Amedio "Al" Armenti
69 Bayberry Road
Interviewed September 10, 2001
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Al Armenti has been a long-time activist and vocal opponent, particularly in the anti-war movement, and that stems from his own personal involvement in World War II.
I served from 1943 to 1946. I was a medic for the surgical technician attached to a supply battalion, and we provided the supplies for the Third Army as we moved up into Germany. I was serving with my detachment primarily with Negroes. At that time the Army was segregated and there were three companies of Negro GIs who were doing most of the hard labor. At that point although I was a long time anti-war advocate even in my teens, nevertheless this brought home to me how bad war is and how insane war is and particularly the effect it had on blacks. Following the war I got a degree in philosophy and went to University of Michigan where I got a Ph.D. in philosophy. Philosophy also gave support to the feelings I already had engendered in me both through my early years and through my war experience.
(2:49) While I was at the University of Michigan, I got involved with an activist group there who were working on affordable housing for low income families. The federal government had put up a village called Willow Run Village to house war workers who were working in the Ford plant manufacturing B24s. They had brought in thousands of workers from Tennessee, Kentucky, and surrounding areas to house in this Willow Run Village. When the war ended, the federal government then turned it over to developers and the Willow Run housing group that I joined sought to take a portion of that property and provide low income housing. We were directed primarily to low income black families that were living in a segregated part of the Willow Run Village. We were quite successful. By 1958 or '59 we had probably one of the first major federally supported affordable housing programs. So I was well on my way to being very heavily involved in social activism.
(4:35) By 1960 I moved into Concord with my family. I had four children. I was working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Fortunately the laboratory was one of those places that allowed its workers to use some of its time for working on socially worthwhile activity. So in the early ‘60s I was able to become very active in the civil rights movement.
At that time in Concord a Fair Practices Committee had been set up by Marcia Stern then Marcia Plummer and Bob Felsnesser and a number of the liberal concerned people of Concord. The committee had the directive of trying to break down barriers of discrimination and promote tolerance and human rights. The Concord committee was one of some 30 or 40 committees that had sprung up in the early ‘60s all around the Boston area and they were headed by an umbrella organization called the Federation for Fair Housing and Equal Rights. The Federation had its headquarters in Boston, and I became a delegate to the Federation from the Concord Fair Practices Committee. I had also been chairman of the committee and we worked in Concord to try to break down some of the housing barriers in Concord.
The Federation through its legislative arm had helped create a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination so that we had a venue for bringing cases in violation of discrimination laws. Our committee would conduct test cases with blacks and whites determining how much discrimination in Concord and helping blacks, but at that time called Negroes, to get housing. In the early ‘60s there were only a couple of families, maybe only one black family and the barriers against a black family were very high. The Federation had established a clearinghouse in Roxbury to help black families seek housing in the suburbs. All the committees under the various names of Human Rights Committee, Social Justice Committee in Brookline, Newton, Lexington, and a number of other communities, were under the Federation and independently worked together. There was a communication network that at one point was extremely high powered. Whenever legislation came up, special legislation initiated by the Federation, telephone calls would go out to all the committees in the surrounding Boston area and the legislators would be deluged with phone calls and mailings. As a result of this activity, a number of worthwhile pieces of civil rights legislation went through. The racial imbalance bill was passed as a result of the support of these committees. As a result of that bill, there was a movement to try to assist blacks to move out of Roxbury and in the ghetto areas into the suburbs. One of the projects that came out of that was the Metco project, the Metropolitan Education Program, which would allow minority families to have their children enter into the suburban schools. The program was proposed by Leon Trilling who was then president of the Brookline committee and he made the proposal at a very dramatic meeting at Freedom House where we would meet in Roxbury. It was immediately taken up by the delegates of the Federation. The Metco program was initiated in 1965.
