Tom Gardner

Tom was born in New Orleans and spent time growing up in Virginia, Florida, Panama, and New Jersey.  He now lives in Amherst, MA.  He moved there to go to the University of Massachusetts and got a doctorate in communication in Sept. ’05.  He helped develop the Media Education Foundation, the nation’s leading producer and distributor of educational videos on media and culture.  He currently teaches communication law, public relations, and journalism at Westfield State College in the communication department.  He’s been married for 17 years and has two children, ages 14 and 28. 

My story starts with growing up in the Navy, which means that for many of my growing up years I wanted to be in the Navy.  I just loved all the uniforms and the ships and moving around from place to place.  I became a swimmer in high school, a competitive swimmer, so I was going to go to the Naval Academy and be on the swim team and then be in the officer corps. I wanted to be in underwater demolition. I wanted to be in with the scuba divers.

That was my dream – to serve in some capacity.  I was quite inspired by John F. Kennedy and the idea of the Peace Corps.  I began to shift around ’64, my senior year in high school, to wanting to work on world problems through diplomacy rather than military approaches, to go into the state department instead. I think it was probably the rhetoric of the Kennedy years about peace that got me thinking that there are better ways to build a stable world than the military solution.

My dad was probably the most unmilitary military person I’ve ever met. He was a small town dentist who happened to be wearing a uniform.  He loved to read, especially history, and he was actually somewhat of a liberal, especially for someone who was raised in western Kentucky.  My mom was in a less educated, poor family and she had worked for him as a dental assistant.  Her dad died when she was a child and he was probably a Klan sympathizer. I think the only way to describe the two different strands of my family is that my father’s father, when the Klan tried to organize in the 20’s or so, he and the judge and the sheriff rounded up a couple of these guys and told them if they came back into town they would ride them out of town on a rail. On my mother’s side, when the Klan rallied, she and her sister went out and sang at the rally.  On the one hand, they didn’t know what they were singing about.  On the other hand, their parents didn’t tell them not to. The last family reunion I went to I probed a bit and nobody really knew or wanted to talk about it.

The navy was desegregated by the late ‘50’s so people swam in the same pools, but the Florida town we were in was still segregated. So I knew some of the black kids.  We would be able to swim together, yes, but they then got on a different bus and drove off to a different school.  This always seemed unfair to me.  It was true in high school as well. Here’s an example of what I mean.  A friend and I wanted to go sit in the balcony when we went to the movie theater in town since that is where we usually sat at the navy base theater.  We got our tickets and went around to the balcony section, but of course at that time the balcony area was for ‘colored only’ so the sheriff thought we were staging a civil rights action.  In reality we were just unaware little kids that didn’t know any better. That was unconsciously my first civil rights act.

We then moved to New Jersey and I went to a school, which was one third black.  I found myself more drawn to the black kids than the white because they seemed more southern.  They were sort of interested in me because I was the only southerner in my school. Those were the years when I lost my southern accent. It was the time when all the things were going on in the south and my accent was really a source of both shame and insecurity. But I made black friends and some of my white friends wouldn’t come to my parties because I invited my black friends.  I learned that racism isn’t just a southern phenomenon.

I went to the University of Virginia in 1964.  I decided not to go to the Naval Academy because I got a letter from the swimming coach there that looked like it was written by a fourth grader. I was leaning towards a diplomatic career, which I would commence after spending two years in the Peace Corps. There were a lot of people in the state department who came from the University of Virginia. It was a good plan, but a funny thing happened on the way to the state department and it was called the War in Vietnam.

Soon after I got to the University of Virginia, I got involved in a civil rights organization that was formed by students and I got exposed to different ideas about Vietnam. At first I argued against taking a position against the war. I was one of the new civil rights liberals who claimed we couldn’t really stand against a war yet because it might hurt the fight for civil rights.  I would tell my fellow students that we have to stop the communist threat.  I was a successful debater in high school so I thought I made some pretty good arguments.  I expected to win these debates, but I was losing some arguments. That bothered me.  I went to the library and got every book on Vietnam they had.  I came to realize that the reason I was losing the debates was because I was on the wrong side. In fact, US policy couldn’t be worse. 

