«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
think all of the programs during the ten years stood on their own. One was on small arms, because there was a small arms conference at the U.N., no question about that. There was relevance, and we always invited U.N. speakers, especially from the Department for Disarmament Affairs. We were a disarmament program. We were a peace program, with a disarmament emphasis, and an antinuclear program. We were a fun program. If it wasn’t fun, we couldn’t do it. We always had food, and drink, and music. We had to, because we were pilloried by the guy who played the organ in the—not the organ, the bell tower. The bells. Carillonneur, that’s what he was. He ran the carillon.
Weiss: Who was he? I don’t know his name. He was called the bat in the belfry, and he put out the most scurrilous, disgusting, red-baiting stuff.
Q: One guy was named Peck, and the other one was Sterling. Byron Sterling, and Jim Peck, was it? Those are the names I came up with. I tried to search them, I couldn’t find any reference to them at all.
Weiss: Well, because they hid behind these—it was called the men’s class, and it was—
Weiss: Yes, but they had pleasure in vilifying and attacking Bill Coffin, who was the most popular minister after [Harry Emerson] Fosdick. And vilifying me. We survived it by singing, I guess is one way of putting it. We had more people come to our conferences and our events than they had. [laughs] Q: But in their literature— Weiss: But it was painful, I will admit that.
Q: In their literature, they always said Cora Rubin Weiss.
Weiss: Of course. God forbid they should leave out anything Jewish, because they were very anti-Semitic. Very. They were despicable, but in the interest of democracy, they were allowed to come. I don’t know how many of them actually came to Sunday sermons, services. We had a terrific program; we had a terrific cast of characters; we had terrific staff. We loved the workers in the church. They always came for coffee and bagels— Q: Did you have special programs for the congregation itself?
Weiss: Oh, sure. But nobody was eliminated. In other words, the public could always come.
Weiss: The congregation? Oh, sure.
Q: —the congregation, and getting the congregation involved in action.
Weiss: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. When my mother died, and after we had distributed her—the things that she wanted to give away to people, and after my brother took what he wanted, and so forth, there was a lot left: clothing, pots and pans, books, rugs, furniture. And we had a tag sale at The Riverside Church to raise money for the disarmament program, the peace program, because she was very, very fond of the program, and came to lots of the events. She loved it. I think she would have liked that. It was nice.
Q: The book also recounts many, many, many times when there would be a busload going to a demonstration.
Weiss: Oh, Riversiders went to every demonstration in Washington, against— Q: I remember them, always with a sign. [laughs] There was always a contingency, yes.
Weiss: That’s right. That’s the action, following the education. So it became part of the daily lives of so many of these extraordinary women who worked with us. Shuttleworth, Horton. I
Q: The context of the beginning of the program, the political context was kind of intriguing because it’s under the Jimmy [James E.] Carter Administration, when one expected a peace president, who immediately opened a missile program. [laughs] There’s a funny political context.
Weiss: We haven’t had a peace president yet, have we? [laugher] Q: No. Yes, they don’t— Weiss: Well, it’s interesting that— Q: They don’t seem to last beyond the campaign.
Weiss: —when Carter was doing Bible study classes in a church in Washington, Bill and I went down because he was going to do a teach-in in a church, or we were going to do—he was speaking, or I was speaking at a demonstration, and we went to Carter’s Bible study class, and Bill and Carter met. It was a hot day, and I can’t remember very much else.
But the program began, and Bill used Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was a pacifist, and who was the famous preacher at Riverside before Bill. He used Fosdick as a legitimizing jumping-off place to justify having this program, and he used the special session on disarmament at the U.N.
Between the two, he appealed to the trustees to let him have this program, and then to have me
wondered what was her Jewish granddaughter doing. But, you know, religion never played a role. It certainly doesn’t have any place among my chromosomes. It was all because of decency, and justice, and peace.
Q: Let’s talk about the June 12th demo. Where did that idea come from?
Weiss: Pam Solo and Mike Jendrzejczyk—Mike is no longer with us—they were two important people in the antiwar movement, and I took a walk, I think in Santa Fe or in Boulder. My friends from the Southwest will accuse me of arrogance, that I can’t tell the difference between one state and another. But it was some meeting that we were all at, and we took a long walk during the meeting, or after the meeting. I apparently said, “It’s time for a demonstration in Central Park.
It’s time for America to say no to nuclear weapons.” John Tirman, who was the editor of a magazine called Nuclear Times, short lived, also attributes the idea to me. But you know what?
America was ready for it, and the peace movement was ready for it. So I could have suggested it, but I didn’t have to persuade anyone. Everybody wanted it.
Q: This would have been in the winter of ’81 or the spring of ’82?
Weiss: Yes, probably. Riverside became the hub for the organizing. There was another place that was another logistical hub, I think. The important thing: Riverside provided space, not just for organizing the demonstration, but also for housing the international contingent. We had many,
church of the organizing committee. And we worked. This is before email. The fax was a big item, I recall. And mimeograph machines. [laughs] Q: Well, one aspect that’s always intrigued me is it was very heavily religious. The religious affiliations were thirty or forty-something— Weiss: Yes, but you didn’t have to be religious to— Q: No, you didn’t, but it seems as if the peace program had infiltrated the mainline denominations, and they were, as you say, ready for it.
Weiss: Yes. That’s true.
Q: Where did you get the funding?
Weiss: Where’d we get the funding? From foundations and individuals. Lots. And from churches, I guess. I don’t think it was expensive, but I don’t recall what the budget was. Because everybody paid for their own expenses to get there. The park was free. The streets were free. The trade unions printed a lot of the placards. We weren’t serving dinner. People were volunteers in those days. We didn’t have a lot of paid staff.
