Following The Vision: 50 Years In The Nonviolent Movement How a Violent Childhood Created a Pacifist

Following The Vision: 50 Years In The Nonviolent Movement How a Violent Childhood Created a Pacifist

by Marjorie Swann

My first arrest was for picketing in front of the British Embassy in support of freedom for India and for the release of Mahatma Gandhi from prison.

El Salvador: Un Canto Por La Paz, A Festival of Music for Peace in Following the Vision: 50 Years in the Non-Violent Movement, Marjorie Swann, Vol 11 1989, pacifism

My father’s voice roared from the shed: “Sis! Elwood! come in here!” My brother and I looked at each other—scared looks.

We could tell from the well-known tone of Daddy’s voice that we were in trouble. I was about eight and a half and I was very familiar with my father’s moods by then. We dragged ourselves slowly to the door of the shed. Daddy was yelling in a rage. He had been mowing the lawn—the old-fashioned, hard way by pushing a hand mower. My brother and I had been assigned to rake up the grass cuttings.

It was a hot, sticky, typical Chicago summer day. We had amused ourselves by raking the sweet-smelling grass into the outlines of a house, then filled an old tub with water, deliberately splashing on ourselves in the process, and placed it in the bathroom of our grass house.

But Daddy, who was hotter and more tired than we were, was furious at this diversion.

As we got to the door of the shed, he grabbed us and dragged us inside. Then he picked up a stick and started thrashing me on my bare legs and my behind. I could feel my skin getting red and sore. I sobbed over and over again, “Daddy, we didn’t do anything. Please! Don’t! Daddy, Daddy, what did we do?”

He didn’t say a word, his face set in a familiar contortion. He pushed me down and took the stick to my brother, who was two and a half years younger than I. My brother cried out in pain and terror.

In a minute or two, my father dropped the stick, pushed us back out the door, and screamed, “Go out there and clean up. I’ll teach you to mess up all my hard work!”

Weeping and gasping, we stumbled around raking the grass and putting it into baskets. My skin burned and perspiration made it worse; there were red welts on my legs and blood was trickling down from an open cut. My brother, with his long pants, didn’t sting as much as I, but he moaned every time he leaned over to pick up the grass. I tried to give him the easier tasks of holding the basket and carrying the rake. After all, I was older and should have known we would make Daddy angry.

As we worked, we could hear my mother’s voice in the house, and then my father shouting at her. I saw my sisters peek out the window, fear and empathy combined in their faces.

My mind seethed in anger and confusion. Why did Daddy get so mad? Not just today, but lots of times. Couldn’t he just have come out and told us it was time to stop playing? And where was Mommy? She must have heard him hitting us. Why didn’t she ever stop him when he got like that?

Once again the forbidden thought forced open the door of my mind: “They don’t love El and me. We must not be their real children. We must be adopted. We should run away and find our real parents and they would love us and never hit us, and give us enough to eat.” But fear of the unknown pushed the thought back into its hiding place and closed the door.

That evening, after everyone had eaten except me—I had to sit at the table and watch, with only a glass of water in front of me—my mother ran cool water into the bathtub and gently washed me with the sweet-smelling soap, carved like a rose, that was only used on special occasions.

She murmured over the welts and cuts. I sensed her sorrow, but she said not one word of condemnation of my father.

Similar scenes occurred all during my childhood and adolescence. My mother has told me that Dad started beating me when I was two months old; he came in from the barn after beating the cattle with chains, and started on me, his first-born child, whom he probably blamed subconsciously for “having to get married.” He abused my mother and my two sisters, as well as my brother and me, and sometimes he got out his revolver—which he carried legally because he worked for the postal service—and threatened us with it.

At the end of my first year of college, after 18 years, my mother left him. It was a terror-filled night, followed by several days and nights of fearful flight. She persuaded the court to give her a restraining order—no easy task in that day and age— and then she got a divorce.