Before that the Concord committee in the ‘60s also supported the movement that was underway across the country headed by Martin Luther King. We conducted a silent march down through Concord back in 1965 to coincide with the Selma march. A number of the ministers of the various churches participated in that. On the most prominent was Arthur Jellis of the First Parish Unitarian Church who was very much in the forefront of civil rights activities. The Concord Fair Practices Committee immediately got on board with the Metco movement. As a member of the committee, myself and a few other members of our committee went to our superintendent of schools, who was then Superintendent Ireland. At this point almost all the superintendents all across the area had already accepted the idea of having children from the inner city entered into their schools. The School Committee in Concord did not immediately give its approval. It felt the tensions were very high. This was a period in which there was considerable hostility from whites against the blacks. Although Concord was a fairly liberal town, there were still major concerns over blacks coming into the town and our committee found there was discrimination in housing. It was difficult for blacks to move into Concord.
(12:54) On the other hand we also found the blacks in Roxbury were fearful of moving into a town like Concord because they were concerned about the hostility and harassment against their children. So our committee approached the superintendent, and he said he would approve but we would have go before the Concord School Committee. At that time the chair of the school committee was Oggie Butman. We approached the committee and Leon Trilling was invited out to speak to them on behalf of the Metco program. He gave a very eloquent speech to the committee. It was obvious the committee was favorable to the idea but still because of the racial tensions the committee felt it was not something they could approve themselves, that there would have to be a public hearing.
So that year, 1966, the School Committee decided to have a public hearing and word went out to the town. The Fair Practices Committee spearheaded a drive to get as many of its supporters to the meeting as it possibly could. The meeting was held in the Concord High School. It was an overflowing meeting. From what I read the attendance was the largest the School Committee had ever had in its total history. The air was quite tense. The question that was before the School Committee was whether to accept 25 school children from Roxbury into the lower grades. The committee under Oggie Butman's chair had made up an agenda and the rules were that the first half of the meeting would be raising questions and the second half of the meeting would be for comments.
(18:13) As representative of the Fair Practices Committee, I made a presentation for the committee and over the course of the next hour or so I became astonished at some of the concerns that came out of the meeting. Concord being a highly educated community had representatives in the audience from every academic phase in life including economists, psychologists, sociologists and any number of them seemed to have all kinds of concerns about what would happen if we brought the children into Concord. They were concerned about children from Roxbury bringing disease into Concord, that the possibility that the children would be psychologically affected because they would have to get up early in the morning and have to get on the bus. There was the concern that they would not be able to go back into their communities with their friends and associate with their friends because they were coming to this elitist community. It went on and one. There were even questions whether this was actually going to cost money even though the state under the legislation that passed for Metco would provide money to support the program. Nevertheless there were those who had calculated what the cost might be in terms of teacher hour and occupation in the classroom. Some of the calculations were really quite complex as far as determining whether 25 black children coming into Concord would be a liability or not.
At one point in the proceedings Dr. Robert Coles stood up. He had come late into the meeting and didn't realize what the rules were but he spoke up at the time when he really wasn't supposed to. He was outraged. At this point Dr. Coles was not well known. He had written his book on children in the South and he had spent five years in the South working with black children, so he was quite an expert on discrimination. He stood up and said, and I'm paraphrasing obviously, these were remarks that he had never heard so much in the way of discriminatory remarks. Even when he was in the south he had never heard so many things. He was quite outraged by it.
But the upshot of the meeting, that followed the meeting, they didn't make a decision at that time, but they did approve Metco and since then Metco has been quite successful in Concord. There have been difficulties now and then but the program metropolitan wide has been very successful. The level of the students coming through the program is very high. The percentage that went on to college is very high. So despite some setbacks it has been a very successful program. This is the 35th year of the program.
The Fair Practices Committee and all the committees have pretty much dissolved. The ‘60s and the civil rights movement had changed the tone of the movement considerably. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then the death of Martin Luther King, many of these barriers came down.
Despite this, Concord at this date in 2001 still has a very small number of black families, I don't think there are more than 7 or 8 black families living in Concord. The one family that was here when I came was Peggy & Dick Evans. It was not unusual that they were living in Concord since Dick Evans had grown up in a white community in Lexington so he was already pretty much acclimated to the white community. He had none of the fears that the blacks in Roxbury had. Peggy worked in the Concord school system as a guidance counselor for a number of years.
