Transcript for Resisting the Draft - Coleman

Jim Fleming: When Coleman's memoir, "SPOKE," crossed my desk, it seemed as though he wrote it to me. We were about the same age. We were confronted with many of the same choices. Coleman was friends with the anti-war activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan, at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. And he went to prison for refusing to accept induction.

Coleman: I was so uncomfortable with what was going on with the war, and felt personal responsibility for it, that I couldn't keep my mouth shut on it. So I returned my draft card very privately in a letter to my draft board, rather than through a public demonstration. I had considered applying for a CO status, but I wrestled - and I'm still wrestling - with "Am I, or am I not, a conscientious objector, by the pure definition of conscientious objector?" I'd always thought that during World War 2, I would've gladly fought against Hitler, for example, so that would disqualify from any definition of conscientious objector. But the other problem was draft boards in the United States did not equally apply the rules of conscientious objection. In Oklahoma, no one had ever been granted conscientious objector status. It was the law, but it was not allowed. And so Quakers, Mennonites, and others who were genuine conscientious objectors who applied for it, were routinely turned down, and routinely given prison sentences in Oklahoma, as well. So that really wasn't an option for me.

Fleming: This is the point at which, I think, we have to go back and look at what brought you to this point. And I think it's pretty clear that the first, and perhaps most influential, person was your mother.

Coleman: I had an amazing mother. I was very, very fortunate. She was, without a doubt, the most compassionate person I've ever known, and I've tried to model myself after that to the best that I can. But she had no inclination for activism of any kind, but things changed. She was in a terrible fire, and she found herself ostracized by her community, largely because of her looks; she was terribly scarred and handicapped.

Fleming: The horrifying story is that she went back to her church, looking for community.

Coleman: Yes. After her first visit there, the minister asked my father not to bring her back, because her looks were disturbing to the rest of the congregation. But she had--at the hospital, her caretakers were primarily black nurses, and they became her best friends. And one of them, a Mrs. Fulbright, invited my mother to go to her church, on Oklahoma's east side. And that's how my mother became involved in the Oklahoma NAACP and NAAC Youth Council, and eventually started joining sit ins and demonstrations to end segregation in Oklahoma City.

Fleming: You have pictures of her as a chaperone for young black Americans taking a trip to Washington D.C.

Coleman: Well, on that bus, she met a man who wanted to move to our part of Oklahoma City. He had accepted a job as a doctor, and my mother offered to sell him our house. That just wasn't done. There were no blacks, not only in our community, but within many, many, many miles of our community. And so a cabal of city leaders, including my father and the town mayor.

Fleming: And your minister.

Coleman: The same minister, and the sheriff, got together to take care of the problem. And the solution was they arrested her, charged her with insanity. The charge was that she had been associating with black people, she'd had them in her home, she rode on a bus with them all the way across the US.

Fleming: And this was a sign of insanity?

Coleman: She was there for five years. Her medical record was 23 pages long, and it stated at the very beginning, she was not there to be treated; she was there to be confined.

Fleming: Well, I guess, I think it's important, because what we want to talk about is what led to you deciding it was a question of character, a question of conscience, to make a decision about the Vietnam War. And I can't help but believe that this had to have shaped your willingness to examine that question of conscience?

Coleman: It definitely did, and then there were some triggers in 1967 and 68, that pushed me over the edge to compel me to do something. The summer of 67, I was asked to teach a short theater course to some kids that were brought to the campus of Cornel, where I was going to school, and they were brought there from Harlem. And in working with those kids, I realized that most of them, the boys anyway, were probably going to go to Vietnam. They weren't going to go to Cornel, they weren't gonna get 2S deferments. And it deeply bothered me that I had something they couldn't have, that weight on me. That December, I brought my mother on a two week furlough from the hospital to Cornel. Just visiting with her and talking about what her life was like, and what happened back then. And it made me ever more determined to do something for her, but again, I still had no idea what to do, or how to do it.

Fleming: It's also--1967, wasn't it that you met the Berrigans for the first time?