Years later I talked with Dad about his abuse, his affairs with other women, his mood swings. At first he used excuses— “Your mother provoked me,” and “You know I was shell-shocked and gassed in the war (World War I) and couldn’t help it.” We got past those stock answers and explored our real feelings. He broke down and cried, saying he knew he was wrong— would I please forgive him? I told him how hard it was, how many years I had carried the confusion and anger, how seriously my whole life had been affected because I did not know how to resist the emotional abuse which came my way during my 35 years of marriage. Yet, how could I refuse to forgive this frail old man who talked about his battlefield experiences in France and Belgium, whose eyes teared as he reminisced about some of our good family times?

There is no doubt in my mind that my violent childhood influenced me toward the nonviolent beliefs I have held all my adult life. I was brought up in the American Legion; my mother was Chairman (no Chairpersons in those days) of the Legion Auxiliary Rehabilitation Committee. She took me to visit veterans, where I saw with my own eyes the effects of war on human beings: the physical and mental destruction of the men; the women and children devastated by the suffering of their husbands and fathers years after the end of the war. My mother would say, “You see, it’s not as bad for us as it is for them.” I wondered why it had to be bad for anybody.

Armistice Day (now called Veterans’ Day) was a celebration of peace when I was young. The theme of W.W.I., “The war to end all wars”, resounded again and again. Every November 11, at precisely 11:00 a.m., everyone in school, at work, on the street, turned and faced east for a minute of silence, both in memory of those who had died, and in dedication to peace. As we children played among the gravesites, orators vowed that the sacrifices had not been made in vain; never again would America’s sons have to go to war.

I grew up in the Methodist Church of the “social gospel”. My Sunday School teacher was a middle-aged woman with a hunchback. Her face radiated love and spiritual dedication as she taught us about Jesus’ love for all people, and what I later came to understand as nonviolence. She taught us that it was wrong to despise someone because of the color of his skin or because she wore ragged clothing or spoke with an accent.

I really believed all this. To me, it wasn’t just Sunday School talk or ceremonial rhetoric. I connected it with my father’s violence, which was always explained, “Daddy was shell-shocked and gassed in the war, so we can’t blame Daddy for the way he acts.” Even my beloved grandmother—Dad’s stepmother—said that to explain his moodiness and abuse.

Grandma was the person in my life who taught me about love. She never scolded, always hugged us, taught me to play Scrabble (I still have her set); and was an unending source of stories and books. My greatest joy as a child was to sit in the twilight in the swing hung between two huge pines in her front yard, her arms holding me as she taught me, “Star light, star bright.”

Years later, in a visit shortly before her death, I told her about my pacifist beliefs. She said, “Why, Marj, that’s what I believe.” We talked about the meaning of life, the power of love, the human potential for good and evil. I felt the same joy that I did sitting in that swing.

Other aspects of my growing-up also influenced me deeply. My parents made jokes about Black people, as most white people did in those days (and often still do). But my father brought home on occasion several co-workers from the post office. Among those men were often a couple of Black men whom Dad treated just as he did the whites.

During my second year at Morgan Park High School in Chicago, all the white parents took their children out of school for a couple of weeks to protest the large number of Black children attending. The aim of the boycott was to force the Board of Education to send the Black students to ‘their” high school in an almost all Black neighborhood. The strategy didn’t work; Chicago’s famous Democratic machine was not about to cave in to the few overwhelmingly white Republican precincts and forego the Black votes in the rest of the city.

During the boycott, I faithfully attended school every day, one of two white students among all those who were Black. My mother’s reasons for making me go were very different from mine for wanting to. She wanted me to have a perfect attendance record, and nothing was going to deter that. I thought the whole boycott was silly. I had always talked and socialized with Black students as well as white, and once I even invited a Black girl friend to dance at one of the Friday afternoon school hops. At the hops, the boys mostly stood around the walls and gawked, except for those who were “going steady,” while the girls danced with each other. For my boldness, I was taken aside by one of the teacher chaperones and told it wasn’t “proper” for me to dance with a Black girl.

