«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Q: Yes. But it also speaks to a certain time in the movement, when more and more, the agitation for black participation had turned into black power, and you know, the Chicago meeting where they wanted half of all the delegation would be black. There was, at that moment in time within the African American community, the kind of—
Q: —that would make it logical that there would be that kind of a demand.
Weiss: That's true.
Q: So, it also speaks to a moment in the history of the movement.
Weiss: That's absolutely true. It wasn't smooth sailing for twenty years, or more. It still isn't.
Weiss: But to their credit, the women went forward. It was a great demonstration.
Q: Yes. Again, moving back to the religious aspect of the movement, from your conversation— the impression I have is that you're much more attuned to the peace movement within the established denominations. There's a denomination— Weiss: When did Clergy and Laymen, originally called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About the War in Vietnam, that was early. That was Dick Fernandez [Rev. Richard R. Fernandez]. He and I became very good colleagues. We're friends to this very day. Then they changed their name to Clergy and Laity. They were a very important organization. Originally mostly male, yes. They
worked closely with a nun, Sister—[whispers] oh, my God, I loved her! She was from the Loretto community in Tucson, Arizona. Luke! Oh, amazing! Sister Mary Luke Tobin.
She went on a delegation to Saigon during the war, and got maced, or sprayed. Pepper-sprayed, by the local police in Saigon? I said that with a question mark, because who else might have been there? But they were an anti-war delegation. She was a heroine. She was just a remarkable person. Even today, in the elevator of my office building, the Loretto women greet me very warmly, and I them. These are lasting friendships.
Weiss: When you— Q: Now, another aspect, which was one aspect of Women Strike in the early days, but then appears later in a lot of the Vietnam things, is the particular role of the political sectarians. You know, the representatives of the— Weiss: They played a role.
Q: The duBois clubs, or the various Trotskyist groups, later the Maoist groups, etc. What— Weiss: There was always one guy, Arnold [Johnson], who proudly represented himself as a
accused us of being communist-run, communist-led, communist-infiltrated. You know, there was one man. And he was kind of a sad-sack, as I recall. None of the organizations that we've mentioned so far were communist-run, communist-led or communist-infiltrated. There was room for anyone to come in, as long as they agreed with the purpose of the organization. And the culture, I'm not going to use the word "rules," because we didn't have rules.
But if the culture said no CD [civil disobedience], then you all agree. You carry it out. If the cultures agreed on the purpose of the demonstration. We created the Committee of Liaison. I'm going to go back. As a result of the July 4th, 1969 meeting in Canada with the Vietnamese women inviting me and two others, Ethel Taylor from Philadelphia and Madeline Duckles from California, to come to Vietnam, after the famous demonstration that I ran together with Peter Yarrow, and an organizing committee. I never did anything alone. That was on November 15, 1969, in Washington. That was important because it was led by Democratic and Republican senators. [Senator Charles] Goodell, from New York, was the Republican. And [Senator George] McGovern from— Q: South Dakota.
Weiss: South Dakota, a Democrat. The two of them literally held hands! I think it was the last time in the history of America [laughter] that a Democrat and Republican senator held hands.
Q: Well, Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan were an odd couple.
Weiss: Yes. Anyway, it was an important demonstration in terms of—we were told that it was a turning point in public opinion.
Weiss: It grew the public opinion against the war. Unfortunately, it ended with tear gas, not because we did anything to provoke it. Who knows what provoked it? In any event, I left for Vietnam after that, with a memorandum to the Vietnamese women, saying that the president was using prisoners of war as the reason for perpetuating the war, and claiming that our prisoners were being tortured, and therefore, we had to keep bombing the north. Well, if we keep bombing the north, we'll get more prisoners of war, because the bombers were shot down by the SAMs, the Surface to Air Missiles. As a result of that memo that I brought, and our conversations with the women in Hanoi, in North Vietnam, I came back and we formed the Committee of Liaison with soldiers detained in North Vietnam.
Q: Now, question. Do you want to pursue that whole issue, or do you want to go back to—you see how fast we've moved from the past?
Q: But we've got a lot of time!
Q: We've got a lot of time. And that's such a special event, the prisoner's exchange. There's so many complicated aspects to it, that I would really like to say this— Weiss: And a major success of civil society.
Q: Yes. And I'd really like to save it so— Weiss: OK.
Q: Rather than— Weiss: I'll do whatever you say.
Q: —as something that is on the tailgate of another conversation. So if either one of them ever gets—
Q: But what? We’ve got a lot of time.
Weiss: OK—I mean, the outcome of that demonstration and our meeting in Canada was the establishment of this committee.
Q: Yes— Weiss: And my testifying in Chicago.
Q: Yes, but the topic really was, religious people and sectarians, within the peace movement.
And you're— Weiss: So I worked together with Dick Fernandez on that.
Q: I have a vision of you as a person coming out of a certain kind of organizational politics, and a certain kind of personal politics, deeply informed by Women Strike for Peace. At the intersection where you meet, a set of traditional bodies, whose powers are quite different.
Q: And there has to be a set of negotiations whereby you begin to understand them, and they
Weiss: Well, I may not remember the how, but in 1972, I took an office in the Church Center for the U.N. to put Friendshipment in there, which was the organization that we founded after the war, as the war was ending. The phrase, which I think I coined, of mixing—of connecting friendship and shipment of goods to help repair the damage in Vietnam. I'm still in that building, Church Center for the U.N., which is owned by Methodist women. I speak at many of their Methodist events in the chapel. So these have been lasting relationships.
Q: But the question we were getting around was that your own religious involvement had been with the major denominations.
Weiss: Oh, yes.
