Before the 2017 Women’s March, there was the Jeannette Rankin Brigade

One Woman Against War: the Jeannette Rankin Story

The Jeannette Rankin Brigade, also known as the Peace Parade, called for an end to American military action in Vietnam.

This excerpt from “One Woman Against the War: The Jeannette Rankin Story,” tells of the protest march in Washington, DC, in January 1968 and subsequent legal action to overturn a law that banned large assemblies outside the US Capitol.

Copyright 2016-17 by Kevin S. Giles, Author

That winter day in the nation’s capital, Swedish film actress Viveca Lindfors would read a petition explaining that women marching in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade represented millions of people opposed to the war and suffering from neglect of human needs in the United States. Marchers had attended a briefing the evening before they took to the streets. They were told that the presence of such a large group of protesters would violate Section 193 (g) of title 40 of federal law, which read: “It is forbidden to parade, stand, or move in processions of assemblages in said United States Capitol Grounds….” The evening before the march, radical feminists began agitating for civil disobedience confrontations that in their estimation would leave a stronger impression than women fulfilling expectations by abiding by rules and laws governing marches on the Capitol. To many people, the rift that resulted would become more memorable than the march itself.

Rankin and other march leaders thought the federal law violated the First Amendment’s pledge that said: “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” They had gone to court six days before the march to seek an injunction against the law but failed, forcing them to assemble at Union Station rather than on Capitol grounds. Police appeared in large numbers.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

The procession stepped softly into the snow to begin the half-mile march up Louisiana Avenue. As many as ten thousand women dressed in mourning black, carrying placards and banners imploring Congress to end the war in Vietnam, tromped silently. Their sometimes vocal, sometimes silent, procession extended for several city blocks. Hundreds of police officers stared from the sidewalks.

Despite disagreements from the start, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade transcended race, age and wealth. White-skinned women linked arms with black-skinned, red-skinned with yellow, some eyes brimming with anticipation, others showing tears. White-haired grandmothers shared the street with chic suburban housewives and teenage hippies. Youngsters strapped papoose-style to their mothers eyed the cavalcade with bewilderment. Celebrities mingled in the crowd. Mothers of men already killed in Vietnam walked stonily. Two marchers were World War II “Red Cross girls” who told the Washington Post they had witnessed war and wanted no more of it. Another marcher was Mabel Vernon, who had “worked for peace since 1917.” Activists of national repute, like Rankin, closed ranks as they pressed forward. At times the march resembled a political convention as delegations raised their state banners. Many of the women wore lapel buttons. Some were tiny plastic doves. Other labels read, “Bring the Boys Home” and “End the War.” Many women wore campaign buttons supporting Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate for president. To Jeannette Rankin, the scene would look hauntingly familiar, similar in so many ways to the great suffrage demonstrations in the years preceding World War I.

At the forefront of this river of women, undaunted, was Rankin, the wily veteran of protest. She fixed her bespectacled eyes calmly on the Capitol dome and pushed ahead, invigorated with her excitement over taking to the streets. Her winter coat concealed barely a hundred pounds of body, shriveled from time. A brown wig covered what was left of the crisp white hair that marked the lonely dissenter during the World War II Congress. She didn’t look the same but she was a symbol, an inspiration, for all the younger women surrounding her. Rankin looked to her left and to her right. The women closed around her, all of them matching her pace as they approached the Capitol dome. Rankin’s black-gloved hands, gnarled as they were, gripped the banner as if she was embracing a lifetime of pacifism.

Historically, Rankin had walked a long way. Many of her parade companions hadn’t been born even by the time of the second vote; few were alive at the time of the first. Other women looked at Rankin with astonishment, as she did at them. How could she explain to them her experiences of fully half a century? Lonely vigils to distribute suffrage literature on street corners? Arguments on Capitol Hill over war profiteering? Allegations of communism from the American Legion, boos and hisses from the House of Representatives gallery at a vote cast against war, her thrill at hearing Hindu villagers talk of their love for the peace-seeking Gandhi? To Jeannette Rankin all of these experiences meant a lifetime commitment to peace. A street march through wet snow by women dressed in black represented a new wave of activism. To Rankin, those women embodied the promise of a world free from war.

As the Jeannette Rankin Brigade swept toward the Capitol, a young police officer scooted into the front line. He gripped Rankin’s arm, presuming to escort her, but she shook free. “Do you think this frail old woman isn’t capable of good behavior on the Capitol grounds?” she asked him.

“She can walk. You don’t need to help her!” someone shouted.

The officer, uncertain now, flashed a smile. “Don’t deprive me of that pleasure,” he said.

Offended, Rankin lashed out: “You don’t need to worry about us. We are unarmed and not at all threatening.”

Lyndon Johnson, knowing the war had become his worst political nightmare, feared war protests. Bad news from Vietnam kept the big Texan awake at night. The women knew that the large police force would jail them if they tried to break the law. Detention centers had been prepared to imprison five hundred of the demonstrators; a cordon of police was ready for mass arrest. Standing at the foot of the Capitol, shivering in the raw wind, Rankin again asked why so many people were needed to threaten people exercising their democratic rights: “There is no reason why old ladies should be denied the right to go into the Capitol and have policemen on every corner to see that we don’t hurt you.”

Rankin and other march organizers had hoped to lead the full procession to the Capitol steps to present their petitions to House Speaker John McCormack. The 1882 law that prohibited mass demonstrations on Capitol grounds disrupted their plan, even if it seemed a clear contradiction to the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. At the Capitol, Rankin and sixteen demonstrators, including Coretta Scott King, broke away from the main body. Reporters and photographers, watching their ascent to the Capitol, huddled deeper in their overcoats. As the remainder of the brigade moved to Union Square near the Ulysses Grant memorial, where Judy Collins sang This Land is Your Land, Rankin and her delegation found McCormack and presented him with a petition that read:

“We, the United States women, who are outraged by the ruthless slaughter in Vietnam, and the persistent neglect of human needs at home, have come to Washington to petition the Congress for the redress of intolerable grievances, to demand that:

“Congress, as its first order of business, resolve to end the war in Vietnam and immediately arrange for the withdrawal of American troops.

“Congress use its power to heal a sick society at home.

“Congress use its power to make reparation for the ravaged land we leave behind in Vietnam.

“Congress listen to what the American people are saying and refuse the insatiable demands of the military-industrial complex.”

McCormack wasn’t sympathetic but he promised to refer the petition to the appropriate House committee. He did, and it became known as Petition 219. Representative William Fitts Ryan, a Democrat from New York and an early opponent of the war, introduced the petition in the House three days later.

After Rankin talked with McCormack she turned her attention to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. He was a powerhouse in Congress, known for plain talk as much as his extraordinary leadership. Mansfield began his congressional career in 1943 when Rankin retired after one term and he was elected to her House seat from the western district of Montana. Like Rankin, he opposed the war in Vietnam. History would show that he privately told a succession of presidents that fighting in Vietnam was wrong and futile.

As the women outside sang We Shall Overcome, the gracious Mansfield tried to woo Rankin with a silver tea set. Thinking his hospitality was a gimmick to distract from the urgency of the peace protest, Rankin talked quickly, not giving him a chance to offer her a cup.

“We must bring the boys home from Vietnam,” she told the lanky granite-faced senator.

“How are we going to do this?” he reportedly asked her.

“The same way we got them there. By planes and ships,” she replied. When she left Mansfield’s office, news reporters rushed her. What did the first woman elected to Congress more than fifty years earlier have to say about the most powerful man in Congress in 1968?

“He was very pleasant,” Rankin told them. “You know how politicians are.”

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. “One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story,” was published in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)