In my high school in the middle ’30s, our principal, Dr. Vincent Tubbs, started an International Relations Club, where we learned about other countries, other cultures, and, most especially, that nations should not settle their differences by means of war. We had pen pals in other countries, and we studied their customs, music and literature. I took those lessons seriously, so I was dismayed when I visited the school shortly after Pearl Harbor Day in 1941 and heard Dr. Tubbs in assembly speak about fighting for one’s country against the “Japs.”

When I arrived at Northwestern University—a 16-year-old, naive, scared freshman at a large, sophisticated university—I immediately started attending the First Methodist Church in Evanston. The minister was a well-known pacifist theologian, Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle; and I heard speakers on the campus—A.J. Muste, Norman Thomas, and others. Suddenly, my feelings about war and violence connected with the philosophy these men were espousing. I volunteered at Hull House, and learned about Jane Addams, legendary woman social worker and peace leader.

I learned about the “Oxford Pledge” —a world-wide pledge started by young men at Oxford University in England which stated that no signer would engage in war against his fellow men of whatever nation. The Pledge swept the campuses of the United States in the late ’30s. I discovered books about nonviolence and racial equality; and organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League. I walked picket lines for freedom for India, and sat in at restaurants to persuade them to serve all customers regardless of color. For me, it was like finally coming home—to the real home where my emotions, intellect and commitment all met and melded together.

So began my life in the nonviolent movement, which was to involve me over the years in work for world peace, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the ecology movement; in struggles for civil liberties, in labor organizing, and —coming back to my origins—in work on family abuse and violence.

By my senior year in college, World War II loomed. Our church young people’s group —people from all social and religious backgrounds—met every Sunday, and after the evening program and service, we listened to President Roosevelt’s radio “fireside chats”. We understood clearly that the United States was going to get involved and, committed as most of us were to nonviolence, we didn’t know how to stop the inevitable rush to war. It was a hard time—the hardest of my life—to be a pacifist. Somehow we knew of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. We felt there should be nonviolent ways to resist such evil, and we explored the issues with great seriousness and sincerity. We were aware of the anti-Semitism in our own country, and that our government did not have purely altruistic motives for getting into the war. The United States had ignored the rearming of Germany, and the U.S. had shipped scrap iron in great quantities to Japan to help that country build its military machine. Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union became partners during World War II, we knew of the anti-Communist stance of the U.S. ever since the Russian Revolution (a stance quickly resumed in the late ’40s).

In the end, a number of the young men in the group felt they had to enter the armed forces. But far more requested and received conscientious objector status from the reluctant draft board, and did alternative service of various kinds; in a few cases, men went to federal prison.

I moved to Washington, D.C. after dropping out of college in my senior year because of illness, and quickly became involved in various activities in the nonviolent movement. My first arrest was for picketing in front of the British Embassy in support of freedom for India and for the release of Mahatma Gandhi from prison. I participated in “End the War Now” demonstrations, in “Freedom for Puerto Rico” demonstrations, and in an interracial group which struggled to change the racist practices of most Washington restaurants and other public facilities. In the early ’40s, the only restaurants in our nation’s capital open to mixed racial groups or to Blacks were at the YWCA and two or three cafeterias in government buildings.

I was a board member of an interracial co-op which bought a house located between the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and the Confederate Veterans of America building. Ours was the first intentional interracial living facility in D.C, and we often laughed at the coincidental location of it.

I worked in department stores, and, when a union organizer came along, I joined her. We organized everyone in the store except management—sales clerks, stock clerks, office workers, janitors. We were the first genuinely interracial union in Washington, and because of that and our across-the-board membership, we received no support from the D.C. Labor Council. We watched union members cross our picket line day after day. There were just the two of us, because to call a strike was illegal during the war years. Our members were scared in any case, and were threatened by management with losing their jobs if they were even seen talking with us.

Finally we had enough signed membership cards for an NLRB election. To our surprise, we got all but five votes of those eligible to join and vote! People wanted the union and the benefits it would bring, but they had been too frightened to take a public stand. The union went on to organize nearly every department store in Washington. Organizing white collar workers in those days was difficult, because they considered themselves a cut above blue collar workers—the customary union members—even though their pay and working conditions were miserable.