The other members of the School committee at the time of the vote for Metco was Barbara Anthony, David Emerson, Bob Jacobs, and Michelle Lombardo. They accepted the 25 students. That was I think a major accomplishment of the Federation and for the committees that participated. It has grown to be quite a successful project.
(22:42) During that same period after the march in Selma, the nation was pretty much divided between whites and blacks as to the movement. The whole South was changing considerably. Blacks were going to be allowed into hotels, drink out of the same fountains, go to the same bathrooms, go to restaurants, all those changes came about in a rather rapid fashion beginning with the ‘60s and on up into the ‘70s. Here in Massachusetts we still had a long way to go. In fact there were some who felt the racial hostility was greater in the North than it was in the South.
It was very tense going in and meeting with the residents in Roxbury. Those of us in the suburbs even though we were well-educated people nevertheless we didn't even have the language for discussing things. It was not clear whether you called them Negroes or colored. NAACP used colored in its title, but at that time, we were even concerned about inviting blacks from the inner city because we didn't know what the social protocols were to meet with them and how we would talk with them. This despite the fact that there were some extraordinary well-educated blacks in the inner city who were leaders there, such as Ruth Babson, Paul Parks, Tom Brown, Tom Atkins, Mel King who later became quite an important leader in his own right.
So we had difficulties and the white communities were trying all kinds of programs that they thought would help break down the barriers. We would have groups of people go into Roxbury to help fix up the playgrounds, work on houses, clean up yards and things of this type. There was an employment education center that was started. White educated teachers from college levels would go in and try to teach courses on a volunteer basis. We had one episode in Concord which looking back now was amusing. I had arranged with Mel King to have a group of Concord people go into Roxbury on an evening to meet with residents of Roxbury to have a simple social exchange. We had chartered a bus and we had about 20 of us on the bus. We went in and it was dark and of course people at that time were also fearful of being in Roxbury at night and we pulled up to the education center that Mel King had. We were able to get inside but nobody was there. We sat there and we waited and one of the staff members came around and was trying to find out what we were doing there. I told him we were there to meet with Mel King and eventually word got through to Mel and he did show up but he wasn't apologetic. That was what the interesting thing was. At that point he sort of resented what we were doing. I don't know if he thought we were patronizing him or whether he was trying to cover up his embarrassment maybe of making the arrangements and then having forgotten it. It was a time when the blacks couldn't trust whites from the suburbs. So it very well may have been at that time Mel King just thought yea, sure they're going to come into Roxbury but it will never come off. After that the situation improved considerably as far as our interaction was concerned.
But the situation was still very difficult. The housing situation was terrible. The Federation was trying all through the ‘60s to reach the blacks from different points of view. Education, housing and employment were a major concern. Two of us, Marty Gilpin who was connected with a social action center in Roxbury who was white, got together and came up with a plan to try to improve the travel from Roxbury out to where the jobs were on Route 128. We met with a lot of personnel people at the Route 128 plants. At that time it was called the electronic highway and it was the beginning of the boom period for high tech in our area. All of the high tech companies like Itech and EG&G were out on Route 128 or west of 128, even Route 495 was not developed at that point. So we met with personnel departments and they were very, very pleasant and we tried to come up with a plan that would provide a means for the inner city residents to get out to 128 where the jobs were because there were no jobs in Roxbury or Boston. They were very much in favor of the program but the more we talked with them, we found it was not going to work because there were too many concerns about their underwriting a charter bus service. Marty and I then realized that we couldn't go that route although we continued to try.
(31:40) Then in 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated and there was a wave of emotional tension that developed in the civil rights movement and human rights. The Jewish community was very supportive of all these efforts. In fact they played a very critical role in all the civil rights work that had been done in Boston. Many of the Jewish lawyers were helping out on a voluntary basis. But, then there was outrage and anger. A meeting was held in Boston at which there were frustrated members of all these various committees from the suburbs and the human rights committees. Marty Gilpin and I gave a short presentation on what we had been working on called "the employment express". That was an attempt to try to get an employment transportation system. They immediately took it up and decided this was something very tangible, very well defined, that we could do. The next thing there was a march on the MBTA. The MBTA board was confronted by very angry human rights people who proposed that a bus route be established between Roxbury and Route 128. Within a very short time they put it in place. My understanding is that it is still operating today. It was a bus line that went from Roxbury center out to Route 128 Waltham area to where they could presumably get transportation to their jobs. So that was an attempt to try to do something in this very complex cultural situation.
