Duncan Murphy and ‘Nonviolent Change 101’

Duncan Murphy speaking on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Veterans Fast for Life in Central America, 1986. Photo by Bill Becker.

Successful social change hinges on many factors: strategic thinking, creative action, serious training, critical mass and the capricious accidents of history. But transforming society requires more than applying the tenets of organizing or the vagaries of big picture probabilities. It is a thoroughly human process that ultimately turns on the gumption of people and their intangible power. Dramatic movements can inspire and spur us to action, but we are also deeply nourished by examples of ordinary human beings whose relentless determination so often lies at the heart of social transformation. If they can do this, we find ourselves saying, why can’t I?

Those of us who long to change the world would do well to enroll in an ongoing course we could call “Lives for Nonviolent Change 101.” In this class we could study — and be vicariously mentored by — a series of characters whose lives illuminate the qualities and values that the long-distance run for social change requires. This course could include such figures as Bayard Rustin and Grace Lee Boggs. But even more to the point, it could zoom in on the often unsung women and men who form the backbone of nonviolent change, like those who never miss a meeting or who quietly go about the business behind the scenes of energizing one movement after another.

Duncan Murphy, who died this week at the age of 92, was one of these ordinary, extraordinary human beings. He would be a good focus for this kind of class.

I met Duncan in 1987 when he joined Nuremberg Action, a group that was planning a 40-day fast beginning on September 1 of that year to protest arms shipments from Concord Naval Weapons Station, east of San Francisco, to Central America. As I have previously chronicled on this site, the U.S. Navy munitions train that Duncan and others sought to blockade on the fast’s first day barreled through the group, leaving Vietnam veteran Brian Willson maimed for life. Everyone else managed to get off the track in time, including Duncan, but only barely — he grabbed hold of the train’s cowcatcher and swung away from the 250,000 pound locomotive to safety.

After an ambulance arrived following what seemed to many of us to be an unconscionably interminable wait to transport Brian to a nearby hospital (where 16 hours of surgery awaited him), Duncan settled himself back in the train’s track-bed and insisting that he would continue the blockade. His job was to carry on what he and Brian started. In so doing, he helped touch off what became years of nonviolent resistance at Concord, where hundreds of people at a time would literally stop the war in its tracks. (Concord, the largest military arms transshipment base on the West Coast, was mostly shuttered a few years later.)

Duncan’s decision to carry on that September morning was a logical extension of an action that he and Brian (and Charlie Liteky and George Mizo) had embarked on a year earlier. The Veterans Fast for Life in Central America was an open-ended, water-only fast that the four U.S. vets conducted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol that began on September 1, 1986, and ended 47 days later on October 17 after garnering widespread congressional support and sparking more than 500 demonstrations for peace across the United States.

Duncan’s work for change, though, long preceded this dramatic witness. As he recounted to a reporter several years ago, this journey began at the age of seven:

I was looking through a book that had photographs of trench warfare of the First World War, and at that time it made no sense at all … I think kids have better sensitivity than adults sometimes. Here’s craziness, why? For what? What do you do that for? That stuck with me.

This questioning bore fruit during World War II, when he became a conscientious objector who nonetheless served with an ambulance unit with Allied forces through North Africa, Italy, France and Germany:

Murphy was with the British troops who liberated Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp where Anne Frank died. “When they first went in, there were something like 10,000 dead bodies all over the ground. Starved dead bodies. Then there were these numerous sheds. The victims inside were as close together as the fingers on your hand, the dead and the dying. It was a horrible, horrible thing.”

After the war he spent 20 years in the spiritually-based Shiloh Community (a group founded by Eugene Crosby Monroe and originally located in western New York), baking bread and pruning trees. (In 1997, The Baltimore Sun ran a profile on Duncan that highlighted his tree-pruning that helped pay his bills.) But his commitment to peacemaking never faded. In the 1980s he made three trips to Nicaragua, which reminded him of what he had experienced in Europe during the Second World War, as he said during the 1986 fast:

I worked with survivors of the Nazi atrocities after the army unit I was with liberated Belsen … The Jews, Gypsies and other prisoners there told me the same kinds of stories I’ve heard from survivors of Contra atrocities during my trips to Nicaragua. For over 40 years, I have done everything I possibly could to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from recurring, only to be betrayed by high officials in this country. Two-thirds of the American people were opposed to aid for the Contras [the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries], but Congress went ahead and gave them $100 million anyway! So now I’m willing to lump together whatever years are left to me and give them all in one short time to activate the ending of the U.S. war in Central America.

Duncan kept his word. For the rest of his life he worked for peace, including participating in protests at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Aside from a couple of notable actions that thrust him momentarily into the public eye, Duncan lived a quiet life, even as his tree-trimming helped keep him active and fit. As a reporter wrote a dozen years ago:

Duncan Murphy’s quite lively, lean and agile and energetic as a squirrel. He’s compact, taut and wiry, a bit gnarled, but honest and true as a seasoned oak burl. His hair’s gray and a little thin. He wears a mustache neatly trimmed, and his face has the good lines you earn during a life of useful work.

Duncan’s useful work went beyond topping trees. Keeping his needs simple and living a largely nomadic life for the last few decades, Duncan engaged in the work of conscience in a world writhing with violence and injustice: spending oneself freely to sound the alarm and to offer an example of what every one of us can do, if we are willing.

Thank you, Duncan, for your exquisite contribution to Nonviolent Change 101.

Duncan Murphy’s life will be celebrated on September 1, 2012 as part of the gathering at Concord Naval Weapons Station (Concord, California) marking the 25th anniversary of the Nuremberg Action where Brian Willson was run down by a U.S. Navy munitions train.

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