Sit in, Burn Out, Move On: A Note on Political Activism in the ’60s

November 3, 2019   •   By Jay Neugeboren

AT THE END of the ’60s, Timothy Leary’s mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” was transformed for me, as I suspect it was for many who’d been working long-term in the civil rights and antiwar movements, into, “Sit in, burn out, move on.”

I lived in New York City from 1963 to 1966, where I was active in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), working to desegregate New York City apartment buildings such as those owned by Trump, and in several antiwar organizations. On flyers, my name alphabetically — and happily — trapped between those of Otto Nathan (Albert Einstein’s executor) and Grace Paley, I served on the Executive Committee of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee that organized the antiwar marches on Fifth Avenue.

I left New York in the fall of 1966 to take a position as a Visiting Writer at Stanford University, where I continued my civil rights and antiwar work. And when in the spring, on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the war for the first time, saying that “a time comes when silence is betrayal,” and that it was time “to move past indecision to action,” I sensed that the moment for acts of mass civil disobedience against the war had arrived.

On May 24, 1967, a month and a half after Dr. King’s Riverside Church speech, I was able to announce that 45 Stanford faculty and staff members, including eight physicians from the university’s medical school, had pledged themselves to participate in acts of mass civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam. Our act was in support of the national “We Won’t Go” movement of draft-age students, and was the first substantial illegal act against the war by individuals who were above draft age. “We do not want to protest the war any longer,” I said at a press conference. “We want to stop the war.”

We sent out news of “The Stanford Pledge” far and wide.


I had organized the Stanford Pledge with my friend and colleague, Mitchell Goodman, and what we accomplished at Stanford led directly both to the March on the Pentagon in October 1967, and to the Spock Trial in May 1968, when Dr. Benjamin Spock, along with Mitchell Goodman, William Sloane Coffin (chaplain of Yale University), Marcus Raskin, and Michael Ferber, was put on trial by the government for conspiring to violate the Selective Service Act.

Three weeks after the Stanford press conference, I published an article in Commonweal Magazine, “Disobedience Now,” in which I argued that signing ads, going on marches, and participating in teach-ins, were not enough. While we should “continue to build the anti-war movement in every way possible, and to enlist in its ranks, all people opposed to the war,” I wrote, what seemed clear was that no matter the size of protests, or the surge of antiwar sentiment in polls, the government was still able to enlarge the war at will.

Because on April 15, 11 days after King’s speech, more than 300,000 people across the country took part in massive antiwar protests, I reasoned that the peace movement was “now large enough and broad enough that one part of it can step out in front and say […] We are prepared, through mass civil disobedience, to say NO to our government.” My calculus: “If only 10 percent of those who marched against the war on April 15 will involve themselves in such an action, we might realistically hope to reverse the escalating murder and suffering.”

Invoking the spirit and tactics of the civil rights movement, I suggested actions that included blocking and immobilizing induction centers and weapons-manufacturing plants, encouraging draft resistance, and sitting in at government offices. On the West Coast, our target date for the first of these acts was October 17, 1967, when, at the Oakland Induction Center, we would risk jail in support of draft-age students who, by turning in their draft cards, chose not to accept the safety and privilege of student deferments.

Although Stanford was not considered a hotbed of radicalism like Berkeley or Columbia, we soon had more students pledged to draft resistance at Stanford — over 400 young men — than any college in the country. Mitch Goodman and I also began working with Vietnam Summer, a coalition of organizations that was the antiwar equivalent of Mississippi Summer and was endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr. It also had, we were informed, the secret support of the Kennedys and Rockefellers, and so was capable of financing our national campaign.

We received commitments to join in acts of civil disobedience from dozens of antiwar organizations, as well as from nationally known individuals such as Dr. Spock, the Reverend Coffin, and Noam Chomsky. At the same time, we were privately assured that many of the nation’s most prominent religious leaders — the Reverend King, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg — “could be delivered” if we could demonstrate that the numbers were there for mass civil disobedience.

In mid-summer, however, due in part to the six-day Arab-Israeli War (June 5–10), we began to see signs that a large chunk of the peace movement — mostly white middle-class (often Jewish) men and women: the middle-class middle of our support — was abandoning us. Doves (on Vietnam) were becoming hawks (on Israel); those who previously praised Martin Luther King Jr. for his civil rights heroism now questioned his antiwar advocacy, and my 10-percent-90-percent theory began to fall apart. I received letters from organizations that were initially enthusiastic about civil disobedience but now thought we should put our major efforts into “The Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” a “Call” I helped draft that was based on the Stanford Pledge and which encouraged draft resistance but did not call for acts of civil disobedience. In late August, I received a letter from Noam Chomsky saying that “the Stanford statement and the number of people who signed it, are very impressive. I doubt that we could even come close to those numbers here, among tenure faculty, at least, in all the Boston area universities put together.”