Q: Yes. The Methodists, the Presbyterians— Weiss: The Jews.
Q: The Episcopals, the Jews. It's traditional denominations.
Q: Not Evangelical.
Q: Yes. Yes. But when you reach out to the African American community, you are going to meet a set of preachers, a set of people whose religious motivation is not similar to the one that you have traditionally— Weiss: So, I met them, who were all men preachers, when I went to Riverside Church in 1978.
And [William Sloane] Bill Coffin would have a Tuesday morning breakfast.
Q: But you met them earlier through [Dr.] Martin Luther King and James Bevel.
Weiss: That's true.
Q: James Bevel represents a very strong wing of the evangelical Baptists.
Weiss: I know, but I'm trying to remember if he brought that to the table. James Bevel was an organizer. I mean, that's what I remember of Jim. Also, the man who ran the Welfare organization, whose body was found in the Potomac. Wiley? Was that his name? With a "W."
Q: Wyatt Walker?
Weiss: No, not Wyatt Walker. Not Wyatt.
Weiss: Wyatt was a New York preacher. I'll remember. A man who ran the Welfare something organization. You were thinking of Wyatt T. Walker.
Weiss: No, he was a New York preacher. Anyway, so I met the men preachers. You have to understand that I didn't bring religion to the table. Everybody wants to say, "You're probably an agnostic." I think I'm an atheist. But I don't make a big issue of it.
Q: But you were much more comfortable with the main line denominations than the— Weiss: Yes.
Q: Would that be the fairest thing to say?
Weiss: Yes, of course.
Q: Also meeting a set of traditional people who have been involved in the peace movement, and new people. What was your relationship to the student movement? Your personal relationship and Women Strike for Peace relationship?
Weiss: I have letters from the head of one student movement. Was there one? I don't remember.
Weiss: There were several. Inviting me to speak at their conference. His last name began with an "I." Why do I remember that much? Anyway, I did that. I spoke on campuses during the Vietnam War, lots. Student movement—we always had students in the demonstrations. They were very important. And I loved talking on campuses. I spoke in Teach-Ins. Teach-Ins started at Michigan University, I think, was one of the first?
Q: Yes. Yes.
Weiss: And they were very important. I mean, we literally depended on education to build a movement, because a well-educated person is our best citizen, was one of my phrases. But formal relations, a representative? No. I think it was not formal.
Q: Get into some of these questions when we get into the Pentagon march, because that's when, obviously, it splits into two, really two different actions. One at the Lincoln Memorial and one at
Weiss: That was the Mobilization.
Q: Yes. Yes. In October of '67?
Weiss: It's the only demonstration that I can remember that I missed, because I had whiplash.
Weiss: From a car accident, I guess, of course. I was not able to do it. I was in a ring around my neck.
Q: I was on the West Coast. We're both victims of Norman Mailer now. We have to rely on him.
Weiss: He wrote the story?
Weiss: It's the only demonstration I ever missed, and I used to say to people that, "You get a demerit for missing a demonstration." So that was my demerit. I didn't have a role, except for these meetings in New York beforehand, where we kept insisting that it had to be safe for
Q: Now, I had been told there was this remarkable day when Bella Abzug and Jerry Rubin went at it over the tactics of that—do you recall any of that?
Weiss: You have to ask Bella, Bella's spirit about that.
Q: Yes, no.
Weiss: Oh— Q: When I read that, I just imagined that that would have been a remarkable confrontation.
Weiss: But I do remember in one demonstration in Central Park when Abbie Hoffman tried to get onto the speaker's platform, and I only had to shake my head to whoever was the security person not to let him up. But we became kind of friends afterward.
Q: Why didn't you want him to go up?
Weiss: Because that was not going to be helpful.
Q: Did you know what he was going to do or say?
Weiss: Well, he represented a kind of whacky offshoot, the Yippies. That was not what we were
Q: Yes. You became friends afterwards?
Weiss: Well, he hung out in Long Island with his mother, probably. He came to our house once, where I had planted a kitchen garden. He taught me how to eat zucchini flowers, and how to fry them. I don't know, why do I remember that? Then he once tried to attract my attention when he came to, I think, the Chile event in Madison Square Garden, and he was in some kind of a not very effective mask. I refused to have anything to do with him. That's all I remember about him, except when I testified in Chicago. But then I'm going to 1971, and you won't like that!
[laughter] It was 1970— Q: I don't necessarily want to keep a chronological order, but there has to be some other kind of logic to it. We stay with a topic for a while, and explore a certain amount into it.
Weiss: Oh, we were talking about Abbie, so— Q: Yes.
Weiss: Abbie was at Chicago at trial.
Weiss: My relationship, I think, was, I was a friend and a speaker, and we didn't have organizational—that I can remember.
Weiss: But they were a member of the coalition of the larger movement.
Q: Right. Now, when you represented, or you came from Women Strike for Peace, is it fair to say you represented Women Strike for Peace at those meetings?
Q: Always. When I read about some of those meetings and look at the minutes, there's this enormous discussion about the wording of—the placards, or the signs, which were to be carried.
It's kind of difficult for me to understand what those issues were. How did you understand those issues? Because it seems to be major, major part of the discussions of most of these conferences.
Why was it important that the signs say this, or the other thing?
Weiss: I think there were, I'm pretty sure, there were those of us who wanted to be as American as we could be in our language, in our image, and not some marginal political or, whatever group. Some of us spoke more clearly than others. We weren't going to mix up lots of issues. We wanted to end the war, so we had to say, "Stop the war now," or, "The war is not good for
that we adopted. I guess that's why we had those discussions. Also, we'd never done it before.