50 years of pushing nonviolence
It all began when Bradford Lyttle, doing six months in a federal prison in Springfield, Mo., came across a copy of Newsweek magazine.
"Here it had a big ad about Polaris submarines," Lyttle said, "and I read that ad, and I said, 'Where are they being built? General Dynamics at New London, Connecticut?' And I said, 'Good grief, this is the absolutely perfect place to have another demonstration against deterrence and in favor of nonviolence.'"
So it was that in the spring of 1960, his sentence for trespassing on a missile base done, Lyttle arrived to reconnoiter New London. Soon he was joined by a small band of pacifists, including Marj Swann, fresh from her own six-month stint in a federal prison in Alderson, W.Va.
The world was deep in the grip of the Cold War. The New London Evening Day repeatedly warned of "The Red Threat" and sang the praises of the Polaris missile submarines being built across the river to keep us safe.
Lyttle and Swann and the others had come to deliver another message: that this was not the way to peace. And they would stage protests, commit acts of civil disobedience and hand out leaflets in front of the shipyard to tell the world. They called their project Polaris Action.
Friday, Lyttle, a slender man of 82, his slate-blue eyes framed by wire-rim glasses and shaded by a white porkpie hat, stood outside the main gate of Electric Boat again handing out leaflets. Sitting next to him on her walker, dressed in a purple sweater and matching purple beret, her face framed by a nimbus of white hair, was Marj Swann, 89.
They were joined by about a dozen other demonstrators, some almost as gray, some middle-aged and some very young, each representing a new generation of pacifists who had come in their wake to protest each new generation of ballistic-missile submarine.
These were just a few of the dozens who would convene Friday night and Saturday for the 50th Anniversary Reunion of the Committee for Nonviolent Action at the Voluntown Peace Trust.
"You'd think we're a threat," said Joanne Sheehan, one of the organizers of the event, as she noted that there were almost as many cops and security guards as there were demonstrators in front of EB. "All these police here ... Hmm, your tax dollar at work. Maybe they're afraid we'll sit down."
Thus has it ever been.
When, on June 1, 1960, they opened their office in a storefront at 13 N. Bank St., they were met with open hostility.
"Bank Street was New London's skid row at that time," Lyttle said. "You could see Electric Boat from the back window."
"And we constantly had kids coming in," said Swann, "and tearing up the literature and making a mess of it ... and finally it got to the point ... where they did that one night, and then they came back, offering us coffee and saying they wanted to help us clean up. For some reason, it seemed these rowdy kids changed overnight."
"Well, they did break all the windows," Lyttle says. "And they did kick in the door a couple of times."
In fact, the break-ins were so common that members of the group took turns sleeping in the office. And the group had no friends in the police.
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Polaris Foes Peace Walk Is Interrupted By Arrests
A brush with the law in Branford interrupted a New York to New London peace walk last night for five pacifists protesting missile-firing submarines.
Police said signs carried by the walkers caused an automobile accident. The five men were charged with using the highway recklessly ...
The signs they carried - "Refuse to Make Weapons of Death" "Best Defense Is Non-Violent Resistance" - were too much for Mary Richards of Guilford to resist reading as she drove past.
She slowed down on East Main Street. A motorist behind her, Francis Whalen of Hamden, bumped into her car. Neither driver was hurt, nor were their cars seriously damaged.
Police arrested the five peacewalkers. Four of them posted bonds of $15 each ... but the fifth, Arthur Harvey, 28, of Raymond, New Hampshire, refused to post bond on what he called a matter of principle and was jailed.
- The New London Evening Day, Thursday, June 16, 1960
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"It's funny to me in a way because Arthur Harvey, at that time, was an absolutist, an absolutist anarchist. He wouldn't cooperate with the government in regard to anything, so I'm not surprised that he took that stand," Lyttle said with a smile.
"Since then, he's been married, he's had a couple of kids, and he's somewhat more pragmatic. And he's a member of a town council in Maine, so he's a member of the government. He's much mellowed."
The group walking through Branford was on its way to stage the project's first demonstration on June 18, the day of the Yale-Harvard regatta.
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Polaris Protestors Converge On Area
Demonstrators protesting the Polaris submarine program entered southeastern Connecticut this morning, nine by land and two by sea in a sailboat.
"They looked like strictly a bunch of beatniks you read about," said a toll collector at the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge soon after the group passed at 10 a.m. enroute to New London.
Six were walking. Some wore beards. All appeared spirited and unmindful of the weather on a glum, overcast day.
- The New London Evening Day, Friday, June 17, 1960
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The newspaper's emphasis on the protesters' physical appearance might be amusing now, but then it was an important matter, Swann said.
When she was arrested for trespassing on a missile base outside Omaha, she said, "I had a nice dress on, and I had pearls on, because in those days, you know, if you didn't do that, then you were a hippie, and at my age, with four children, I was no hippie."
Reminded that hippies hadn't been invented yet, Swann said, "a beatnik, then, which was just as bad. I felt that my message would be better communicated if I looked like a quote" (she crooked her fingers in the air) "normal American woman."
The day of the regatta, protesters handed out leaflets on shore and on the water, and Lyttle remembered that out in front of the shipyard things got ugly.
As the skies opened up late that afternoon, workers spilled out of the bars on Thames Street, and Lyttle and a few others absorbed some punches.
Lyttle recalls a friend, Jim Peck, who had participated in the Freedom Rides down south and who drove a car that day with a sign on top of it.
"He was in a car that almost turned over by angry workers," he says. "The car had a sign on top of it, and they tore off the sign, and they tried to turn over the car."
None of this was reported in the paper.
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Futile and Fatuous Campaign
Over the boat race weekend, the New London - Groton area got its first look at the cast of characters of the Committee of Non-Violent Action. Assuming no hidden hookup with subversive groups ... that first look strongly suggested a study in fundamental futility ...
The organization appears to be well-heeled - strong on mimeographed handouts to the press ... Someone is footing the bills for all this folderol ...
What organizations and philosophies - or ideologies - they represent is anyone's guess and the FBI's concern, no doubt. But at the moment, it will be tremendously difficult to sell the average American citizen that we can trust the Soviet Union for ten minutes if this nation goes into some misty-eyed fog over the joys and benefits of non-violence ...
- The New London Evening Day, Monday, June 20, 1960
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Swann and Lyttle shared a hearty laugh at the notion their movement was "well-heeled."
Certainly, there was no question in many minds that the FBI infiltrated their gatherings. Anne Schiebner, who helped organize the 50th reunion, remembers that back in the '70s, they could always tell the FBI agents at their meetings, "because their shoes were shined."
As the summer of 1960 wore into the fall, the group staged several attempts to sail across the river and climb up on the docks and submarines. Often they would be captured by the police or Coast Guard, escorted out of the shipyard and dumped on the street.
Then, on Nov. 22, came the launching of the Ethan Allen. The paper reported that "nine self-styled pacifists," two of whom boarded the sub, were arrested.
Court documents show that Robert Swann, Marj Swann's husband then, ended up doing time in federal prison for that protest.
"He didn't try to board anything," Swann said. "He was arrested for carrying the canoe down to the water, and he did six months in Danbury."
"For that?" said Lyttle. "Was he trespassing or anything?"
"No, no, it was just enabling lawbreaking," Swann says.
Others would be arrested, and others would do time. But, by then, the pacifists were here to stay.
When a right-wing group calling itself The Minutemen burned down their barn in 1966, they stayed. When The Minutemen returned, armed, in 1968 and got into a shoot-out with state police, and people on both sides were wounded, they stayed.
And today they will conduct a memorial service at their farmhouse in Voluntown to remember those among them who are gone.