Coleman: Actually, that was 68. That January, I took a job at Cornel United Religious Work, and my office was directly across the hall from Daniel Berrigan's office. He was an intimidating man to me, at first, and there's nothing intimidating about Daniel Berrigan. He's about the most approachable human you'll ever meet. But he was intimidating to me because of where I was, I think. I was ready to do something and not ready to do something. So that fall, I got to know him a little bit, but mostly I observed the going in and out of his office of many, many visitors from all over the world. And then in April of that year, the weekend that Martin Luther King was assassinated, that's when I returned my draft card to my draft board, when I felt ultimately compelled I had to do it. And on the following Monday, I knocked on Dan's door and said, "I need to talk with someone." And that's when we became friends, at that point.

Fleming: What was Selective Service response, when you mailed them your draft card?

Coleman: Oh, it was immediate. They immediately took away my student deferment and reclassified me as something called "1A Delinquent." The next decision was, would I refuse induction in upstate New York, where I had a good chance of having a very short sentence, or no sentence at all. Or would I go back to Oklahoma, where no one had defied the draft, publically, except for some very quiet conscientious objectors that nobody knew about.

Fleming: How did you make a decision?

Coleman: If I was gonna do this thing, I was gonna try to make it count. I knew if I did it in Oklahoma, there might be an opportunity for me to get something started there.

Fleming: So what happened when you got there?

Coleman: I got noticed. I became the local cause celeb for the next six months or so, until my trial and my imprisonment for refusing induction.

Fleming: At some point, you decided to go a little bit further. You and some friends decided to take action.

Coleman: My first taste of imprisonment in Oklahoma, after my draft trial there, I was out on bond and I went back to school at Cornel with my tail between my legs. 'cause I was beat up pretty bad in Oklahoma, and my first taste of prison scared the death out of me. I hunkered down, and I was just a student for the better part of a year. But throughout that year, the war kept going on and kept getting worse, and thousands more young American men kept getting killed, and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of Vietnamese kept getting killed. And then it was when Dan Berrigan decided to go underground, and not go to prison for his action in Catonsville, that I was invited to assist with his going underground. And that's when I decided to ramp up my game against the war, because something more needed to be done.

Fleming: I want to talk to you a little bit about the time you were in prison. There was something different about being in prison then, because of who was also in prison, yes?

Coleman: There was. When I was in El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma, during a brief period in 68, I met a young inmate there who was happy while I was just scared out of my wits. His name was Phil Schuman.

Fleming: What was he there for?

Coleman: He was there for a drug offense, selling drugs at University of Kansas, in Lawrence. He was clearly very, very happy, and it drove me nuts trying to figure out what was wrong with him, that he didn't realize that he was in prison. Well, later on, I had a chance outside of prison to get to know Phil, and he taught me what his secret was. Basically, two things. That life is life. He said, "Everybody's in some kind of a prison. A prison of their own making, or a prison of steel bars, or... Happiness is what you make it. You're in charge of your own happiness." The other thing he told me is, "Never be alone in prison." And I had noticed that Phil was never alone. Wherever he was, he was always surrounded by a group of people of his own choosing, who were keeping him company and keeping him safe. When I finally went to do my time, that's what I looked for, and it was there very, very quickly, a large part because there were a lot of COs - conscientious objectors - in prison.

Fleming: So, I have to ask. It's 50 years, almost, since you got out of prison. I still have nagging wonder what all I thought I was doing.

Coleman: Well, how could you not? They were extraordinary confusing and difficult times, and we were 20 years old. I was tormented by what I was doing, all the while I was doing it. I think that's something the conscience does. Daniel Berrigan, when I first met him, he intimidated me. Not because he's an intimidating person, he's not, but because what he represented to me.

Fleming: He was a man of conscience.

Coleman: Yeah, and that's troubling, because that challenges anyone else to look at their own conscience, and what they might need to be doing, too.

Fleming: Thank you.

Coleman: Thank you for having me.

Fleming: Coleman, he goes by one name, is the author of "SPOKE: A Mother, a Son, Civil Rights, Vietnam."

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