«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: No. What happened in Chicago was, it was August. Our three babies were being taken care of by my mother on Martha's Vineyard, and to have both mommy and daddy in Chicago was not cool. So, as soon as our demonstration was over, I came back to take care of the kids.
Peter didn't come back, because—I mean, he came back eventually—he was arrested with Dick Gregory and another group of people, because they crossed the imaginary line. They crossed a
arrested. What Peter's lawyer thought was going to be a five or six hour trial, became a two-week trial.
Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: Yes. And— Q: And the result was?
Weiss: They were exonerated, because they didn't go to jail. But no, I think he had to pay a $500 fine.
Q: Even though he was a delegate?
Weiss: They paid a fine.
Q: He was— Weiss: Oh, yes. [laughs] Q: Well, you know, actually, this might be a point at which we can take a little detour. Now, and talk about you and Peter together as movement people, because it's such an important part of
Weiss: Well, first, we're loving people. Lovers, before we're movement. It is an important part. I was a law student, and Peter was a lawyer when we got married, when we got engaged to be married. Peter went to work as a lawyer in international trademark work, "international" being the key word. So, he would travel a lot, because he had clients all over the world. I went to social work school and didn't become a social worker, and decided to go to public health school and didn't become a public health worker. But I was looking for what to do. Then I was in Women Strike. I started traveling because of Women Strike. So, I went to Vietnam for the first time, left three babies at home with Peter.
Q: In '69?
Weiss: Peter never said, "No,” which was just remarkable at that time, and I'm forever grateful for that. But I would always make sure there was somebody else there to help take care of the kids, like a college couple. I always prepared casseroles with instructions on how to heat them for dinner, it was before microwaves. So I tried to make it as easy as possible for him, and my mother played a very strong role. She would take the kids to movies, or come and play with
lawyers to create, or to become part of the Lawyer's Committee on American Policy towards Vietnam. Then we marched together for the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA].
Q: He also traveled to Vietnam.
Weiss: But not until a little later.
Q: A little later, yes.
Weiss: He went—I sent him with Mort Stavis.
Weiss: At the time of the Son Tay raid, S-O-N-T-A-Y— Q: Right.
Weiss: —which was pretty important, because he was there when the U.S. was bombing what they thought was a prisoner of war camp, or bombing a village where there had been a prisoner of war camp. So, it was a little nervous-making. It was very nervous-making. He came back and reported his findings, I think, to Justice [Arthur] Goldberg and to an editor of the New York Times, and they got an op-ed out of it. What was the year? November 1970. I had already had an
and a woman from the POW MIA [prisoners of war missing in action] committee was above the fold.
Anyway, Peter had to do his law work to keep us in breakfast, lunch and dinner. He worked very hard and very long hours. He became a partner in the law firm. It was a very significant international trademark law firm. I have a wonderful photograph of him in a demonstration in the rain with umbrellas, with our kids. I can't remember the year. But, he was against the war, and he worked as a lawyer against the war with other lawyers. He supported me and my work. I was out there more than I was in there, I guess!
Q: Somehow I link his name to Bill Kunstler.
Weiss: Because of the Center for Constitutional Rights, but not because of Vietnam, I don't think.
Q: No, no.
Weiss: Bill Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy and a third man from the south, Benjamin Smith, were the founders of the Center for Constitutional Rights. I don't know how many years into the Center…Arthur invited Peter to come in and join them. And to this day, he's a vice president of the Center, but he's just been told that his time limit has come, or will come, in the middle of next year. The Center has been a very important place for him. He brought the idea of
Weiss: Which had been mostly a domestic legal place. Very important domestic law. But he helped to internationalize their outlook. They became members of the Federation Internationale des Droits de l'Homme, they became members of the FIDH, which is the International Federation of Human Rights.
Q: Right. He was also very active in the Institute for Policy Studies [IPS].
Weiss: He was. Contrary to Wikipedia, he was not a founder of it, neither was my father a founder of it, neither was I. But he was Chair of the Board for a certain number of years, after it had been founded by Mark Raskin and Dick Barnet. And a guy who's just joined the Institute, David—not David Hawk, David Hart, who was a kid when I was active, and who is now at the IPS working on something called, "The New Economy," wants me to come down to brief the new staff members of IPS, because he claims that I had a great impact on the direction that he took in life. I have no memory of that. But he said, "And every time I turn around at IPS, I see your influence here," which is very nice, actually.
When Orlando Letelier was murdered, assassinated on Embassy Row in Washington, his car was blown up. The trigger apparently came from the Chilean Embassy, Peter and I flew down immediately. Somebody said, as we were planning the funeral, somebody said, "And we will
the church—Catholic church in Washington—saying 'goodbye' to Orlando." I prevailed, and people remember that. It's amazing to me, because they reminded me. The Institute for Policy Studies is a very important think tank. It's an activist, scholarly think tank. It's now run by a remarkable human being named John Cavanagh.
Q: Odd combination.
Weiss: Perfect! In and out! [laughs] Q: Now, when you and Peter were sitting down over dinner, you swapped tales, information?
Weiss: Yes, we still do.
Q: How does that internal dynamic work?
Weiss: “How was your day today, dear? What did you have for lunch?” It's wonderful. We had different things to say to each other. But over the years, when the kids were—when we were still a family of five, we talked about the kids first, and about school first.
Weiss: And about, "Did you hear that Tamara got into college without our help?" How dare she!
Q: Yes! [laughs] Weiss: And Judy's leaving the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, for University of Massachusetts. Stuff like that.
Q: Sometimes we forget when we're talking about political couples that— Weiss: Family first!
Q: —or, the ordinary, everyday living.