By 1970 we were already very heavily into the Vietnam War. I, along with some of the other human rights activists, felt very strongly from the beginning this was wrong. We had many, many meetings and discussed what could be done. There were demonstrations and I was part of every one. I was just one of many who demonstrated. We were a small group but it was a very earnest, dedicated group, a cadre of people, a core group in constant touch with each other all over the Boston area. When the word got out, people would just show up with signs made, sticks or whatever they could make and we would march in protest.
In 1971 there was a movement over Memorial Day weekend by the Vietnam veterans to protest the war. A group of them came into Concord led by John Kerry who is now Senator John Kerry. They organized a march from Concord to Bunker Hill which was the reverse march the British took in 1775. It started here in Concord and a number of Concordians, the core group of liberals, showed up at the Minuteman Park where they had camped for the night and provided breakfast for them, and then marched with them to Lexington. They took the battle road to Lexington. It was not a very large group of veterans, maybe 50 or 60. But as we walked along Lexington Road people would come out and join us. By the time we got into Lexington and on Lexington Green, there were a considerable number of supporters, something over 300.
My son Jimmy who was 17 or 18 at the time was with me. My concern of course was that he might be drafted. Many people were thinking maybe we should send our kids to Canada to avoid the draft as a conscientious objector. There were so many people in this area who were against the war. But we all met thinking it was just a meeting with the veterans on the green. There was a platform set up with microphones and speeches were to be given. The veterans were in their Army fatigues and uniforms. Within a very short time when we met on the Green, word got out that the Lexington selectmen were opposed to having it on the Green on the grounds that this was a special sanctified location that was not a place for protests, that it was a place to be honored for the men who fought at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. They ordered the veterans to leave. Well, the veterans decided they were not going to leave. All through the afternoon and into the evening there was sessions going on between the Selectmen and representatives of the veterans while those of us who had come were not prepared to stay for an overnight vigil. We thought it was just going to be in support of the veterans. As evening came on it started getting cold despite it was May. Residents in the Lexington area began bringing out blankets for their family members, and as the evening wore on it got more tense. Announcements were made from the platform by the veterans telling us the progress that was being made trying to persuade selectmen to say it was okay.
(41:29) By the end of the evening no progress had been made. The Selectmen had insisted they leave the Green and the veterans insisting they were not going to leave the Green, and so the Selectmen issued an order to the police ordering them to arrest those who were on the Green on charges of violating a town ordinance. This went on to about 2:00 in the morning. By that time the Lexington police dressed in white with helmets and visors had come in school busses, maybe a half dozen busses, marched us on the busses to take us to jail which turned out to be a Department of Public Works warehouse. No one was reluctant to go. Some were left behind and complained bitterly to the police that they wanted to go as well. So this was quite a supportive group of the veterans. Many of the people who were there were professionals, heads of their companies, heads of major projects. I was there with my group leader from MIT Lincoln Lab, and other members of the group leaders and felt very strongly that the veterans should be honored for what they were doing. So we spent the night at the DPW warehouse lying on the floor. The next morning, Sunday morning, we were taken by bus for a special session of the court in Concord and we were marched into court. I think it was Judge Forte as I recall. It was a simple procedure of marching up and we declared that we had violated the law and it was a misdemeanor. We were represented by volunteer lawyers from Lexington. We pleaded "nolo contendere" and each was charged $5.00. None of us felt we were criminal in any sense of the word and we didn't think it was a humorous occasion but we thought it was ridiculous. It was nonsense. While we were on the Green, we discussed this and we just could not believe that a board of selectmen, all of them reasonably intelligent people, would go to the lengths they went to. In some ways it compares to what went on in Concord with Metco. The supporters of Metco could not believe that it would create such a disturbance, that there would be so much disagreement and so much controversy over an issue that we thought of as being so reasonable. And this was a time when we had tuition students coming from outside Concord. It wasn't that it was an extraordinary occasion. At the time this was on the verge of the bussing issues that were having real high tensions and disturbances in Boston. I guess they came a little later than this. Even there what struck us is the opposition to the idea of bussing children into the school, and if you looked across the country, a large fraction of the students across the country especially in the rural areas were bussed. We even had students being bussed into Concord to go to the Catholic schools.
