On October 27, 1967 Father Phillip Berrigan and three others calmly walked into a Selective Service office in the Baltimore Customs House. As the Reverend James L. Mengel, a United Church of Christ minister and activist distributed copies of The Good News For Modern Man to workers, Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis, and writer David Eberhardt poured blood on Draft Board files.
Each of the four men had contributed some of their own blood then supplemented it with duck blood purchased at a local Polish market. In a leaflet distributed along with the Bibles, Berrigan wrote, “This is sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.”
When they were finished all four men calmly awaited the arrival of police and arrest. The Baltimore Four, as they came to be known, succeeded in grabbing national attention. Their act of symbolic defiance helped energize the Anti-War Movement as a whole. Berrigan would be sentenced to four years in prison in this celebrated case. And it was just Act I.
Berrigan was born on October 5, 1923 in Two Harbors, Minnesota a tough, Iron Range port on Lake Michigan. His German mother and Irish father were both devout Catholics and staunch union members.
Unlike other well known anti-war figures of the era, Berrigan knew war—and injustice—first hand. At the age of 20 he was drafted in 1943. Basic training in the South was an eye-opening and painful experience for him. He had never witnessed firsthand the brutal racism of the Jim Crow South and of the Army that accommodated it in every way possible.
And that was just the start of his education. He witnessed the stark horror of war first hand as an artilleryman in the Battle of the Bulge and, as the war drew to a close in Europe, a Second Lieutenant in the infantry.
After the war instead or resuming his interrupted studies at the St. Michael's College in Toronto, he entered College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduation in 1950 Berrigan decided to enter the seminary of the Josephite Fathers, an order founded to minister to recently freed slaves after the Civil War and explicitly dedicated to service to the African dispora in the U.S. He was ordained in 1955.
As the Civil Rights Movement heated up, so did Berrigan’s involvement. He marched and participated in sit-ins and other protests immersing himself in the movement’s non-violence and sacrificial militancy, in both of which he found resonance with his developing Catholic theology.
Serving black parishes, Berrigan was beginning to get in trouble with his order superiors by the mid-60’s. After speaking a public forum in which he blasted the Church for complicity in war crimes above, his superiors removed him from his Up State New York parish and assigned him to Baltimore. He was assigned to St. Peter Claver Church in 1965 and founded the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission. The group began with public witnesses against the war and actions like the picketing of the homes of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Washington suburbs. It was out of this group and extensive prayerful consideration that the Baltimore Four decided to act.
While out of jail awaiting sentencing in the first draft board raid, Berrigan committed another. This time he was joined by his older brother Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit and poet who was already well known as an outspoken early anti-war figure. In addition to the Berrigan brothers Tom Lewis was once again on hand as were George Mische, De La Salle Christian Brother Br. David Darst, John Hogan, Marjorie Bradford Melville, Thomas Melville, and Mary Moylan. On May 17, 1968 they went to a Draft Board in Cantonville, Maryland. Not content with the mere symbolic vandalism of draft records, this time they hauled hundred of file from the office into the parking lot, doused them in homemade napalm concocted of gasoline and soap flakes, and set them on fire.
The trial of the Cantonville Nine—which Berrigan would later turn into a play using mostly trial transcripts—became a media sensation and offered the Berrigans and their collaborators an opportunity to eloquently and defiantly state their positions about war, exploitation, and the complicity of the Church and American society in the carnage. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
All of the defendants were convicted. Phillip Berrigan was sentenced to 3½ years in prison. Allowed out on bail before reporting to severing their sentences the Berrigan brothers and some of the other defendants decided that since they had a right to protest manifest injustice, they also had a right not be complicity in their own persecution. They disappeared before reporting and went underground.
But Philip Berrigan would emerge from hiding, make a public appearance, and once again slip away. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was enraged and put both Berrigans on the Ten Most Wanted List. A massive nationwide man hunt followed. On April 11, 1970 Berrigan was arrested when FBI agents broke down the door of Church of St. Gregory the Great in New York City and arrested him in the rectory.
Berrigan was sent to prison with his two sentences to be served concurrently. While serving these sentences he secretly wed Sr. Elizabeth McAlister and anti-war activist in her own right. He was released in 1972. When the church learned of the marriage both Berrigan and his wife were excommunicated.
The pair faced a new hurdle when they and five others were indicted for an alleged plot to “kidnap” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and perhaps “blow up” some steam tunnels. The Federal case against the so called Harrisburg Seven was built on smuggled letters between the two facilitated by a prisoner/informant and intercepted by authorities. The government spent over $2 million trying to prove the case in the 1972 trial. The lead defense attorney, former Attorney General turned anti-war activist Ramsey Clark did not even call a witness. After lengthy deliberations there was a hung jury. The greatly embarrassed government declined to re-file the charges.
In 1973 Berrigan and McAalister founded Jonah House in Baltimore to support the community of non-violent resistance to war and injustice. Styled a Catholic Worker Resistance House, it was their home for the rest of Berrigan’s life. The couple had three children. The House served as a center of action and in 1980 was the birthplace of a new activist group, Plowshares which initiated many more actions over the next decades.
The first Plowshares action was a raid on the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania where nose cones for the Mark 12A nuclear warheads were made. Phillip and Daniel Berrigan and six other symbolically pounded on the nose cones with hammers and drenched them in blood. Sentenced to 11 years in prison this time, the trial and appeals dragged on for nearly ten years with much of the time spent behind bars. In 1990 the Berrigans were re-sentenced to 23½ months and immediately paroled for time served.
Plowshares would continue to conduct similar such raids often planned by the Berrigan brothers.
In December of 1999 Berrigan participated in his last Plowshares protest—at the Warfield Air National Guard Base in Maryland where members pounded on A-10 Warthog warplanes like those which had been used in the Persian Gulf War. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for malicious damage to Federal Property. He was released from prison for the last time in 2001.
Altogether Phillip Berrigan served more than 11 years in jail or prison for his defiant acts of civil disobedience. That is likely a record for any non-violent activist in American History.
Soon after release, Berrigan died at Jonah House surrounded by his family and supporters of cancer on December 6, 2002 at the age of 72. He was buried on the grounds of Jonah House, where his wife continues his work.