Today on Rediscovered Radio, we return to early May 1971, when huge demonstrations were held in Washington DC, to protest the war in Viet Nam. The organizers believed that more peaceful protest methods of the past weren’t working. Theirs was a more radical agenda.
For three days, protestors blocked intersections and bridges in DC, intending to shut down the federal government. The Nixon administration reacted with force, and on the third day brought in ten thousand federal troops. More than 12,000 demonstrators were eventually arrested.
Amid the chaos in Washington, a new radio program went on the air. All Things Considered, NPR’s flagship news program, was born May third, 1971, and among the stories that day, listeners heard correspondent Jeff Kamen report on defiant young anti-war protestors and frustrated police officers.
All Things Considered was not heard on WYSO until two years later, but the WYSO staff and volunteers were busy collecting local stories during those uncertain days. And the WYSO Archives is rich with that audio.
Two weeks after the May Day protests in Washington, DC, two young militants who had taken part in the demonstrations came to Antioch College to talk to students about revolution.
"[We're] trying to figure out exactly what happened in Washington during the last two weeks and where we go from here. It’s important to kind’ve put it into some kind of historical perspective if we can," said Jennifer Dohrn, the sister of Bernadine Dohrn, a leader of the Weather Underground, who was on the FBI’s most wanted list at the time. Bernadine had declared war on the U.S. government, before going into hiding. Jennifer was foot soldier in the group.
"In our talking about what went down in Washington in the last couple of weeks, in the talking that we’ve done since the demonstrations are over, since we went into tactical retreat as people talked about it, we’ve really been amazed, you know, to understand the myriad ways that people’s strength and creativity came out in the situation," said Jonny Lerner. He had dropped out of Antioch College to work for a group called the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which eventually morphed into the Weather Underground.
In the audio from the WYSO Archives, Dorhn and Lerner talk about the May Day protests, including placing a bomb in the U.S. Capitol Building.
Dr. Jonathan Winkler, Chair of the History Department at Wright State University listened to the recording, says, "This came after a series of more peaceful efforts including large numbers of veterans demonstrating against the war including the famous incident of lots of veterans depositing their medals on the Capitol steps, but the May Day Protest that followed that, that the Weather Underground and many others were part of here, was an attempt to shut down the federal government, and here they discuss how they sought to disrupt activities. They identify themselves more as organized opponents of the status quo, of the very system that was in place. Rather than trying to come up with a peaceable solution or peaceable change, they wanted to disrupt, to dismantle, to overthrow, for lack of a better word."
From our vantage point in the 21st century, recordings like this help us understand the complexity of the past.
"At one point Lerner attributes the decline in the dollar in May of 1971 to the demonstration in Washington, that they were succeeding," says Dr. Winkler. "When really it was the ongoing Bretton Woods crisis, the gold-dollar ratio problem, and what would eventually lead in August of ’71 to the United States going off Bretton Woods and the gold standard. At one point Dohrn suggests that it might be useful to take LSD to help to put events of the last decade into perspective and the audience just laughs, and she’s puzzled, “What’s so funny?” She later suggests that acid will be important in the coming revolution. So we very much get comments and thoughts and ideas that are of that time, that are not timeless, but reflect that world such as it was. And it was a very different world, one that was as concerned with things about the way in which the world worked as we are concerned with them today, but these individuals here decided to take a very different path toward solution, and it’s useful to listen to this to hear how earnestly they believed that their solution was the right solution, with all the violence that that would have entailed."
"It’s as if Washington was really a very crude first battle of the people’s army of this country," said Lerner in 1971. "You know, it was very crude and it was very haphazard in a lot of ways, but it’s really, it’s when you look at all the strong things that went on, that came out of people in that situation, you get a sense of where we have to move to build that army and build that struggle."
1971 seems like a long time ago now, and the young radicals are no longer young.
Today, Jennifer Dohrn is a professor of nursing at Columbia University, and Jonathan Lerner is a journalist and author. His memoir, Swords in the Hands of Children, Reflections of an American Revolutionary, will be released later this year.
Rediscovered Radio is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.