Weiss: Yes, but we had a famous, a woman who has become famous—and that may have been her first training ground—Leslie Cagan. She is now helping to organize the climate change conference, and I am calling for a marriage between the peace movement and the climate change movement. Because climate change is a threat to peace. So it’s very interesting. What are we in now, 2014? And that was 1982?
Q: The program was very, in a sense, unpolitical: no senators, no congressmen, not even the mayor.
Weiss: No, the mayor wasn’t—[laughs] That’s interesting. But I’ll tell you— Q: Well, I know that he wanted very much to be on the program. [laughs] Weiss: You know one who wanted to be? Who?
Q: [Ed] Koch.
Q: Well, but he wanted to be on the program.
Weiss: Well, he denounced us in his columns in the Staten Island Advance.
Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: Yes. Oh, that’s a separate story. A few years earlier he had very nasty things to say about us in an article in Playboy. That’s when I did a program at the church called Peace Child, based on a book that was written by a man whose name I’ve forgotten. But anyway, that’s separate.
Q: So it wasn’t the demo?
Weiss: But let’s talk about that for a minute, because everybody and his brother—because it was very male-dominant—wanted to be on the platform, including all the local politicos. I can’t believe there were no political representatives, but I don’t have— Q: Well, Bella Abzug spoke, but she was not—
Q: Yes. Right. Or, she had been.
Weiss: Maj Britt Theorin spoke, from Stockholm, who was a Member of Parliament. We had an extraordinary lineup of musicians, and speakers.
Q: Bruce Springsteen.
Weiss: Yes. Everybody was sort of in the beginning of their careers. It was a long time ago!
Coretta Scott King came. She and I were very good friends, and she was terrific. But we had an unfortunate ending to the event. We lost the mic at about four o’clock in the afternoon, to a group of people led by an African American minister, whose name— Q: [Herbert] Daughtry.
Weiss: Daughtry. They took over the program, and we were eliminated from the stage.
Q: Pushed off, or— Weiss: Well, yes.
Weiss: Well, because that was what happened. I don’t think we were physically pushed off, but we were not welcome anymore. That was a very, very sad, unfortunate ending to a fantastic day.
I think ninety percent of the one million people don’t know what happened. But did I ever tell you the story about the note that was passed?
Weiss: There we were on the stage. My middle daughter, Tamara—how old would she have been? 1982. She would have been in her mid-twenties. She was with me, sort of as my aide-decamp. But what I didn’t know then is that it was the beginning of her being trained—that’s a strong word. [interruption] So, Tamara was with me, helping and learning, and she has become an incredible producer, and a terrific organizer. Anyway. We were working, we were organizing. I mean, I’m organizing, managing one speaker after another, and the music, and—the people were pouring into the park.
All of a sudden, somebody comes up to the floor, the front of the stage, and hands me a small piece of paper. All it said was, “We made it.” It was signed by the daughter of a very dear friend of mine from the University of Wisconsin, who was a physician and taught at the medical school.
She was in the back of the crowd, a million people back. All it said on the front was, “Please pass this to the stage for Cora.” People literally passed this piece of paper. It was amazing. I was so happy, a) that she was there—and people came from all of the country, but they came from all
Q: Back to Daughtry. The Times write up indicated that, in the months of the planning of the demonstration, that he had raised the issue of black participation— Weiss: Yes.
Q: —and that the organizers did try to make an accommodation to— Weiss: Definitely.
Q: — speak more to the black community, and not have a quote, unquote “white program.” Weiss: It was not a white program. I mean, it was a diverse program. Hispanic, black, white.
International, national, labor, students. I think—it happened a long time ago, and we’ve moved on—but I think he wanted much more visibility for himself, and resented that he didn’t get it.
Q: I wonder if we could talk for a minute about some of the speakers you had. Michael Manley.
Weiss: Oh, did Michael speak? I loved him.
Q: Not at the program, no. For the Riverside.
Weiss: Oh. Oh, yes. Michael was a dear friend. Michael Manley, the prime minister of
Q: A not-uncontroversial person.
Weiss: Of course not! But, you know, if he were not controversial, would we have invited him?
He would have been boring. Michael was an amazing human being, and I was very fond of him.
My mother worked with him as an anthropo—my mother was a Caribbean anthropologist, Caribbeanist anthropologist. And he spoke. People came to hear him. I can’t remember what he said. [laughter] I should have done this interview about twenty-five years ago, when I never would have thought of doing it.
Q: [laughs] Right, yes. A couple of old friends, E.P. [Edward Palmer] Thompson, and [Louis] Studs Terkel— Weiss: Edward was very important, because Edward was the person who put forward the concept of protest and propose, basically. He was very important in the British antinuclear movement. He was brilliant. Wonderful guy.
Q: And Studs.
Weiss: Studs Terkel?
Weiss: I’ll tell you a nice story. I loved Studs so much. During the Vietnam War, I did a lot of public speaking, and I was all over the country. When he heard that I came to Chicago, he invited me onto his radio program. Studs had one of the most famous radio programs in America, interviewing. It was because of Studs’ interview that I started the program at WRVR. Studs interviewed me the way nobody else had ever done an interview. He cared more about what I had to say than what he had to say. Like you do. He gave an interview a cachet that was remarkable, and it became the subjects of so many of his books, which are wonderful. I remember now that’s why I decided to have a radio program: to do for women what he did for people.
Q: Yes. He was terrific. We did a book together. Well, I interviewed him and I published the— Weiss: You did interview Studs?
Q: Oh, yes.
Weiss: And you published it?
Q: Well, it’s a story I’ll tell you off the—long story— Weiss: Don’t dismiss these things. They’re important.