By the time he was in his 30s Ed McGowan had already helped make history as one of the Camden 28, Vietnam war protesters who destroyed draft files at a federal facility in Camden, N.J., and were subsequently exonerated in what was reportedly called by Supreme Court Justice William Brennan “one of the great trials of the 20th century.”
In his 60s, McGowan completed a book about the trial, “Peace Warriors: The Story of the Camden 28.”
Last month, at age 85, Ed passed away in Ithaca, where he lived the latter half of his life, still active in political work, writing, and music.
Many Ithacans will know Ed as fiddler for Traonach, a local Irish band which played many venues, including GrassRoots Festival and a weekly pub session. As a boy Ed took lessons from James Morrison, legendary fiddler of the Sligo style.
Ed gave up early ideas of a musical career for one as an academic and priest. He was ordained as a Jesuit, a scholarly order with a liberal component.
Ed taught at various Jesuit schools, including McQuaid, a college preparatory high school in Rochester, where in the 1960s his political awareness grew and his anti-war dissent became profound as the Vietnam war developed.
In “Peace Warriors” Ed describes the process in testimony at trial. Reported in the book, and edited here, Ed testified:
“In 1965 I was teaching sophomore history. The morning papers mentioned another day of bombing in Vietnam. Troop call-ups were a daily occurrence.
“It came in a flash, looking at the 15-year-old boys before me: War was their future.
“Selective Service was a new reality in American lives. We had been living under a draft for 20 years. Never before had we had peacetime conscription. In the last century, thousands of Europeans had fled to our shores to avoid the draft at home. Americans had looked upon conscription as involuntary servitude and were against it on principle, as an instrument of militarists and tyrants.
“I demonstrated. I petitioned. I worked for candidates. I tried to divest myself of my Selective Service clergy exemption. All legally, all seemingly to no avail.
“The war was clearly illegal. The breaking of bad law came to mind.
“I decided on civil disobedience and understood anew the story of Jesus in the temple overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and driving them out.”
The group of citizens who became known as the Camden 28 shredded or removed 700 files from the Selective Service office in Camden. The cost of restoration was estimated by the office’s supervisor at $13,500. Yet federal prosecutors asked that bail for John Grady, Sr. (father of Ithaca’s Grady family, still political activists today), considered by the FBI a leader of the group and other anti-war actions, be set at $150,000, the equivalent of perhaps a million dollars today, indicating that the trial was more political than criminal. Potential prison sentences for individual group members reached as high as 47 years.
Similar groups had previously staged other such actions. Ten of them had come to trial. All those trials barred any testimony about motivation. All resulted in conviction.
The Camden trial, however, allowed such testimony, to a degree; and after a lengthy trial of over three months, the jury found the defendants not guilty on all charges, in just four days of deliberation.
Coincidentally or not, five weeks after the trial, active conscription by the Selective Service ceased. There has not been an involuntary military induction since.
In his preface to “Peace Warriors,” Ed notes that he spent eleven years researching and writing the book. There were 9,000 pages of court transcripts, and 42 articles in the New York Times alone, along with many in other media.
Ed writes, “The Camden 28 experience was the first and only trial experience for all the defendants,” and that the book intends, in large measure, to show how to run a resistance trial.
“It was intentionally a resistance trial,” he says, “a true debate,” which he and his colleagues, and all those they represented, emphatically and historically won.
The late Howard Zinn, author of the best-selling “A People’s History of the United States,” testified at the trial and wrote the foreword to “Peace Warriors,” which he called “an important contribution to the history of the struggle for peace and justice in our country.”
Zinn writes of the trial, “When the verdict was announced, the friends of the anti-war protestors stood up in the courtroom and sang ‘Amazing Grace.’”
At Ed McGowan’s burial Mass, as a recessional hymn, his friends sang “How Can I Keep From Singing?” for him: a great man of music, letters, faith, community, and history.