color image of priest Daniela and Phil Berrigan

The Day I Met Father Dan Berrigan—Thanks To Howard Zinn

color image of priest Daniela and Phil BerriganBy William Holtzman

It was February, 1972.  I was a sophomore at Boston University. I was attending the first class I enrolled in at BU: Howard Zinn’s introduction to modern political thought, or words to that effect.

Having just transferred from the University of Illinois, Howard’s class was exhilarating—a breath of fresh air. A new fascinating world presented itself every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 pm.

Howard was spellbinding in a militant, whimsical way.  Every class included a blizzard of facts and observations.  Moral outrage was seasoned with sarcastic wit and brilliant comparisons.  Study was always coupled with action.  “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he would say.

Howard asked if anyone knew of Father Daniel Berrigan.

Everyone knew Father Dan and his brother, Father Phil.  They were very active in the anti-war movement.  The Vietnam War, that is.  Almost every month they were getting led away in handcuffs for some form of non-violent resistance.

They were the Bonnie and Clyde of the peace movement. Even Paul Simon sang about Father Dan:

And when the radical priest
Come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek

Dan even made the FBI’s “most wanted list,” a first for any priest. But I digress.

Father Dan had been enjoying an 18-month “vacation” at Danbury prison in Connecticut for burning draft board records.  And now he was finally getting out!  Howard asked, “Anyone want to drive to Danbury and celebrate Dan’s release?”  Two days later, about 25 of us were heading west on I-90.

It was chilly in Danbury, but in quick order, Father Dan was outside the prison and leading a traditional mass in front of an untraditional audience of 600+ peacenicks.  I don’t remember his remarks but I was happy to be there shivering next to my charming, brave teacher—Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn and Daniel Berrigan in Hanoi, 1968. Image from Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance.” Watch Zinn recount this experience on Vimeo.com.