Though Beckett didn’t know exactly what Jim Douglass looked like, when he heard the respected activist and author’s name mentioned in a crowd, he walked up with his hand outstretched.
“You don’t know me,” he said to the expectantly polite Douglass, “but you’re my hero.”
The two struck up a friendship. Later that same year Beckett, who teaches in the Learning Services Department at Jacksonville State University, visited Douglass in his office at Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker House that he and his wife, Shelley, run in Birmingham. Inside, Douglass was writing on a borrowed computer with no telephone or email.
For more than a decade, Douglass had been writing what would become his latest book — “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters,” which dissects a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy.
Douglass will discuss the book at length on Tuesday when he speaks at JSU’s Houston Cole Library.
But to view Douglass as just another conspiracy writer would be to diminish a life dedicated to peace and social justice, Beckett said. “At its heart, this book is about how Kennedy was assassinated because he wanted to bring the world toward peace, which is exactly what Jim Douglass has spent his life doing.”
Inspired by Gandhi and Catholic social advocate Dorothy Day, Jim Douglass’ journey as a peace advocate began in a classroom in at the University of Hawaii, where he was teaching a class on the theology of peace. It was 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. had just been killed by a sniper’s rifle.
That was when some of his students essentially said, “Put up, or shut up.”
“Of course, they were a little nicer than that, but the message was the same,” remembered the now 73-year-old Douglass.
Put up he did, joining the student-led Hawaii Resistance, which openly protested the Vietnam War. That allegiance would lead to several acts of civil disobedience, including sitting in front of a convoy of young men in a protest that landed Douglass in jail for two weeks.
“Joining that group changed my life,” Douglass said. Since then, Douglass has maintained a theology of nonviolence that includes the co-founding of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in 1975 to protest the construction of a Trident missile nuclear submarine base on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state.
In a recent phone conversation with the Star, he talked about his new book, and learning to “walk the walk.”
Q: Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?
A: In Rome, Italy. I was in Rome from 1962-65 studying theology, lobbying at the Second Vatican Council and working with Catholic bishops for the Second Vatican.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: My experience of Kennedy’s assassination is different from virtually everyone I talk with because I wasn’t in the United States. I didn’t go through all the deeply emotional experiences of the people who were watching television night and day. I didn’t even have a television. So for me, John Kennedy’s assassination, 40 or 50 years later, is something I’m experiencing freshly and through a lot of lenses that people back then didn’t have access to — namely the secret documents.
Q: “JFK and the Unspeakable” was some 10 years in the writing. When did you decide that this was a subject that you wanted to pursue?
A: It was indirect in that the event that I was really trying to understand in the mid ‘90s was the assassination of Martin Luther King, not John F. Kennedy, because that event did change my life.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, some of my students burned their draft cards and started the Hawaii Resistance. I supported their non-cooperation with the Vietnam War. They believed he had given his life for peace and they felt they had to risk something as well, so they formed this group. That was pretty much the end of my academic career, and it was my baptism into nonviolence as a way of life rather than just discussing it in class.
So in the 1990s, when I began researching Martin Luther King, I started thinking, ‘Well, what about …?’ Then I investigated John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. Since John Kennedy comes first chronology, I wrote his book first.
Q: Given all the JFK assassination conspiracy books out there — some credible, some kooky — how was your approach different?
A: The fact that I was so detached from that subject for some 30 years was actually helpful. I’d been looking into Martin Luther King’s assassination and was utterly ignorant of all the questions surrounding JFK’s assassination. Even though I was working for justice and peace, I made no connection that the president of the United States was killed for doing just that himself. That’s a very strong indication of not only my own denial but many others as well. And that’s part of the cover-up. The cover-up is created, on one hand, by those who are aware of the truth and don’t want the citizens to know about it. The other is innocent citizens’ culpable denial of facts that we’d rather not deal with. And I was undeniably part of that group.
Q: As the book’s title alludes to, why does the assassination of JFK still matter today?
A: Because it’s happening all over again. If Barack Obama were to make the same kinds of decisions that JFK did, he would be in the exact same position. A national security state doesn’t go away, and it certainly doesn’t go away when we don’t deal with it. President Obama was faced with the same kind of duplicity and manipulation over Afghanistan as John F. Kennedy was over Cuba, Vietnam and the Soviet Union when he asked his generals to provide an exit plan out of the Middle East and they refused to give him one.”
Q: You include JFK’s June 10, 1963, speech at American University in its entirety. What’s the significance of that speech in terms of the assassination?
A: It’s the vision for which he was killed. The American University speech is JFK’s call for an end to the Cold War. For the president of the United States, at the height of the Cold War, to call for its end — not by ‘winning’ it — but by negotiating peace with his communist enemy, was shocking to his National Security state. They didn’t consider it tolerable. He wasn’t just talking. He was doing.
Q: What is the difference in talking about nonviolence and actually going out to protest or perform other acts of civil disobedience?
A: It’s the difference between being for something and being with the people. If you’re for a nonviolent world, that’s great. But if you live out that conviction in a world where there are consequences for taking a nonviolent position, you’re going to risk your security — in terms of your job, your family, your freedom and ultimately your life. It would be a double standard if only soldiers put their lives on the line and peacemakers didn’t.
We see that now in Egypt. There are millions of people throughout the Arabic world who are taking stands for change with huge consequences to them — both peaceful and not so peaceful — in that they’re being jailed, having their heads bashed in or even dying for causes they believe in. And that’s why change is occurring, because they’re willing to accept those consequences.
Q: What role does your faith play in being a peace activist?
A: The same role that the ground plays for a house being built. Without faith, I would be nowhere. But that faith, at the same time, means hope for a new world. That’s where I identify with Jesus’ vision and Gandhi’s practice. Your faith isn’t something that’s abstract. It’s embodied in what we can become as a people. That was articulated by Dr. King when he describes the “Beloved Community.” There isn’t anyone who isn’t part of the Beloved Community … including anyone I might identify as my enemy.
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim DouglassWhen: 3-4 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Houston Cole Library, Room 1103A, Jacksonville State University.