I think for a lot of us in our generation we really began to believe in these ideals: that America was a beacon of freedom; that our vision of being an American inspired a lot of us to be involved citizens and activists.  Kennedy certainly contributed to this. But what was happening with Vietnam was that a lot of us were torn between our country’s supposed support for democracy there and the fact that Eisenhower, in his book, Mandate for Change, said Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote had elections been held in 1956. The U.S. instead cancelled the elections and installed its own dictator in the South.  Before that, the U.S. had supported the French who colonized Vietnam. France had said they would support independence after World War II, but instead, with U.S. support, put one dictator in after another.  We were undermining democracy, not defending it, through our own imperialistic ambitions. I think that the contrast between the ideals that we were taught – the words – and the reality that we learned as we found out more about what was really happening in foreign policy is what drove a lot of our activism and eventually for many a sort of militancy.  People were really pissed off; we had been lied to by the older generation.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, people were being burned out of their homes for trying to register to vote.  We took up a collection on campus at U.Va. and sent down a van of supplies.  By the spring of ’65 I was active enough that I went down to the march from Selma to Montgomery. That was a turning point for me.  A group of us, black and white college students, formed an organization to work in southern Virginia, called the Virginia Students Civil Rights Committee (VSCRC). John Lewis came up to speak at our conference.  He had just been beaten in Selma and he still had a bandage on his head. I remember thinking that if he could do that, certainly I could get on the train and go down to Montgomery.

Through VSCRC I got in touch with black and white southerners from all around the south. We formed the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), which was an outgrowth of white southern students working with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). By this time I was also doing teach-ins on Vietnam so by the end of my freshman year I was pretty active. I only passed calculus that semester because my calculus teacher was also on the train going to Montgomery.  I had skipped the final exam because I was protesting during it.

My mom was not happy with any of these developments and I’m sure she was certainly pressuring my father to do something about it. He was more quietly supportive, but he wanted me to take care of my college education.  I sent out a survey to all the college faculty about issues affecting freedom and the dean of students called my father and told him that this is the kind of thing your son’s doing.  My dad made the obligatory call saying, “You have to stop doing all this stuff or we’re cutting the money off.” I told him I felt I was doing the right thing, and if he disagreed then he would just have to decide what to do about the money.  I called his bluff and he didn’t cut me off.  

I was a full time activist during my second year. I was able to take some courses that I could do more easily than calculus so I could do a little better.  During the spring semester before I dropped out, I took an international relations course and instead of answering any of the questions on the final I wrote this scathing attack on the professor’s monolithic view of the communist threat in Vietnam. He gave me an F, which I later chose to write about in my application to the Kennedy School at Harvard.  I believe that F helped me get my acceptance.  I decided to drop out of Virginia in ’66 and I joined the civil rights movement organization in Southside Virginia full time. Several people had dropped out and were working full time in different counties in voter registration.  The draft of course was in full swing by this point, so dropping out of school and losing my safety net meant facing off against the selective service in a very real way.  That was the first practical decision I ever made  – whether I would stay in school just to avoid the draft or do what I really believed I needed to be doing.

I knew if I got drafted I would refuse. I knew that meant either prison or Canada and I would not be able to do the work I wanted to do. It was a combination of a calculated risk, a moral choice and an adolescent rebellion all mixed together. The adolescent rebellion part was, “Damn it! I’m not going to let these old bastards tell me what to do.” The moral choice was one of simply wanting to do the right thing. The practical aspect was really beginning to look at the people like a friend of mine, David Nolan, who actually had dropped out.  He had managed to elude the draft somehow. There were others out there who were trying to deal with this. It was not in any way me making a final choice.  It was deciding that for now I was not going to let them tell me what to do. I didn’t know what I would do if push came to shove.

