Two heavyweights came to Memphis to talk about war with Iraq last week, and the reception they got says something about the task facing President George W. Bush as he tries to lead the country into war.
On Sunday, William Sloane Coffin, a liberal anti-war voice in the 1960s, spoke at a "service for peace" at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Idlewild senior pastor Stephen Montgomery, part of an ecumenical group of organizers that also included Kenneth Corr of First Baptist Church, Frank Thomas of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, CB Baker of St. Mary's Cathedral, and Scott Morris of the Church Health Center, had optimistically predicted a crowd of 300 or maybe 500. Instead, 1,100 people packed the sanctuary.
What was as notable as the size of the crowd was its constituency. This was a slice of the Memphis establishment, and its average age seemed to be well over 50. The service began with such anthems of the Sixties as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "If I Had a Hammer," but that was about where the similarities to the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era ended. There was a lot more tweed than denim, far more neckties than T-shirts.
Whatever the political leanings of those who attended -- and it's a safe guess there were as many Republicans as Democrats -- they stood and applauded vigorously after Coffin made his staunchly anti-war remarks. At 78, the former Yale chaplain and CIA operative's voice is still strong, although he seemed to struggle a little at the end of his speech. The loudest ovations of the evening, however, went to the Spirit of Soulsville Singers from the new Stax Music Academy and the LeMoyne-Owen College Choir and soloist Tanisha Mack. Music, now as then, is the thing that bonds a movement and gives it its character.
Three nights earlier, journalist and author Robin Wright talked about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to about 300 people at Rhodes college. It was a lecture, not a rally, and Wright was careful to say she was nonpartisan. But Wright, who covers the Middle East and Colin Powell for the Los Angeles Times, left no doubt she thinks the country is headed for war, probably within seven weeks. She stuck to her promise of neutrality, but her catalog of the atrocities of Saddam and the political and cultural conditions in Iraq and Iran suggested she thinks Bush and Powell are on the proper course.
Again, I was struck by the composition of the crowd -- mostly middle-aged, as many or more faculty and friends as students. As Wright noted, this is not the way it was when the country was agonizing over Vietnam.
She is a 1971 graduate of the University of Michigan, as I am. She wrote a feminist vanguard sports column called "Broadside" for the campus paper. The war dominated campus politics, dominated everything, for that matter. We went to freshman orientation in the summer of 1967 as the riots raged and the fires burned in nearby Detroit. We got our dorm assignments, meal plans, football tickets ($14 for the season), and a you-guys-don't-know-squat welcoming speech from a member of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), the radical anti-war group founded a few years earlier by Michigan student Tom Hayden.
By 1970, when universities all across America were shut down by student strikes, you could go to an anti-war rally every month or even every week if you were so inclined. On a national level, Coffin was one of the organizers. But at Ann Arbor, I don't remember many older people, other than professors, being involved in them. I think it had a lot to do with the draft.
It's different this time. There's no draft. We slid gradually into Vietnam. We're leaping, or not leaping possibly, into Iraq. But where are the Tom Haydens and William Sloane Coffins of today?
And if you can get 1,100 people to come on fairly short notice to a service at one of the most establishment churches in Memphis and stand to applaud William Sloane Coffin, can President Bush and his advisers not be having some very serious doubts about the willingness of the United States to go to war in Iraq at this time?