I was disheartened, and I was also frightened. There were new, strange clicking sounds on my phone, special delivery letters I was told were on the way never arrived, and at meetings to organize the Oakland event, men I didn’t recognize were shouting that it was time to put our nonviolent strategies to bed, and to arrive at the induction center with clubs, knives, and incendiary devices that would frighten police horses and policemen, and enable us to “fight fire with fire.” I wanted to do all I could to help end the war in Vietnam, but I was not certain I was ready to lose an eye or a limb in the process. As I suspected, and later confirmed, these men were agent-provocateurs sent there by the government to encourage acts that would justify violent retaliation.

By this time my brother Robert had been incarcerated in state mental hospitals for a half-dozen years, and I felt a strong need to be far from my family, and from obsessions that drove me not only to fantasize and seriously consider organizing violent, revolutionary acts against the government, but to imagine being beaten into brainless slime by the FBI. I wanted to keep working for peace in Vietnam, but random moments of suicidal ideation arriving with my fantasies, I also felt an overwhelming need to get away and to have a sustained period of peace in my life — a need I had the luxury of being able to act on. Although I’d applied for conscientious objector status several years earlier, I was not — as millions of younger men were — in danger of being drafted into the military, and so I did not, by my protests, risk either my life or my prospects.

Stanford invited me to stay on for another year, but at the end of August, I made plans to leave the country. I was exhausted, frightened, and feared for my emotional stability. Yet this also served as a way to disassociate myself from our nation’s murderous acts in Vietnam.

Mitch went east with the Stanford Pledge and our “Call,” and with Dr. Spock, the Reverend Coffin, and others, organized the Justice Department confrontation at the Pentagon that would lead, in May 1968, to the trial of the US government versus Spock, Coffin, Goodman, Raskin, and Ferber. A letter from him, with an allusion to the old Black Sox baseball scandal (“We need you … I’ve told many people here in the east how much you did out there … you can’t start a thing like this, encourage people to civil disobedience — and then not be there. Say it isn’t so.”), touched me where I was weak, and made me consider changing my plans. But on September 29, I sailed for Europe.

In Spéracèdes, a small village in the south of France — where women washed their clothes in the village square’s stone fountains each morning, where the town’s butcher led his flock of sheep through the center of town several times a week, and where I developed a community of friends I could be with daily — I found what seemed the more “authentic” life that many in the States had, in the ’60s, been seeking in communes and collectives.

On May 30, 1968, the day on which I reached the age of 30 and could no longer, in a saying of the times, be trusted, I found myself living in a nation where a student-led uprising, in concert with unions and working people, succeeded in shutting down the entire country, and nearly succeeded in overthrowing the de Gaulle government. A year later, refreshed and renewed by my time away, I accepted a position at a new “experimental” state university in Old Westbury, New York. Within seven weeks of my arrival, after the administration reneged on a promise to admit students into “full partnership in the academic world,” there were confrontations, occupation of buildings, sit-ins, lists of demands, and I found myself once again engaged politically — drafting a statement of no-confidence in the school’s president, Harris Wofford, that the majority of the faculty signed.

I continued, too, to be active in the peace movement, but no matter our seeming successes — the Stanford Pledge, the March on the Pentagon, the growing Draft Resistance Movement, the Spock Trial victory (an appeals court overturning an initial guilty verdict), the ads and teach-ins and marches — the war in Vietnam went on. A half-century later, it is sadly sobering to realize that the war did not end until eight full years after a moment in the late ’60s when some of us were believing we were going to be able — by our numbers, voices, and acts — not just to protest the war, but to stop it.


Jay Neugeboren is the author of 22 books, including award-winning works of both fiction and nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared in The American ScholarThe New York TimesPloughsharesThe New York Review of Books, CommonwealThe Atlantic Monthly, and other venues, as well as in more than 50 anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. His most recent novel is Max Baer and the Star of David (2016).


Featured image and banner image: "Vietnam War protestors at the March on the Pentagon" by Frank Wolfe is public domain.