Shortly afterwards, I went to work for the National Committee on Conscientious Objectors, an autonomous committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. NCCO had been organized to provide assistance to C.O.s in the military and in prison. Day after day I dealt with military authorities, the federal prison bureau, and the U.S. Parole Board. C.O.s were constantly leading work or hunger strikes on behalf of such issues as desegregation in the prisons, less censorship of personal correspondence, work which was not military-related, and cessation of the practice of labeling C.O.s as “mentally ill” and shipping them off to the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Gradually these conditions were improved, but each generation of C.O.s or those imprisoned for civil disobedience against war has to engage in the struggle all over again.

During my stint with the NCCO, in 1944, I met the man who was to be my husband for 35 years, Bob Swann, who had just been released on parole from the federal men’s prison in Ashland, Kentucky. Bob had received a five-year sentence, and had just served a little over two years of it. One of the accomplishments during the war years was to achieve the possibility of parole after one-third of a sentence had been served; prior to that, all federal prisoners served at least half their sentences and often much more.

Bob and I were instantly attracted to each other when he reported to my office, as all C.O.s coming out of prison did, to brief us on what was going on inside the prisons. We married and subsequently had four children. Bob became a designer and builder, and we worked in his business together, building homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and by my husband —co-op housing, interracial housing— for almost 20 years. We also continued our work in the nonviolent movement.

In 1960 we plunged into it full-time with the founding of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), the outgrowth of a summer long project protesting the building and deployment of the Polaris nuclear missile submarines at Groton and New London, Connecticut. We perceived that the Polaris submarines and their deadly cargo were the keystone of the U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, and also that almost no one in the general public—to say nothing of most of the media, and even most Congressional people—knew much about the deterrence policy and its dangerous weaponry, and what it represented in terms of the nuclear arms race among the great powers. So we engaged in vigils, fasts, peace walks, film showings, door-to-door educational work, and eventually in civil disobedience—the boarding of several of the submarines.

The year before, in 1959, even though I had four young children, I had been involved in civil disobedience at the ICBM base in Nebraska because I knew my children, and all children of the world, were incredibly endangered by the rapidly growing nuclear arms race. Throughout the summer we held 24-hour vigils right outside the base, spoke with church groups, the media, and went door-to-door throughout the surrounding towns. We also had a series of symbolic civil disobedience actions.

Prior to an action, we all gathered in a circle for meditation, Quaker style. Then the people involved would read their individually written statements about their motives for engaging in civil disobedience. Meanwhile, crowds of on-lookers and press people gathered. Men from the Air Force massed just inside the fence and gate, which had been hastily constructed when we appeared on the scene. Previously there was no gate, fence, guard shack, or guards; people drove freely through the base.

After the little ceremony, the three or four people who wished to enter climbed over the flimsy fence or opened the gate and walked through. They were presented with notices not to return, then escorted outside. If they then turned around and went back in, they were placed under arrest by federal marshals and taken to the county jail in Omaha, where they were held until trial in federal court.

I had originally gone to Nebraska as a support person—to type, mimeograph, cook, vigil, run errands. However, as I watched the civil disobedience actions, I began to feel my conscience calling me to participate. Some $300 worth of phone calls later between myself and Bob and my kids, I read my statement one morning and walked through the gate—twice. At the trial, the judge was very reluctant to sentence both me—mother of four—and an elderly, respectable-looking Quaker grandfather. The judge didn’t mind sending the young, single men—even the son of a Congressman—off to prison, but we were different. He pleaded with us to observe the probation terms. My Quaker friend finally decided to do so.