(46:58) In any case the idea of our being arrested and locked up for a night just appeared totally ridiculous to us. Of course it proved in some ways to be a stimulus for the anti-Vietnam movement. There is a video here 30 years later recording that event. I was called by one of the organizers of a project called the Lexington Oral History Project to commemorate the march and the sit-on on the Green. They asked us to just speak about our experience on the Green and we were videotaped individually. Then all of this has been put together and it is now part of an archive in Lexington. I don't know how many people were interviewed but they tried to reach as many people who were on the Green at the time as they could. Then they did this presentation. The video itself was more on activities on the Green. I was struck that it was held at the Heritage Museum and the auditorium was overflowing. Most of them were people who had participated in the demonstration, but it was a very moving presentation of what went on at that time. A number of people had stories of their own to tell and how difficult it had been. Some of them were Vietnam veterans who were essentially appalled at the response. And considering the history since then those of us who were there feel vindicated. We still feel that those of us who were there and at the movie had no regrets whatsoever. As far as they were concerned, the Vietnam War was an unnecessary war, an outrageous war, it was a war the United States got into for the worse possible reasons. So we very much felt our part in trying to bring it to an end was worthwhile.
My view is that the cultural and political forces at work in our society make it very difficult to bring about social change of the kind that the anti-discrimination, anti-intolerance, anti-war, peace movements push and that you have to be angry. It's a matter of when you see night after night news reports on TV and read them in the newspapers and you see how our governments operate, it's very difficult to restrain your anger. During the civil rights movement, there was considerable question about supporting groups like the Panthers or the NSCC but at times I felt that the anger within these groups must have been so intense that they just could not restrain themselves even though I did not believe in violence and I did not want to participate in a violent demonstration, but nevertheless I could understand perfectly those people who protest. Father Kerrigan is an example who would go to such an incredible lengths even at the expense of being put in jail in support of human rights. To my mind it's very difficult for social activists not to respond with a certain degree of anger. When you consider that as far as I can tell the social activists that I know are social activists 24 hours a day. It isn't something they do for fun, it is not a hobby, it's not an avocation, they are not simply running up against conventions. They don't want to necessarily stand out as people who are opposed to the conventions of the day. They simply see what's going on in our society and they feel very, very strongly that they just can't sit still. They've got to do something about it. These are people that when they read an article in the newspaper that irritates or angers them immediately go to their computer and typewriter and start writing letters or make phone calls or call a congressman. These are the people that I've been with all my life and these are what I call social and political activists. I don't think they should be given a bad name. It's a life-time commitment.
(54:58) I never ever thought of it as something I had to choose to do, it's not a choice to make, it's something I do because I get mad. I've got a quote on my refrigerator and this is a quote from Margaret Meade, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." I feel that very strongly.
(Resume at 1:02:59)
Our Sister City Committee was formed from supporters that were pretty much the core people in Concord who were social activists. We had decided that the town we would choose would be one that would fit certain criteria. We wanted it to be reasonably like Concord, sort of a rural like town. It would be relatively small with roughly the same population, and that it would be easy for us to get to it because we wanted to have real communication with people in the town. That's how we chose San Marcos which is just about a 40-minute drive south of Managua. It's essentially a coffee growing area of Nicaragua. We went through the 1986 town meeting to establish it, and we won overwhelmingly in favor of it. I gave presentations before the town meeting and others did as well. From 1986 to 1987 we made contact with the city and we exchanged official documents from San Marcos through the mayor's office there. The mayor was a woman named Marlena Cruz. The board of selectmen had drawn up an official document. The Central American countries are very big on very formalized documents even though they are very poor countries. Nicaragua is a very poor country. They have a shortage of everything including paper. So making up a formal document was in itself a very costly effort on their part. But we made contact with Marlena Cruz, the mayor.
