What Would I Do? How Do I Live Out My Values?

Theodore S. Gonzalves is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Theodore GonzalvesThe BreakingGround initiative is has turned out to be a wonderful platform for the kind of learning community I’m interested in helping to foster.

I first started teaching a course on the history of U.S.-based social movements when I was offering American Studies classes in Honolulu. Over the years, scholars and activists have had to fight to get the histories of various social justice and anti-colonial movements onto college and university campuses. At one point in our nation’s life, it was novel to think about the specifics of a history from below — by people who rarely leave behind archives or who have stories written about them — histories like the African American freedom movement, or the struggles waged at Stonewall, or by Latino students in the Southwest, or by Asian Americans protesting the Vietnam War.

One of the most important units in any course I’ve taught that attempted to survey those powerful and painful histories has been the actions of the Catonsville Nine. When a lot of us think about social movements of the past, it’s easy to consider a select set of iconic figures, like Dr. King or Mohandas Gandhi, or the loud and sometimes frightening (for some) images of those “long-haired” idealists holding up peace signs or shouting slogans under heavy banners. Yet, I think students in many of my classes are still taken aback by the very quiet yet devastating example set by nine individuals who stood their ground in Catonsville in 1968 — all clean-cut, white middle class young persons (nearly all Catholics) — who performed an act that demands each of us to ask all sorts of questions: What would I do? How do I live out my values?

When I finally landed at UMBC in the Fall of 2011, I knew I had to connect myself and, again, my students, with the larger context of this history. The first thing I wondered was, how much of this history continues to resonate in Catonsville or on campus? It didn’t take long for me to meet individuals like Dr. Joby Taylor of the Shriver Center and local filmmaker Joe Tropea (a UMBC alum in history) to realize that the story of the Catonsville Nine deserved to be engaged again.

We have the good fortune for a lot of actions to converge this year: First, we’re looking forward to the release of a new documentary by Tropea and Skizz Cykzyk, Hit and Stay, that zeroes in on the direct action tactic developed by Baltimore-based activists in the late 1960s. Second, my students will be able to dig into the publication of The Catonsville Nine, a group biography that takes us into the lives of the individuals, many of whom have been overshadowed by the large personalities of the Berrigan brothers. Third, one of our invited speakers for our May event will be reporting on her travel to Vietnam, as she witnessed a delegation journeying there for the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Finally, we’ll also get a chance to hear from two of the surviving members of the Nine, Thomas and Margarita Melville, whose life path of social justice work led them through Guatemala and eventually into the field of education and scholarship.

Everyone who is associated with the project was excited to sign on, not just to look back nostalgically into the tumultuous events of 1968, but to take what we’ve learned from that time and to look forward with the same questions in mind: Knowing what we know now, what can we do today? How do I live out my values?

Contact the author, Theodore S. Gonzalves, at theo@umbc.edu.

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