My dad was a pretty laid back guy. He didn’t try a lot after that first phone call to tell me what to do. He was disappointed I was dropping out of school, but he also said since I wasn’t doing a good job of it maybe it was good to drop it and then get back in school soon. In ’65 when I was doing all that reading about the war we had a bunch of conversations about what the war was about.  I sent him all the titles of the books I read. He read a lot of the books and he became opposed to the war.  He was commander of the Fourth Dental Company at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which was a major staging base for the 2nd Division of the Marines. So occasionally they would get a couple of younger officers together and do a little briefing and tell them about the history of Vietnam and why we were there, and then my dad would step up and say, “I think your history is pretty good up until 1948, but after that there are just a few things I want to take issue with you about.” He would then give the Bernard Fall[1] version of the war’s history. He had definitely come around.

My mom didn’t really get any of this. She would just worry and give me clothes when I came home and say, “Now don’t go giving them all to those people.”  She was worried for my safely.  She was upset that I had black friends when I was in high school. My falling out with her happened about then, about my senior year in high school. There were issues where I just couldn’t go home, it was too contentious.

When I dropped out of school, I got some financial support for the civil rights work I was doing from the student religious liberal program of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. I had started to convert to Unitarianism while I was in Charlottesville.  The summer I joined VSCRC staff, we were all getting about $8-12 dollars per week for living expenses, but since I was also being sponsored by the Unitarian Church I had 25 dollars a week, which, of course, I put into the general pool.

Back when they tried to desegregate Virginia’s schools, the state government launched a massive effort where they closed the public schools and set up private schools for whites while black students were out of luck without schools.  Freedom schools were set up in progressive liberal northern areas of the state.  A lot of people came down from the North to teach.  There was a young man in Prince Edward County, next to Charlotte County whose case I learned about because I knew about draft counseling. His name was Charles Nunnally. He was eligible for the draft even though he was still in high school because the schools had just re-opened. He was older than he would normally be so the draft board said, “Oh, you don’t qualify for a student deferment any more.  You’re passed 19.”  He was working full time.  He was the sole supporter of his family.  His father was older and disabled and he had younger siblings.  He was in school and the only reason he was not attending school was because the state had closed them.  I thought this was ridiculous so I actually contacted Senator Ted Kennedy’s office and to his credit they responded. I wasn’t in his constituency, but because he’d gone to the University of Virginia’s Law School, I thought I could make a connection with him.  He called up Hershey (head of Selective Service) and said something to the effect of, ”This is a ridiculous case. Do I have to bring this up in a hearing or can we take care of this?” Nunnally got his deferment.

This situation was symptomatic of what was wrong with the draft.  Almost all draft boards were all white and they were looking for cannon fodder. If they had to choose between sending the mill owner’s son who they went hunting and fishing with or sending the black kid, guess who they would send. The statistics would show up and these facts were not accidental.

After working in the civil rights group I joined the staff of the National Student Association’s (NSA) Southern Students Civil Rights Project. Although I was being paid by NSA I was working about as much for the Southern Student Organizing Committee. I was based in Atlanta. I had been doing some research regarding racism in the selective service system.  SNCC people knew I was doing this kind of work and that I wanted to do some writing about this.  They got a call from a guy who was challenging his induction order on the basis of his race and they asked me if I could go help him. I talked to him on the phone.  He was interested in things like how another black man, Rob Williams, had gotten out of the country and how to form a legal challenge against the draft system. So I went up to Greensboro where he was going to be tried and I got in touch with the law center on constitutional rights.  They had too many cases so they couldn’t do anything for him. Instead I worked with them to discover what motions could be filed to delay the trial.

