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 had recently transferred to Boston University to study under Howard Zinn.

Howard’s classes were exhilarating. A new fascinating world presented itself every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 pm.

We heard about the dark side of the post-revolutionary period; how property and wealth became the dominant driver. How a group of farmers rose up to challenge this new status quo and this became Shays’ Rebellion. How the Constitution counted enslaved people were as three fifths of a person, but also heard stirring tales of resistance to slavery. How “manifest destiny” was code for “steal anything and everything.”

No sacred cows were spared. Even Abraham Lincoln was called out. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Lincoln spoke eloquently against the war against Mexico: but then, voted to fund the war. Such inconsistency did not escape Howard.

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

My course, Introduction to Modern Political Thought, led to another introduction, to Father Daniel Berrigan.

Howard asked the class if anyone knew of Father Daniel Berrigan.

Many knew of Father Dan and his brother, Father Phil. They were icons of 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 made the FBI’s “most wanted list,” a first for any priest.

Father Berrigan had been enjoying an 18-month “vacation” at Danbury prison in Connecticut for pouring blood on draft board records. And now he was finally getting out. Howard asked, “Anyone want to drive to Danbury and celebrate Dan’s release?”

It was classic Howard. Yes, you can learn about non-violent protest and memorize Mahatma Gandhi quotes, or you could meet a modern-day Mahatma.

Two days later, about 25 of us headed west on I-90.

It was chilly in Danbury, but in quick order, Father Dan was outside the prison, leading a traditional mass in front of an untraditional audience of 600 peacenicks. Even the Danbury News Times was there to cover this unique coming out event.

I don’t remember Father Dan’s remarks but I was happy to be there, shivering next to my charming, brave teacher — Howard Zinn. You see, Howard was my Mahatma.

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.

William Holtzman was a student of Howard Zinn’s (Boston University, class of ’74). In 2008, Holtzman and Howard Zinn co-founded the Zinn Education Project with coordination by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.