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The Cleveland Professor At The Center Of The Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Anti-war protest in Washington, April, 1971. [Leena Krohn / Wikimedia Commons]

In April of 1965, Students for a Democratic Society organized an antiwar march on Washington. It was the largest protest up to that point, more than 20,000 people showed up. But SDS, originally a civil rights group, stopped organizing against the war.

A couple other attempts at stitching together the young, mostly local opposition to the war came along but were torn apart by infighting and the demands of keeping everyone together. Then the movement came to Cleveland.

“I would say that in many ways Cleveland became one of the centers for the antiwar, for the entire antiwar movement." says Don Gurewitz, a student at Western Reserve University in 1965. Gurewitz was also an activist who involved in the civil rights movement and a founder of the campus’ student antiwar group.

“A lot of the big marches on Washington, including the biggest ones, were called from conferences that took place in Cleveland," says Gurewitz. "The foundation of a number of the leading national coalitions that called those marches mostly happened in Cleveland.” 

The idea to form something called the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam came from a July, 1966 meeting in Cleveland. Then, in September, another meeting, at the campus of Western Reserve University, called for marches in November. The group would go through several different names, but held together and was known throughout as the “Mobies”.

And at the center of all this was Sidney Peck, a sociology professor at Western Reserve University from 1964 until the end of the war.

“He probably did as much as anybody to keep things together," says Tom Wells, a historian and author of The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam.

Wells’ book details the battles within the antiwar movement. He interviewed Peck in the ‘80's. Wells says the most important change the Mobies made was to include all groups and to make sure everyone stuck to a single message – ending the war.

“You had - ranging from liberals, to you got the Socialist Workers Party whose whole thing was single issue legal, peaceful demonstrations against the Vietnam War," says Wells. "And then Peck is also dealing with all the young militants too. So he did a lot to manage to hold things together, as much as they were able to hold it together," says Wells.

He says Peck, along with other Mobie leaders around the country, like AJ Muste, a minister and union activist, and long-time pacifist and radical David Dellinger, were successful in part because they were widely respected. People attended the meetings in Cleveland, and participated in the marches that were called, because, as Wells says, they trusted Peck.

“And he was a very smart, balanced guy with good judgement, well respected and he's not as widely known as some people like Tom Hayden or Dave Dellinger or Rennie Davis probably simply because he wasn't indicted," says Wells.

Those other guys were all put on trial after the ‘68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, what’s known as the Chicago Seven trial.

Student activist Don Gurewitz worked closely with Peck. He says, back when it began in Cleveland, when Peck organized the University Circle Teach-In Committee in 1965, it was just a handful of students and even fewer professors rallying against the war.

“So going from being what was an isolated, small movement clearly in the beginning, protest movement of a relative handful of a few thousands of people around the country to a movement that became so powerful that all Nixon's biographers said that's all he ever talked about, night and day, he was terrified," says Gurewitz. "Really in a lot of ways, in the end, forced him out of office, forced the end of the war, it changed American politics in a profound way.” 

All that happened in just a few years. And it might not have ever been pulled off, not without an idea hatched at a few meetings in Cleveland, back in 1966.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.