 I started doing research on the draft board. I went to the court and wrote motions and gave them to him so he could file these motions and while I was doing that, two other draft cases came up.  One concerned this young guy from Ramseur, North Carolina who’d had no contact with the anti-draft movement and didn’t explain why he didn’t want to go to the draft. I talked to him and his father during one of the breaks and his dad was kind of the anti-federal revenuer you see in the mountains who thought: what right do the feds have to take my son and have him go halfway around the world and kill people? I asked the young man how he was thinking and he said, “I took a course at Appalachian State and I read a book by Albert Camus and it got me to thinking.”  As for me I kept sitting when the judged entered the courtroom.  When the clerk said, “Will you rise?” I said, “No.” They immediately took a break and the bailiff came over to me and asked me what I was doing there.  I explained my role and said I’d be back for the afternoon session. He told me to stay right there.  He got my name and he came back right before the lunch period ended.  The judge read out an order that said I was guilty of disrupting the order and decorum of the court and obstructing justice and sentenced me to 30 days in jail for criminal contempt.


It was shocking and I felt pretty stupid. I was in the movement and I was used to people being arrested, but usually you do it for the publicity and you’re not alone and I was here alone in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was taken to the county jail.  It was while I was in jail that I made my decision that I would do what it took to avoid going to prison for five years.   I was in a pretty benign situation, with a bunch of bootleggers, mountain guys from South Carolina, but I heard lots of prison stories.  Being confined is the best teacher. Those bars close behind you and you know you can’t go anywhere and that’s pretty powerful. My sense was I was a good organizer. I was a good writer and a good speaker. To be languishing in prison for five years while the war was going on and people were being slaughtered and killed and the civil rights movement was going on, it just felt like a waste.  I definitely had doubts about how hard it would be for me to maintain my sanity in prison. I understood the position and I respected the people who chose jail.  I also could see that you had to be fully convinced that that was the right thing to do to go to prison. If you weren’t fully committed, it’d be really hard not to have your freedom. My decision may also have been influenced by the fact that three other people were up on draft charges, two others were sentenced that day and nobody, except their families, seemed to notice. I talked to one of them and I later reported his arrest to a group that put out a list of draft resisters in prison so people could write them letters. I sent his name in and years later I got a letter from him thanking me because he’d gotten all these letters.

I felt like I needed to be out. The other thing that happened was there were only three books I could get in there past the censors: the Bible, the Last Temptation of Christ by Kazantzakis – they thought it was a good Christian book – and the House Armed Services Committee hearings. This is where I learned about channeling. The testimony verified that they were using the draft to channel people into occupations that business leaders thought were important. Being in an occupation vital to national security gave you a deferment from the draft so it was channeling civilian jobs.  For the southern conservative anti-government mentality this is a fabulous issue. Even my conservative uncle was going to see that. So I wanted to get out there and organize about this.

A friend from AFSC got the judge to let me back into the courtroom to apologize. My dilemma was how to word the apology. The judge asked me if I knew I would be going to jail for remaining seated and I didn’t, so I didn’t realize the consequences. The judge then asked if I was aware of the consequences and I said, “No, sir. I wasn’t aware that in this country… “ Before I get going, my friend yanked me down and said, “What I think he meant to say was no he wasn’t, and, of course, the judge understood what was going on and basically said, “Okay, that’s good enough for me.”  He let me out right before Christmas. 


Before being released I had been on a hunger strike that I had started because of the conditions in the jail.  It was incredibly cramped.  Bars closed us in so tightly that all we could do for exercise was push-ups. Then they brought in a chaplain and he preached to the sinners. I preached back to him about who the real sinners were in this society. One of my cellmates said, “You sure are good with words.” So I ended up helping them write  letters to their girlfriends apologizing for getting arrested.


When I got out of jail and returned home, my father arranged for me to have a conversation with a Navy chaplain.  He told me God wanted me to go to Vietnam and kill for my country. I wasn’t convinced.  My mom got upset and left in the first five minutes, but my dad sat in on it.


My next work was with some people organizing “peace tours”.  We organized such a tour in Florida.   Three of us would go around to schools and talk to them about Vietnam and the myth of Chinese aggression and U.S. foreign policy.  We’d spend two or three days at each campus.  We’d show films. We’d provide draft counseling.  We’d speak to classes and help organize any marches that might take place.  In the middle of all of this I had a meeting with the NSA vice-president.  He said I had to stop all of the anti-war, anti-draft activity.   He told me it was not what we were supposed to be doing. He said if we persisted we would lose our occupational deferments. This was quite clearly a way that they used these occupational deferments to silence people. They gave occupational deferments to the officers of the NSA, because the Association was working as a front for the Central Intelligence Agency. How much this guy knew I don’t know.


