled a debilitating removal of a great man from their presence.

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