The face of dissent knows no particular gender, color or class.
Nor is dissent expressed in any one form.
In Delaware, a woman raised by a Methodist minister and who runs an organization working for peace stands alongside an intellectual raised by a blacklisted union organizer who argues for inclusion and neighborhood revitalization for Wilmington’s African-American community. Joining them is an elderly Wilmington woman whose Nazi-oppressed Austrian adolescence and early adulthood blossomed into an activist American citizenship and a fight against nuclear power.
“Many people are born with a drive for justice,” says Sally Milbury-Steen, head of Pacem in Terris, an interfaith peace group and justice education organization that she has led for more than two decades.
“If you look at little kids, they cry out when you split a cookie unfairly,” she says. “It gets squelched out of us by authoritarian experiences, in home or in school. Until we can get back in touch with that, there comes a point where you just have to stand up, and not just stand up for yourself, but for those behind and right next to you.”
“How can you not speak up?” asks 84-year-old Frieda Berryhill, who helped stymie a nuclear power reactor from being built in Delaware 30 years ago. “I love this land. I know the system can work.”
But it continually needs to be critiqued, dissenters say.
“If the nature of organizing is breaking through to people to believe in themselves so that they can be part of the process,” says Wilmington neighborhood activist Mark Brunswick, “then I’m a dissenter. Dissenters stand in the face of danger because change is the point.”
Dissent is a universal idea, but its American version is unique, says Temple University professor Ralph F. Young, who recently published an anthology, “Dissent in America: The Voices that Shaped a Nation”.
The book shows examples of American dissent, from Colonial religious figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams to the 19th-century’s seminal “On Resistance to Civil Government,” by Henry David Thoreau, which inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s own civil disobedience. The selections end with the contemporary anti-Iraq War movement, represented here by speeches from Michael Berg, the anti-war protester whose son was decapitated in Iraq, and Cindy Sheehan, the woman who camped outside of President Bush’s Texas ranch to protest the war after her soldier son was killed in Iraq.
“If dissent is not central to American history,” Young says, “it’s at least a pattern. What makes it unique here is that the founding documents [including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution] are the promise, the ideal. Dissenters say, ‘There is a contract that we are equal. Now, hold up your side of the bargain.’ ”
Dissent became a pattern in America early on, says Charles Zelden, a professor of American history at South Florida’s Nova Southeastern University who teaches classes on oppression in American history.
“There is a tyranny of the majority in America that Tocqueville recognized,” Zelden says, referring to the 19th-century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote an early and influential survey of life in America. “This tends to give the American personality an implicit conformity. What he didn’t understand is there’s room for dissent, and if it hits a tenor with people, it will become a majority view.”
The most important dissenting movements began as small minorities, including movements for the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century and the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
At its height, the abolitionist movement was actively supported by only a quarter-million people. But that minority helped spark the Civil War, which freed the slaves and laid the foundations for the 14th and 15th amendments, all of which revolutionized the country as much, if not more, than the founding American Revolution.
“Dissent takes time,” Zelden says. “For it to become something more than a person crying in the dark, it has to resonate with the public, and have a leader to support it.”
The obvious example today is the anti-Iraq War movement, Young says.
“Cindy Sheehan and Mike Berg are part of the latest chapter in a long series of ups and downs for dissenters,” he says. “Americans are pretty tolerant up to a point. But then they speak out.”
“This is a big-dog neighborhood,” Mark Brunswick says.
That’s why he’s owned a loud and mean-looking German shepherd mix named Caesar for three years now.
“There are drug dealers next door,” he explains about his street nestled above the Hilltop neighborhood. “There were two, three shootings within a six-block radius of this house just in the last few weeks.”
Brunswick, 52, however, has doggedly remained in the West Side Wilmington home in which he grew up, and shares now with his 82-year-old mother, his brother James and his brother’s daughter, Bailey.
His neighborhood is an example of everything that is wrong with Wilmington politics and its approach to community redevelopment, he says.
While reactivating his own 10-year-old consulting firm that works on “asset-building and community development,” Brunswick’s latest work has been under the auspices of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a coalition of labor and community leaders who work for civil rights.
Born in a “politically progressive, post-Vatican II household,” Brunswick’s father, James, was a union organizer blacklisted from the mainstream union in part because he had been labeled a communist.
In fact, Brunswick spent the first five years of his life with his mother’s relatives in New Haven, Conn., because of the turmoil caused by his father’s union activities.