I left the NSA staff. I was asked to stay on a little bit longer by some guys who wanted some information about who was working directly with the CIA. My only contact with NSA’s questionable international work was when they wanted me to talk with some Bolivian student leaders who were touring the US. They would bring these guys in, these leftists and they would show them around to the civil rights movement, enabling the NSA staff to identify and flush out the leftists. As we now know, leftist students were targeted for murder and disappearance by the repressive regimes the US was supporting. The SNCC people were suspicious of the NSA, so I didn’t set up the meeting. I didn’t announce a public resignation for a while because Jack Minnis of SNCC asked me to try to find out more about the CIA connection. Another guy on staff and I were going to announce our resignations together and publicly condemn the NSA/CIA connection.  Instead while I was still down in Florida I read a news column where my supposed compatriot resigned and did an interview with Drew Pearson.  He got to publicly condemn the NSA, so I just sent in my resignation.


By this point, I’d decided that I would try the CO route. When I was still on the NSA staff I’d gone to a non-cooperators conference in New York, hosted by long-time pacifist leader A.J. Muste.[2]  All these people who were very inspiring were taking this morally pure position and I signed on to the first “We Won’t Go” statement, which said we would refuse any cooperation with the Selective Service System. I wrote a letter to my draft board saying I would not cooperate in any way. I held on to it for a few weeks before walking to the mailbox and dropping it in. When I dropped that letter in the mail I continued to have second thoughts about whether I would do non-cooperation.

When I finally got my letter to report for a physical I knew that a bunch of people were doing all kinds of things to get out – not signing the loyalty oath, pricking their finger and dropping blood in their urine. I didn’t do any of these things. I passed the physical and I was supposed to report for induction on December 14th of’67 which was right when  I was in jail on the contempt citation, so I wrote to my draft board and said I’m sorry, I can’t report for induction because I’m in jail for helping someone refuse the draft thinking, okay, maybe that will work. They just gave me a new letter. So then I filled for CO. I was denied by the local Board and then later given the CO status by the Kentucky Appeals Board. One of the draft board guys told my dad, “We’ve never seen anyone like him.  We don’t know what to do with him.” My draft board was in Kentucky. When you move around with the navy you have to put a permanent address. I actually didn’t have a hearing; they did it with the documents that were sent up. My uncle on my mom’s side was a southern Baptist preacher. Both of his sons were going into the Air Force, and he wrote me a letter after my physical basically praising my thinking and my positions. It was quite touching.

My dad was generally supportive of my applying for CO; he certainly thought it was better than prison. He was worried about what happened to people who went to fight. My dad was always saying, “You know, people think military people are for the war but many military people are those most against the war. We are the ones who have to fight it, not those politicians.

I went to a meeting in ’67 in Czechoslovakia with the North Vietnamese and members of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, about two dozen Vietnamese and 30 or so civil rights and anti-war activists from the U.S. My dad helped finance the trip, accepting my argument that we can’t end a war if we don’t listen to the other side and our government’s not doing that. Months later, he got called in by the Commanding Officer at the Albany, Ga. Naval Air Station, where he was stationed, and told that his son was either a communist or a comm.-symp (communist sympathizer). What evidence did they use? He said my girlfriend’s parents were communistic. My friend, who was on the peace tour with us, had lived in China as a child when her father taught there, and she wasn’t actually my girlfriend. Then they said that the communist party paid for my trip, and my dad said, “Of course, the communist party didn’t pay for his trip, I did.” The C.O. just closed the folder and said, “That’ll be all.” My dad was a prosthetics specialist and they desperately needed them in the navy, so they weren’t going to kick him out.