(1:06:06) But then we ran into someone in town who was opposed to our position, a man named Al Forman and he spent the following year trying to undermine the Sister City Committee and its project. The committee was blasted with letters to the editor condemning us as being Sandinestans, being pro-Communist, that we were unAmerican. During that year we tried to respond in letters to the editor. Stuart Weeks sponsored a debate at the Center for American Studies at which I was face-to-face with Al Forman. The Sister City people dominated the debate. He reasserted his charges against our program and I tried rather weakly to defend our position, but in any case that went on throughout the entire year. Then in 1987 he entered a citizens petition for an article in the warrant to repeal the 1986 vote of the town meeting and we won again overwhelmingly. The strange thing about Al Forman which we never could understand was that he moved into Concord in late 1985 or 1986 and immediately took up this opposition to our committee. What came across to us is that he didn't understand Concord whatsoever or the Concord mentality. He charged things which were just outrageous and which anybody who lived in town for any length of time would recognize it as being outrageous. He had lectures, he invited an Nicaraguan exile to come to speak. He never gained any major support. He did get a number of people in Concord who were opposed to our project. Some of them were connected with Nicaraguian exiles. But we were successful in getting it through the 1987 town meeting and over the last 15 or 16 years we've been extremely successful in promoting the programs that we wanted.
All the members of the committee had gone down and met individually with Nicaraguans. I was co-chair with Jean Rosner for all those years and a couple of years ago Steve Bloomfield became our co-chair. We have a number of people including Steve who speak fluent Spanish. He was in the Peace Corps and worked at Harvard with the department that dealt with Central American and South American students coming into the United States. So he is very knowledgeable and he is able to communicate easily. We had a great deal of difficulty in the communication area in the early years, that is the year following '87, because there were no telephone lines to speak of in the country. The country is totally impoverished. They had an earthquake in Nicaragua and all the lines of communication had been destroyed. I went down in '87 and the roads were almost undriveable. The vehicles you rode in were broken down vehicles that often didn't make it to its destination, and I was involved in some of that as well. But when we went down we were received so lavishly by the people. These were people who just were so gracious. We stayed at houses. I stayed at a house where there was hardly any room for the family but nevertheless they put us in one room. The wall was made up of stacked up newspapers. Very gracious people. Over that period we managed to raise quite a bit of humanitarian aid to support them because they were in desperate need for everything. We raised something like $40,000 in humanitarian aid all supported by voluntary contributions from our supporters in Concord and outlying districts. We just sent out letters every year and they send us money. We just tell them what we've done. What we did in the early years was establish a fully equipped dental clinic. At the health center we provided all kinds of medical provisions. Doctors in Concord have supplied us with medical materials that we've sent on. Most of the time in the early years the things had to be taken by suitcase. Anybody who was going down to Nicaragua we would load them up with everything. So we'd even get volunteers to contribute old suitcases. In the ‘80s we had high school students go down. One student was Megan Sandel, who is a great credit to Concord and the whole project. She went down with her father for a week or so in San Marcos and helped out in the health clinic. She came back to the United States, went to medical school, and is now a doctor, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital, and recently got married. She went down in June of 2000 and spent some more time down there and they welcomed her with open arms. People came from all over the rural areas to the health clinic to get help from her.
We provided material for the school system. They had no desks. The kids would carry chairs on their heads into school. We have pictures of that. We provided funds for the local carpenters to build some school desks. All the money we receive goes entirely into the projects, there is no money that any of us get. It is all volunteer.
About three years ago we started a microbank managed by a local volunteer group in San Marcos. They manage the money we send down in a bank account and the money is lent out in very low amounts for cottage industry-type enterprises, local retail stores, local casket maker, people who have start-up businesses. They borrow anywhere from $100 to $500 which is big money for them. We now have as of this date, 2001, $13,000 in the account and will continue to add to it. We've also provided tuition expenses for students who are going into college.