The great hero of their household was A. Philip Randolph, “the strategist of the civil rights movement,” he says. Randolph literally stood behind Martin Luther King Jr. while King delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.
Like his father, Brunswick says, Randolph was a great organizer, the person who gets things done behind the scenes.
While attending Catholic school and Concord High School, Brunswick developed a taste for the Great Books, the traditional Western canon of literature that includes such heavyweights as Aristotle, Shakespeare, David Hume and John Locke.
He spent his college years at schools that taught the Great Books program, including the University of Chicago and nearby Shimer College.
He veered from a career as a school administrator setting curricula when Harold Washington became Chicago’s mayor in 1983.
“I was there at the Navy pier when Washington said, ‘Business as usual will not be tolerated,’ ” referring to the rampant corruption and the exclusion of minorities in Chicago city government. Later that same year Brunswick returned to Wilmington, believing that his role here was working toward the same goal.
Brunswick sees Wilmington’s government as “insular and incestuous,” and divided racially.
The condition of his neighborhood is a symptom of the alienation of African-American youth, he says, the paucity of jobs and hope. Inevitable growth along the riverfront will bring in more whites whose votes will further dilute Wilmington’s African-American political base.
Brunswick says he has reams of documentation concerning the course of Wilmington politics over the last several decades. He plans to write a book.
But he will have a hard time finding the time. There’s a lot to do.
“We have a weak black business sector because no one sees the relationship between economic development and the crime rate,” he says. “They are only fixated on crime and punishment. Politics and political money dictates what you get in Wilmington.”
Pacem in Terris director Sally Milbury-Steen was born with a priceless advantage.
The daughter of a Methodist minister who traveled to different towns in Delaware during her childhood, she observed two parents who “believed in service to others and lived their faith. There was no discrepancy between Sunday and the rest of the week.”
The family moved from Wilmington to Laurel, Newport, Dover and, finally, to Milford, from where she graduated high school. All that moving, Milbury-Steen, 63, says, “gave me a sense that it was important to build your roots with people more so than places.”
When her family moved to Milford in 1956, she further experienced the oppressive power of racism. After her father made his church available for a state-run health clinic that served both white and black, the family received hate mail.
“It was such hateful stuff,” she says, “and I thought, ‘How could people do this?’ ”
Even so, she was aware her parents ran a segregated church and school.
“And I would observe as a child that you would be in a shop and someone of color wasn’t being served or respected,” she says. “I found all those things troubling, but didn’t know what to do.”
She did, however, soon after she graduated from Milford High School in 1961, the year before the town integrated the schools. As a student at the University of Delaware, she participated in the burgeoning civil rights movement, walking in marches and sitting-in at lunch counters.
She joined the young Peace Corps after earning a degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin and went to French-speaking Cameroon in central Africa for two years to teach English.
It was there, she says, that “I discovered universals that transcend cultures, recognizing that if you go to other places, and you’re patient and open and approach people in love rather than judgment, amazing things happen.”
This, from the small kindnesses of local villagers who wanted to share their lives with her.
She taught high school for two years in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and finished her doctorate in 1975, a couple of years after she began dating her future husband, John Steen. She married him in 1974.
After she earned her degree, she applied and got a Fulbright lectureship at the University of Gabon, just south of Cameroon, to teach others how to teach English as a foreign language, as well as classes on basic comparative literature.
“Bouncing in and out of academia, I couldn’t decide whether to be a literary scholar with social interests, or the other way around,” she says, reflecting a trend of many future literary theorists and social activists.
After Gabon, while her husband pursued a doctorate in England, they had their only child, Blythe, and became involved in a British campaign to end nuclear weapons.
They moved to Delaware in 1981 and lived with her parents in Dover while they looked for a job.
While her husband pursued a degree in computer science, Milbury-Steen became a stay-at-home mom and began volunteering with Pacem in 1982. In 1985, they hired her as director.
Besides running several conflict resolution programs, always hunting for volunteers and protesting the Iraq War, she also is a peace consultant to several groups.
Like Brunswick, Milbury-Steen believes that change is slow, but inevitable.
“I think there are potential dissenters and silent dissenters,” she says about the attitude of Americans toward the Iraq War.
“We’re out there dissenting against the war, and people honk their horns,” she says. “That’s how things change. As more people come to agree, the ripple effect gets wider and, in the end, if enough of us agree, it legitimizes what we do.”
She has angry and funny bumper stickers all over her old white Cutlass Ciera.
“Stop the War/ Stop the Lies,” The Emperor Has No Brains,” “I Support The Separation of Church and Hate!” “These Colors Don’t Run … The World.”