Weiss: Very! There's nothing ordinary about every day. It's extraordinary, sometimes.
Weiss: But we also talked about, we need a new furnace, and all of the domestic issues, which were huge, because they were time-consuming. We had to take care of our own home, and get the raccoons out of the garbage can. That was an important part of my life, because I would drive Peter to the subway, during the airlift, '59 to '63, we drove in together. During Friendshipment, 1973 to '75, I worked in the office in the city. I drove him to work, and I would drop him off at
Q: Is he still a practicing attorney?
Weiss: Peter retired five or, no, more than five. A few years, a number of years ago. He's going to be eighty-nine, so he's entitled to his own time, now.
Weiss: But he is actively engaged as an international human rights lawyer, and, in fact, is going—we're going together to speak at this conference in Siracusa, Sicily on human rights and international criminal justice. So, you never leave your— Q: You travel together?
Weiss: Oh, now we always travel together.
Q: The slip of the tongue there where you mentioned David Hawk brings to mind The Mobilization.
Weiss: The Moratorium.
Q: The Moratorium. What was the relationship between The Mobe and The Moratorium? I remember last time you wanted to make that distinction.
Weiss: Yes, there is a distinction, and maybe if I had to do it over, which we never do, so maybe we shouldn't even consider it, I would have made a bigger effort at coalescing, and not having it so separated. But people considered the moratorium a more centrist, more political party, meaning Democratic Party, organization, and The Mobilization a more, "Radical," but I never thought of it as a terribly radical, non-party affiliated, non-democratic organization. So, The Moratorium had their demonstration on October 15 – wow! [laughs] Q: Wow!
Weiss: The Mobilization had ours on November 15, 1969. Francine du Plessix Gray wrote in the New Yorker, January 3, 1970, that Reverend Richard Fernandez and Cora Weiss played an active role in trying to bring the Moratorium and Mobilization together. They were actively negotiating.
The ultimate impact of the two of them was very important, because it had an impact on public
Q: Well— Weiss: It's not a regret.
Q: —some of the same people went to both.
Weiss: To both. A lot of same people.
Weiss: Definitely came to November, because they had seen how important it was.
Q: But there were a couple of liberal senators who backed out of the November march.
Q: Who had been active in The Mobe.
Weiss: In The Moratorium?
Weiss: One of them?
Q: —one of them.
Weiss: You know, memory is either selective, or just non-existent. But thank heavens for George McGovern and Charlie Goodell.
Weiss: I think at one point, they actually held hands, marching in the front line!
Q: [laughs] Weiss: But if they didn't, I perceived it that way. They were terrific.
Q: And I remember— Weiss: Goodell was responsible for Senate Resolution Number 1, which was an anti-war resolution. He introduced the first bill to cut off funds for the Vietnam War. I signed a letter with
Q: Right. I remember something vaguely from a project we had on Al Lowenstein, the distinction between the two pieces. So he's very active in The Moratorium, and then one of the few people who was also— Weiss: Active in The Mobe?
Q: —active in The Mobe, yes.
Weiss: He was a controversial figure admired and loved by most people on Long Island, and we were always too critical, you know? It has so changed my views today when you just have to welcome anyone who's willing to stand with you and not be critical. I can't stand the internal criticizing. It's true.
Q: Is it kind of a luxury of success, being so critical?
Weiss: We weren't successful, yet, when we were being critical.
Q: [laughs] Yes.
Weiss: We were still struggling to get the war ended. But we ended it, and we forced—I think public opinion forced it to be ended, to come to an end. We succeeded in getting Congress to
Weiss: That helped to end it. So, we celebrated in Central Park, thanks to Phil Ochs. We had something called, "The War is Over." It was a huge sign on the stage. The skirt of the stage. Two guys came up to us afterwards, and asked what was going to happen to the sign. I looked around and I said, "I guess it's going in my garage." They said, "Well, can we have it?" We said, "Sure!" Because it was taking this enormously heavy, big banner off our hands. But it became the backdrop for—and now, I'm blocking on the name of the play. What was the name of the famous play written by two men, Ragnei and Rado.
Q: Hair? Not Hair.
Q: Oh, Hair.
Weiss: There you go. Absolutely right. Good for you! So, it was the backdrop in the stage in the play. "The War is Over." I don't know long that lasted.
Q: This jumps ahead a little bit, but I want to get back to '69 in Vietnam. But this jumps ahead, too, May of 1970. As I understand it, there was a meeting in your room, in your home, when the
Weiss: Came about the bombing.
Q: —had bombed Cambodia.
Q: Do you recall that?
Weiss: Absolutely. Everyone was in the room.
Q: Who is everyone?
Weiss: Shirley MacLaine, Donald Sutherland, David Dellinger. It was an extraordinary gathering. I can't remember why we were gathered. But the phone rang.
Q: To build a coalition, I was told.
Weiss: Was it? OK. You know more about me than I know about me. And I'm going to keep reminding you!
Q: You knew it. We know it differently.
Q: I’ve just researched it.
Weiss: You're fresh.
Q: I didn't know it until two days ago.
Q: You know, I'll forget it in two days.
Weiss: So, the room was packed, so it was to build a coalition, OK. So, the phone rang. I have no memory of who called, but Nixon had just bombed Cambodia. Either there was a moment of shock, silence, or a moment of, "We've got to do something." But the, "We've got to do something" came very quickly, and that's what created the demonstration. That was the basis for the next demonstration. I don't even remember where it was. It was in Washington, I assume.
Q: You were—yes.
Weiss: Yes, oh— Q: Kent State came three or four days after that.
Weiss: Really? So soon?