During the buildup of the Vietnam War in 1967, several Friends families found themselves in Visalia, California, due to the establishment of the American Friends Service Committee’s Farm Labor Program. The program was focused on helping low-income families, especially farm workers, to form cooperative groups. These groups of eight to twelve families were then guided through the process of building their own homes.
As the war escalated, we formed the Tulare County Peace Committee and began picketing Visalia’s downtown post office every Saturday at noon for an hour. (The post office was the closest federal entity we had.) Visalia was more conservative than we had expected, and was not very comfortable with the peace demonstrations.
As chairman of the Peace Committee, I was often interviewed by reporters, which sometimes generated hate mail and phone calls at two in the morning- no message, just heavy breathing. The local John Birch Society became regular counter-picketers across the street from our demonstration. John Birchers were as widely visible in those days as members of the Tea Party are today, a national movement of grass-roots arch conservatives.
The Peace Committee decided to offer draft counseling to local young people. We placed a notice about our evening meeting in the local newspaper. The meeting was held at the AFSC Farm Labor Office, and when I entered the office I found about a dozen attenders, half of whom I knew. There was one draft-aged young man. The others appeared to be John Birchers. I sat next to a 300-pound man wearing black leather boots and a jacket and grease under his nails, and thought to myself that I would be lucky to leave the room unharmed.
Without much prearrangement, the meeting was clerked by Herb Foster, the Farm Labor secretary of the office. Herb decided to run the meeting using what we now call “Quaker Dialogue”, wherein a question is posed and each person around the room responds to the question without being answered or challenged.
The first question Herb posed was, “What do you think is wrong with the world today?” The surprise was that the responses of the Birchers and the peaceniks were not all that different. The second question was, “What do you think we should do about it?” This time, the answers were all over the map, with obvious differences between the Birchers and the peaceniks. We didn’t talk much about draft counseling, but we all shook hands and went home.
Our meeting didn’t stop the Vietnam War or lead to much draft counseling, but the hate mail, late-night phone calls and the counter-picketing all disappeared. It’s harder to get all worked up with folks who share your basic views of what’s going wrong and mainly differ regarding the response to it. ~~~
Bill Lovett was a founding member of Visalia Friends Meeting, CA (PYM), where he is still active. He also serves on the board of Quaker Oaks Farm, a sustainable agriculture and environmental education center in California’s Central Valley.