On Hiroshima Day, August 6, 1959, I began a four-day fast and vigil just outside the gate of the base. Even that action was a violation because we were not supposed to return to the site, but the officials overlooked it. It was my first fast, and affected me deeply. At the end, I drank a glass of juice; then I got up and again walked through the gate. In court, the judge scolded me: “You should be home with your children.” I replied, “Your Honor, that is where I would like to be, but my children and all children are in jeopardy.” In private, the judge had told us, “I understand what you’re trying to do. Someone has to do something to stop nuclear arms race. But I’m sworn to uphold the law. I’m sending you to federal prison, because if give you a shorter sentence, you’ll spend the time here in the county jail, which is an awful place.”

When the gates at Alderson Federal Prison literally clanged behind me, I realized that I was truly going to serve that sentence. My six months in prison were stressful, but going to jail for something one deeply believes in helps to alleviate the stress and the loneliness for one’s family.

I did some things without permission —taking walks beyond the restricted few yards, refusing to obey some of the most ridiculous and oppressive rules and— upon leaving—taking all of my hundreds of letters, cards, and other papers with me, although we were technically allowed to take only about 10 items. I said I would not leave without them, and the administration acquiesced—rather than have me stay longer!

My homecoming was replete with parties, flowers, and, of course, the joyous reception by my children, my husband, and friends. My older daughters had been sure they would be ostracized and ridiculed, but they found to their amazement that their mother was considered a heroine—”really brave to do that”—and so they enjoyed their “celebrity” status. I still ponder, however, many years later, whether my two-year-old son and my six-year-old daughter experienced my absence as abandonment, and whether it affected them as adults.

There were many other interesting and exciting adventures through the years. In 1964,1 was the U.S. Coordinator for the World Peace Study Mission—a group of 25 “Hibakusha” (atom bomb survivors) from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The members of the Mission met grass roots Americans, Governors, Congress people, American Legion members, and ex-President Harry Truman. The messages they conveyed throughout their journey were forgiveness, reconciliation, and a plea to Americans not to become involved in the war in Indochina. “Never again” was their summation of their suffering as victims of the only nuclear weapons ever used. I learned so much from them about love, forgiveness, serenity and determination in the face of adversity. I found much of the same qualities in many Vietnamese I met during the long Indochina War.

We were deeply involved in the civil rights and freedom struggle movements of the ’60s and early ’70s. It has been interesting to note that over the years, while Caucasian people have prided themselves on their nonviolent movements, it has been people of color who have provided the leadership, the inspiration, and the bulk of participants: Gandhi in India; Pedro Albizu Campos in Puerto Rico; Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King and other civil rights workers in the U.S.; Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and others in the farm workers’ movement; Corazon Aquino and her supporters in the Philippines.

In the late ’60s, Bob became very much involved in what we call “nonviolent economics”—shorthand for economic practices which are neither capitalist or Marxist, but are based more on cooperative enterprise and on people having more control over the economic institutions of a society. I worked along with him, and these efforts resulted in the Institute for Community Economics, which today is the leading organization advocating and developing community land trusts, alternative investment and loan funds, and other economic institutions based on human needs rather than on profit.

In 1975, I was appointed as Executive Secretary (Director) of the New England Region of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based organization which has programs all over the world. This was a challenge for me which utilized everything I had learned about community organizing, public education, fund raising, feminist approaches to administration and structure, etc. It was an exciting and rewarding position, and my husband moved the office of the Institute for Community Economics to Cambridge, Massachusetts so we could be near my work.

It had always seemed to me that our 35 year marriage, while not perfect, was one of love, mutual respect, and cooperative patterns of family life. I realized that Bob was not as deeply committed as I was to our marriage and family, and that he had several lapses of marital fidelity during our 35 years together, which he always seemed to regret in his pleas for forgiveness, and which caused me considerable agony as I struggled to forgive and rebuild trust. However, I was totally stunned when suddenly he walked out one Sunday morning in October of 1979, and went to live with a secretary, who was younger than our two oldest daughters. What had happened to his commitments to truth, to love, to nonviolence? To his profession of agreement with the principles of openness, honesty, and integrity?