(1:16:57) So it's been quite a ride. It's now 15 years old, and it's remarkable to me that it has continued to last as long as it has. My work with the Sister City Committee has now become a pretty much rather routine kind of project. We meet once a month and we decide how we're going to use funds that are contributed to us. So it's going along quite well.
I was also involved in a group that got started by Judy Scotnicki and Carol Dwyer, Grassroots Action for Peace. This was in opposition to the Persian Gulf War and then we carried on from there with many supporters. It has continued over these years and has a number of successes. There was a petition gathered from 14 towns in the area of people who were in support of cutting the defense budget back in the early ‘90s. How much affect it had we don't know but it certainly affected our own congressional delegation. It was an impressive effort on our part. Major forums have been held by the Grassroots Action for Peace, such as a forum on weapons pollution around the world, particularly nuclear weapons. This was connected with opposition to the development of weapons made by our own Nuclear Metals Incorporated in Concord. The Grassroots Action for Peace was very much opposed to our being part of the war effort in the Persian Gulf with particular focus on nuclear penetrators which was believed and rightly so to cause considerable illness. This is the depleted uranium on the tips of the penetrators made by Nuclear Metals.
Then another group was started in 1990 called Citizens Research Environmental Watch by Mary Jane Williams and Judy Scotnicki and a number of others. I was one of the early supporters and it has grown to be quite an active group over the years. They focus entirely on the nonpolitical issue. CREW was concerned primarily with pollution caused by the Nuclear Metals which is now called Starmet. Both groups were formed pretty much at the same time and there is considerable overlap. Although CREW I think probably has many more people who support it who are not sympathetic necessarily to the Grassroots anti-war policies. The central issues for Grassroots is anything having to do with wars by the United States, the defense system, the missile system. They are opposed to the land mines, the use of the depleted uranium penetrators. Whereas CREW has focused entirely on the technical question of are we being harmed, is Concord being harmed by the pollution caused by Nuclear Metals?
Nuclear Metals has been in existence since the late 1950s and in the early years there were no real regulations basically to control any of the emissions from the stacks and it was concerned that air would be polluted by the output from some of the processing of the depleted uranium. Then by 1990 it had grown to the point that there was major concern over the waste material that had been stored behind in the holding basin. The concern was it might get into the groundwater and seep into the water going into the Assabet River which borders Starmet. So CREW's efforts was primarily technological. CREW hired expert investigator, Marvin Resnikoff to do testing and he produced reports. CREW had an article on the warrant to have a committee formed which was called the Article 41 Committee. A committee was formed headed by one of the CREW members, Pam Rockwell, and a number of others who were appointed by the Town Manager. Their job was to review tests that were being made of soil samples that were being taken around Starmet to find out if there was any air emission.
(1:25:52) Starmet had gotten money from the Army who was their contractor for the penetrators and so they started moving the material out. They did put a canopy over the basin because there was concern that over the course of moving the materials even though Starmet said there was no danger, nevertheless there was sufficient concern that a canopy was placed over the basin while the materials were being removed. They were packaged in some kind of bricks I guess and taken off to a railroad depot where they were transferred to Utah for safe storage. That process has been going on since then and is still going on. Even though a considerable amount of material was removed, something like 8000 cubic yards, there is still sufficiently large amounts of material that is still there that is highly radioactive. CREW continued to work both with the DEP and with the Department of Public Health to see if we could do more to bring about the resolution of the problem there and at least bring it down to some kind of level that would be acceptable to residential living. As circumstances stand now, the site is so heavily contaminated that it will probably not meet either industrial or residential level of acceptance. Early in 2000 CREW approached EPA, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, to see if they could get Starmet placed on the list of Superfund sites. It turned out to be a relatively lengthy process. Early this year in 2001, the EPA did place Starmet on the Superfund list and now it's under EPA rules for cleanup. Critics of CREW said CREW's aim was to drive Starmet out of business. That was its chief concern. I was with CREW from 1990 on. This came up in discussion and my recollection is, and I certainly felt this way, that that was not the aim. It was never a principal aim of CREW. What CREW was concerned with was finding a means, a financial means, for Starmet to continue to operate but at least to the point where they cleaned up the pollution material with the high level of radiation. I think that continues to be the concern of CREW.