Inside her cozy home hangs a large painting of 18th-century Enlightenment figures, including the Frenchman Voltaire, grinning like a Cheshire cat at how reasonable the world can be if only people were, well, reasonable.
Nearby, her shelves are lined with the thick tomes of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization and the Harvard Classics.
“I read all those while bringing up my children,” says Frieda Berryhill, 84, who in one person fuses communal compassion and impatient electricity.
She knows her history. And not just through books.
Berryhill grew up in Austria and entered puberty when Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. When Hitler’s Third Reich took over her country, she was 16, and was assigned to a labor camp to work on a farm because all the men had gone off to war. Later, she tracked Allied bombers over the skies of northern Germany.
When she returned to Austria after the war, the devastation took her breath away.
She immigrated to the United States after marrying William Berryhill, an American soldier, who came to Delaware to work for DuPont as an electrical engineer.
She became a citizen in 1949. It was the happiest day of her life.
“I studied the Constitution,” she says. “I was enthralled by the history of the Revolution and the Civil War. The marvelous concept of the separation of the branches of government.”
While she became a stay-at-home wife during the 1950s and 1960s, she read as much as she could and made her first dissenting move when she heard the minister of her church call Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a “chicken thief.” She left that particular church.
Her first great cause, however, was a late 1970s Delmarva-proposed nuclear power plant slated for Delaware. “It would have been the biggest reactor in the country,” Berryhill says. “And it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t just do nothing.”
She studied another high-temperature, gas-cooled nuclear power reactor then active in Colorado, lobbied legislators, wrote letters and gathered anti-nuclear power supporters. She started to collect money to go to court to stop it before Delmarva canceled the project.
“See what one woman can do?”
She helped craft an ethics policy for the National Utility Regulators in 1977. And she is continuing to push the Delaware legislature to work on a regionwide evacuation plan if there is an accident at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey, which she says is built on a mud pile.
Her energy also has been recently channeled into anti-Iraq War sentiment, sparked especially by the passage of the Patriot Act in 2002.
“You couldn’t dissent then,” Berryhill says of her days in Austria and Germany. “People asked me for 50 years how the Nazis could have happened in Germany. I could never answer that question until now. You lose your rights so incrementally, unnoticeably, that before you realize what’s happening it’s too late. That’s what the Patriot Act did to me.”
She read and saw similarities between the Patriot Act and Hitler’s 1933 “German Enabling Act,” which gave rights-crippling powers to the central government.
“I became frightened, and wrote an anti-Patriot Act resolution, introduced it in Wilmington Council, and it passed 9 to 1,” she says proudly.
It also passed in Newark, Arden and Odessa.
She says she won’t stop for her four grandchildren’s sake, and for the ideals for which the United States has stood for more than two centuries.
“This country still works,” she says. “I’m filled with enthusiasm.”
EXCERPTS FROM “DISSENT IN AMERICA”
“I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But, sir, the right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war.
“Rather, in time of war, the citizen must be more alert to the preservation of his right to control his Government …
“More than all, the citizen and his representative in Congress in time of war must maintain his right of free speech. More than in times of peace it is necessary that the channels for free public discussion of governmental policies shall be open and unclogged.”
— Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Republican from Wisconsin, Oct. 6, 1917
“These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to [their] rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.”
— Eugene V. Debs, Socialist, June 1918
“War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. … Loyalty — or mystic devotion to the State — becomes the major imagined human value.
“In this great herd machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push toward military unity. Any difference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse toward crushing it.”
— Randolph Bourne, journalist and critic, 1918
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, former President, talking about Woodrow Wilson’s policies during World War I
“If we [become an imperialist power], we shall transform the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for which Abraham Lincoln lived, into a government of one part of the people, the strong, over another part, the weak. Such an abandonment of a fundamental principle as a permanent policy … can hardly fail in its ultimate effects to disturb the rule of the same principle in the conduct of democratic government at home …
“The American flag, we are told, whenever once raised, must never be hauled down. Certainly, every patriotic citizen will always be ready, if need be, to fight and to die under his flag wherever it may wave in justice and for the best interests of the country. But I say to you, woe to the republic if it should ever be without citizens patriotic and brave enough to defy the demagogues’ cry and to haul down the flag wherever it may be raised not in justice and not for the best interests of the country. Such a republic would not last long. …”
— Carl Schurz, Republican Secretary of the Interior under the Hayes Administration January 4, 1899, on the American occupation of the Philippines