A May to remember
by Ken Butigan
April may be the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot once claimed, but May is the month of exuberant mass action. We’re currently in the thick of the latest iteration of May mobilizations for justice and peace, with the worldwide protests that got rolling on May 1 and the actions that will take place later this month in Chicago focused on the NATO summit. May actions are a venerable tradition, reaching back to Emancipation Day in 1886 when — also in Chicago — 340,000 workers went on strike demanding an 8-hour workday. Since then, by design or coincidence, numerous May protests — perhaps egged on by the feisty vitality of spring and its alluring promise of rejuvenation — have been momentous.
In the month of May, one million South Africans demonstrated against apartheid (1986); 1,400 people were arrested protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire (1977); the Freedom Riders challenged racial discrimination in interstate travel (1961); hundreds of schoolchildren were arrested during the civil rights movement’s historic Birmingham campaign (1963); the Poor People’s Campaign challenged economic inequality (1968); a general strike spread across France calling for social change, eventually mobilizing ten million people (1968); and millions protested U.S. immigration policy across the nation (2006). These, as the invaluable This Week in History attests, are only a small fraction of the many historic social struggles that have been launched in the month of May.
Here is one of the most notable.
Forty-one years ago today — May 3, 1971 — thousands of people were arrested in Washington D.C. as they clamored for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. Though no one could have known it at the time, this event proved to be the movement’s last monumental mobilization. There would be other national and local demonstrations before the war finally ended in 1975, but nothing would match the sheer size and intensity of this powerful drama played out on the streets of the nation’s capital.
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