(1:30:52) By and large what drives most social activism groups is they are faced with they feel is a immoral, unjust situation or a situation is very injurious to the people around them, whether it be blacks, whether it be children, whether it be health concerns, whatever the concern is. We don't simply go out looking for a problem and say we're going to make life difficult for the people that we feel strongly against. It's just the opposite. We see a problem that's been created and we try to find ways within the system whether it is the legal system or the moral system, but invariably the majority of the people don't view the social action groups that way. By and large they think of them as fringe groups, as radicals, as people who are not content, who are out to create problems. All of the activities that I've been involved in going all the way back to civil rights have eventually been activities which have proved to be correct from the point of view of the majority. Those people who have been most strongly opposed would have to admit today that blacks are better off then they were when the civil rights movement started. I think a large percentage of Americans now believe the Vietnam War was wrong. I think the case can also be made that most Americans believe if you surveyed them that we were wrong to support the Contras in Nicaragua. I think it was wrong to oppose the establishing of a sister city in Central America. I think this is what most people believe. You can define social action in those terms. It is an attempt on the part of I think well meaning, moral, righteous people to work as best they can to try to solve a problem which most people either don't see as a problem or are unwilling to accept it as a problem to be solved.
We would use the instruments that are available in our society whether it's getting on TV, getting on radio, demonstrating publicly, writing letters to the editor, meeting with their congressman as they are probably the most knowledgeable people as far as the country. You ask the average citizen who their congressman is, who their state representative is, they don't know who they are. The social activist people not only know who their congressmen are, they know the legislation that's being considered before the legislature. Very few people for one reason or another, mostly because they lead very, very busy lives as quoting Thoreau, "lives of discontent", they don't see it the way the social activist does. It's not something that the social activist or political activist chooses to do.
I have another quote for you. Many people have said to me, why are you beating your head against the wall when it's a lost cause? The quote I always remember is Victor Hugo who said "Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting." And I think that's true. If you define the lost cause in the way most people think of it as your beating against the establishment and your fighting forces that are so much more powerful than you are be it politically or by money. But the one thing I have found in that vein is that as a social activist the people I have dealt with in the political arena and even in the corporate area, many of them are very, very willing to support our causes. When we went around Route 128 talking to personnel, we were received very well by the corporate world. They tried very hard to see if they could implement the employment express. One of my favorite people who worked very closely with us on unemployment was Walter H. Palmer who was the head of the Massachusetts Association for Manufacturers. He was a marvelous person.
I never had the feeling on an individual personal basis that we were working against people who did not have the right attitude toward what we should be doing on the human rights level. But institutions were very difficult to deal with, whether it was a corporate institution or a political institution because once you get at the institutional level, you're no longer dealing with just an individual legislator or an individual president of a corporation. You're dealing with a policy-making organization which involves many individuals, many of whom are closed to the very thing that you want to accomplish.
(1:38:03) Those are the kinds of forces that run through our entire society I think whether it be in the housing industry or whatever. We had difficulties with realtors, not with individuals, but the realtor association. It was red lining in Boston to prevent blacks from moving out of the ghetto. Red lining is where realtors would deliberately steer blacks into black neighborhoods and avoid bringing them into white neighborhoods. This was true of banks as well. Blacks couldn't get loans to start up a business. Roxbury was extremely difficult. During the early ‘60s a number of corporations sought to help start-up companies in Roxbury. Digital Equipment Corporation stood out as one of the corporations that went out of its way not only to try to hire blacks here in the suburbs which was difficult because they couldn't travel here, but also to provide contracts for start-up businesses that made products that Digital could use. I was working at Lincoln Laboratory in the ‘60s and I was able to get a contract for a start-up company called IOC, Input Output Corporation, which was a software company. The president was Tom Farrington, a black who moved to Concord. But this was the sort of thing we could deal with on an individual level but when you got to the corporate or the policy making level that's where you ran into difficulties.