I decided to go back to the University of Virginia and applied for a student deferment. My first semester there I was working with some students to start a Virginia Research Institute studying poverty.  For my alternative service I went to the draft board and said there is this local non-profit organization, and billed it as the most benign alternative service project possible, so I got it accepted and I got a letter sent to the president of the Virginia Research Institute. Really it enabled me to keep organizing. The FBI kept following me around. When I got my files later, I learned that they looked at my tax returns to see if they could find something illegal and use that to turn me into an informer. They also asked my draft board for my c.o. application, but those good folks on my draft board refused to give it to them.

Basically, I was able to negotiate my way around the draft so I could continue to do what I loved to do. I went back to college not because of the draft, but because I really felt like it was something I wanted to do. I really wanted to learn and understand more about the way the world and society worked in order to change it, and I decided to do it there because it had good professors. Then I got my alternative service doing exactly what I wanted to do and kept on organizing.

I recently reread a chapter I wrote in a book called We Won’t Go edited by Alice Lynd (Beacon Press, 1968). The chapter was called “Manpower Unchannelled.” It was basically describing my experience with the draft and the whole channeling policy I read about when I was in jail.  It really struck me that we were just 18-22 then, and I look at my students today. The instant maturity you’re expected to acquire when you turn 18 is astounding. It was then; it is now. I was impressed at my ability to sort out these philosophical questions about whether doing something which is moral but may be less effective is, in fact, the morally correct action if it’s less effective when people are dying. That was a big leap for me because I was so impressed with the moralistic absolutist perfection. It was probably a good thing I was sent to jail for contempt. I should thank the judge. After a few more arrests I became fairly certain that one more arrest was not necessary. I remember taking a position during a sit-in at U.Va. to protest the war and racism that we had had enough of going to jail; we came in and made our point, let’s march out of here victorious. And that is what we did.

I am still very much anti-war. It’s still a very deep emotional well. I read these news stories today about a 23-year-old sergeant, with a three year old, killed in Iraq. These guys are like many of my students. They are from a working-class background, working through school, maybe signing up with the National Guard or military to get help financing their education. They had beautiful futures ahead of them. The administration has tried to suppress the casualty stories in the very compliant national media, but when these local guys come home in coffins, there is no way to suppress the local news stories. It is such a tragedy, every one of them. I had friends who went to Vietnam and died, kids I knew from high school and guys I got to know lifeguarding on the Marine base. It was tragic then, too.

Now I see teaching as a really important part of the work of creating alternative ways of thinking. I see my work with the Men’s Resource Center for Change in trying to redefine masculinity away from the cultural norms of violence and domination as part of that work. Media literacy is an important part of that, but none of it’s enough. Many of us who went through the movements and the wars of the sixties and seventies are feeling like we haven’t done enough. We want to connect with that energy and passion and feeling of success we had then. This is not how it was supposed to turn out. The frat boys who threw snowballs or worse at us back in the 60s, or just ignored politics and partied through school, were not supposed to run the country when we all grew up. We were going to change everything, and yet look how we repeat the worse kinds of tragedies. Trying to understand this is what got me back to finish my degree at U.Va., and later to get a master’s in journalism at Georgia, and a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard and then a doctorate at UMASS. I wanted to learn more about the press and public opinion and how to stop our spiral to disaster. I just hope our generation will hook up with the younger generation and stay engaged in trying to change things. We really have no other choice, do we?


[1] Bernard B. Fall was a scholar, historian, writer, and humanitarian whose life’s work was the study of the people and country of Vietnam. At the time of his death in 1967 he was one of this country’s leading authorities on Vietnam. His was the first, most insightful and powerful voice warning Americans that the war in Vietnam was an unwinnable war. His warnings were ignored.


[2] . .J. Muste was a pacifist, anti-war activist and a leader of the labor and civil rights movements whose personal integrity won him a rare universal respect. In 1939, when war clouds over Europe became darker by the hour, Time magazine called Abraham Johannes Muste “the Number One U.S. Pacifist.” The designation was certainly appropriate and he wore the label proudly. From World War I until his death in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, Muste stood out in the struggle against war and social injustice in the United States.