Blood and Fire: Looking Forward from the Catonsville Nine

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

Theo GonzalvesForty-five years ago, a couple of miles from the UMBC campus, nine activists seeking to change a culture and end a war put their futures on the line and took a stand. As I described in a WYPR radio interview earlier this week, their action involved using blood and fire—symbols with deep cultural and historical resonance—to destroy Vietnam War draft records. By the late 1960s, the scope of politics was widening: activists who had learned hard lessons about nonviolent direct actions at home in the South wondered if their nation could act nonviolently abroad in places like Latin America and Southeast Asia. In 1967, the Baltimore Four “anointed” draft files from a downtown office by pouring blood directly onto them. In 1968, the Catonsville Nine broke into the local selective service office, and burned nearly 400 documents with home-made napalm in a parking lot. The protestors waited peacefully for police from the Wilkens precinct (at the edge of UMBC’s campus) to arrive and arrest them. Their action stirred passions, dialogue, and action across the U.S.

As we think about how to live BreakingGround values by applying our passions and creativity to shape our world together, let us reflect on these powerful local examples of culturally disruptive thinking and action. Throughout the semester, I’ve taught an American studies course (funded through a BreakingGround grant) where students focus on the local spaces and personal experiences involved in the civil disobedience and trial of the Catonsville Nine. Students, in collaboration with community activists, have explored the historical significance of those actions as well as how we think about social protest, civic duty, and citizenship today.

The project culminates this Friday, May 10th, with an exciting event open to UMBC and the greater Baltimore community. The UMBC Social Sciences Forum and Department of American Studies will present a panel of scholars, activists, and two members of the Catonsville Nine, speaking in the Proscenium Theater (Performing Arts and Humanities Building). The event will begin with a reception (2:30 p.m.), followed by a film screening with director Q&A (3:00 p.m.), and panel discussion (4:30 p.m.). I hope to see you there.

Contact the author, Theodore S. Gonzalves, at

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. [Read more…]