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David McReynolds on Grace Paley’s activism

EdgeLeft: Grace Notes

by David McReynolds

(this occasional column can be reprinted or distributed without permission)

Grace Paley died this August 22, at the age of 84, in her beloved Vermont, survived by her husband, Bob Nichols. Most of the world knows Grace for her writing, but to many of us in the peace movement she was at least as well known for being on the front line of actions.

This is a remembrance of Grace on two occasions, 1967, and 1971, small “grace notes”

for a great woman.

In New York City, in 1967, War Resisters League had taken on the first day of a week-long series of actions aimed at closing the Whitehall Street Induction center. I found it amusing that the coalition of anti-war groups, which was not united on the concept of nonviolence, agreed to let the WRL take that first day for what was described as “traditional civil disobedience”. (In theory I was in charge of organizing that event, though Maris Cakars did the major part of pulling the event together).

Maris and I were excited when we found Ben Spock had signed our list of people who would be there at 5 a.m. on December 5th. Neither of us wanted to call Spock to ask if he planned to join the civil disobedience or would be part of the larger “legal witness”. Our fear was that Ben, who was known as a moderate sort of person, would withdraw entirely if he found out that arrests were planned. How groundless our fears – Ben led the way that day, and was among 264 folks arrested. It was, I believe, his first arrest.

As we gathered in the darkness of pre-dawn I suggested to Grace Paley, whom I knew only as a key figure in the Greenwich Village Peace Center, that she and I take two groups of “non-celebrities” around to the rear of the Induction Center, and leave the front of the building for the celebrities. (Ah, it show how little I was keeping up with the field of literature, where Grace was already a celebrity).

We took our groups to the back, out of sight of the press. My own group – which was just out of sight of Grace’s group – was quickly picked up by the police, tossed a few feet through the air, and arrested. But Grace’s group, I later found out, had been charged by cops on horses, and several were injured, including Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien and his wife. Grace had at once marched up to the officer in charge, grabbed him by the collar, and, shaking him like a misbehaving puppy, demanded he call off his men. Which he did.

When I saw Grace later, after we were all released from jail, I said, of her encounter with the officer, “Grace, I knew you were Irish, but I didn’t know you had such a temper”.

“David,” Grace said, “I’m not Irish. I’m Jewish”.

How was I to know? Paley sounded like an Irish name to me.

Take Two was in 1971 during the famous Maydays in Washington DC when thousands upon thousands were arrested during the three days of organized disruption. I wasn’t arrested that first day – I was in the last and final wave – but I got the account from reliable witnesses. Most of the several thousand jammed together that first day were very young. The average age might have been close to twenty, if that. Young and very militant. “Fuck that shit” was one of the rousing chants of the milling youth.

Finally a young girl grew suspicious of Grace, who was clearly not a youth. Perhaps, thought the girl, she might be a plant, an agent. She went up to Grace and said “Are you a revolutionist?”.

Grace said: “Sure, fuck that shit, OK?”

Which permitted her to pass muster, an old revolutionist among the young.

Grace Paley was that rare “public intellectual” who both enriched the world by her writing . . . and put herself on the front line, not once, but many times.

– 30 –

(David McReynolds was the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1980 and 2000, and served on the staff of War Resisters League for 39 years, until his retired in 1999. He lives on the old Lower East Side with his two cats) [McReynolds was also the Green party candidate for US Senate in 2004.]


Click here if you are interested in Grace Paley’s activism, then you might be interested in her Long Walks and Intimate Talks (Women and Peace Series). This first collaboration of two long-time feminist and antiwar activists is a wonderful melding of word and image that creates a powerful call for world peace. Paley’s poems and short fiction and Vera William’s vivid watercolors depict the beauty and dignity of “ordinary” lives from El Salvador to the Bronx, from New Hampshire to Vietnam. Scenes and stories of domestic life, solitude, and nature are interspersed with heart-wrenching images of women widowed and children crippled by war and incarcerated by urban poverty, Here, too, are stories and paintings of protest, joyous and defiant. Originally published in part as a calendar to benefit the War Resisters League, this gorgeously packaged book provides 365 reasons not to have another war. Paley’s poems and short fiction–including material published here for the first time–are perfectly complemented by Williams’ 30 vivid watercolors.

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