After almost nine years of therapy, and close to eight years of working in the field of family abuse and violence, I can better understand not only my own “blind spots” but also that there was indeed a pattern of abuse in our relationship, which was emotional and mental rather than physical. Because of my own determination to have the good marriage which my parents did not, and to provide for my children the loving and secure family life which I had not had, I missed the omens and signs. That does not mean that I feel I “did something wrong” or that I am to blame. Nevertheless, I recognize that the patterns I learned in childhood to avoid or ameliorate the abuse I suffered, I took with me into my marriage. As an adult, I needed to learn to confront and challenge behavior which was abusive, but instead I continued to “be a good girl” and to constantly forgive, handing over my own power and control of my own life.

I recognize now that without therapy which would have helped him to deal with his problems, his insecurities, his narcissism, my husband could not change. Thus I am able to say to women (and occasionally to men) who are abused—physically, sexually, emotionally, or mentally—that they cannot expect a fairy godmother to wave a wand over the spouse and change him or her. What we can and must do is attend to our own growth and ability to control our own lives. AND—to do everything we can to keep from passing on to our children patterns of abuse and acceptance of victimization.

My last extended conversation with my Dad was during our final visit before he died. He was still quite lucid and lively—he walked a mile or so each day, went dancing once a week, and sang in his church choir. He was 91; we celebrated his birthday two days early while I was still there.

He was talking about his war experiences. He got out the creased old map of Europe and traced the troop movements he had been through. Then he repeated a story I had heard when I was a child.

It was Christmas, 1917. He and his unit had not been on the battle front too long. They were facing the German trenches, the two sides divided by the “No Man’s Land”—an empty, crater marked strip of mud some 50 yards wide. Around midnight, when a truce had begun, the American soldiers suddenly heard singing coming from the German trenches. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” rang out over the battlefield which was strangely silent—no artillery shelling, no occasional rifle shot ringing out. The American men joined in, “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Then they saw shadows moving out into the No Man’s Land. Suspicious of a trick, they watched warily, still singing. German soldiers came to the middle of the empty strip and stopped, calling out “Merry Christmas” in German. In a moment, the Americans began to move out of their trenches and walked to the center of the strip, some staying behind a few minutes with their rifles at the ready to cover their comrades. Finally, the whole No Man’s Land was covered with American and German soldiers.

They spent more than an hour out there, exchanging cigarettes, candy, and names. They showed each other pictures of families and girl friends. They communicated with gestures, phrases, and smiles. At last each side withdrew to its own lines, and quiet prevailed for the remainder of Christmas. The whole experience, almost 70 years previous, still had the power to move my father to tears.

My father fell silent for a few minutes. Then he said, “You know, Marj, even before then we didn’t shoot directly at the enemy. We always shot into the air or into the ground. The German soldiers told us they did the same thing. Almost all the casualties were from artillery shelling and airplane strafing. In all the months I was at the battlefront, I never killed anyone. I wasn’t a killer, Marj.”

I said gently, “I know, Dad. You always told us that.” My mind went to the terrible experiences of abuse and violence our family underwent, to that revolver which had threatened us so many times.

I’m not sure how to put it all together. I’m not even certain about what I’ve accomplished in 50 years in the non-violent movement. All I know is, humankind has to find means other than war and violence to solve human conflicts and human problems, be they personal, community or international. If we don’t, it won’t be a matter of killing a single enemy soldier. It will be a matter of all of us going up together in the mushroom cloud.

We women have to lead the way. We are the nurturers, the care-givers, the mothers, the organizers, the visionaries. The men will follow us if we follow the vision and find ways to implement it, for our families, our communities, and for all humanity. Our children and all children will learn from us, and they will thank us for generations to come.

Marjorie Swann is currently coordinator of the Center for Nonviolent Alternatives in Voluntown, CT, and of the Family Abuse and Violence Program of CT and RI. In 1987, she was a first prize winner of the International Women’s Writing Guild “Artist of Life” Award, given to women over 60 who “have made art of their lives.” She is the author of Emotional and Mental Abuse: A Brief Examination of Some Forms of Domestic Violence, and of many articles and book chapters.