Anti-Nuclear Resistance in Grand Rapids: Part 1

In 1990, several people from West Michigan participated in an action at Wurtsmith Air Force base near Bay City, Michigan. This action was part of a multi-year campaign that targeted the military base because it was a Strategic Air Command base, also known as SAC.

These bases had nuclear weapons at all times and flew B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons on board. Some of these B-52s were in the air constantly, so as to make sure that some nuclear weapons could not be easily targeted while on the ground. The cost of these weapons and to fly them on B-52s was astronomical. screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-10-03-15-pmI was one of those who took part in the action at Wurtsmith Air Force base in August of 1990. The group of people with whom I went with decided to model our action after the Mothers of the Disappeared throughout Latin American, carrying images of loved ones who had been disappeared or murdered by government death squads (pictured here above). However, the picture I was holding was that of my brother Steve, who lived with my parents because of a serious disability from his infancy. The Michigan legislature had made serious budget cuts earlier that year and the program that my brother benefitted had been cut. Therefore, I considered him to have been discarded by the state and amongst the victims of state violence.

I was arrested that day, along with dozens of other protestors at the US military base. We were all released on bond and waited a court date. When I received my court date I sent the court a letter saying I refused to come since I didn’t believe that the court would act justly, especially since we could not use International Law as a defense. The court sent a second letter and I wrote back again saying that I would not come. A week later two federal agents showed up at my front door to arrest me. I was out back and was informed by my housemates that these two men were looking for me. I left and spent the next three months underground, moving from place to place, hoping to avoid arrest.

The video below, is an interview that Wenjo Carlton (who produced a show on GRTV at the time) had conducted with me while I was underground. This is part one of a two part article on the action I took part in against nuclear weapons and US militarism in 1990. Part II deals with the aftermath of me being picked up by federal agents and the outcome of my trial, which includes another interview by Wenjo Carlton.

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Grand Rapids Furniture Barons lived off the wealth created by furniture workers


As we have noted in previous articles related to the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike, the strike pitted a handful of wealthy robber barons and thousands of furniture workers.

The wealth gap between the Grand Rapids furniture barons was outrageous. According to Jeffrey Kleiman’s book on the 1911 furniture workers strike, the years leading up to the strike saw significant revenues generated by the furniture companies.

The newspaper had calculated that the Grand Rapids furniture industry had jumped from $9.5 million in revenue in 1909 to $11.5 million in 1910 and was clearly in a position to grant higher wages.”


Such wealth was reflected in the way that the furniture factory owners lived. For instance, Harry Widdicomb, president of the John Widdicomb Company lived in this mansion on the corner of Prospect and Fulton, pictured above. During the 1911 furniture workers strike, Harry Widdicomb aggressively sought to break the strike by bringing in scab workers from out of town. In fact, according to Kleiman’s book Strike!, Widdicomb drove scab workers to a from work, driving right through the mass of striking workers. Workers and their spouses regularly threw whatever they could get their hands on at Widdicomb’s car.


Another one of the Grand Rapids furniture barons was William Gay, who lived in this mansion on East Fulton Street, picture above. As head of the Berkey & Gay furniture company, William Gay was well connected and part of a group of furniture company owners that were interlocked with financial institutions that they were involved with. Again, Kleiman states:

Furniture company owners also created a second tier of financial institutions, assuring themselves of a ready supply of money for loans and credit needed for seasonal expansion. The years between 1905 and 1911 saw the chartering of three local banks – City Trust and Savings in 1905, Kent State Bank, which had ties to the Michigan Trust Company, in 1908 and Grand Rapids National City Bank in 1911 – with furniture executives at their command. The manufacturers sitting on the boards of directors and in the executive offices of these new banks represented major local furniture concerns, each employing more than two hundred workers. Through their banking connections, they were able to play a major role in shaping monetary policy to their advantage.”

Furniture workers, on the other hand, did not enjoy the same kind of wealth the furniture barons were accustomed to. In Viva Flaherty’s documentation of the Grand Rapids 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, she has the following information in regards to the range of wages being paid to furniture workers at the time. 


Many of the 8,000 plus furniture workers did not own their own homes and lived in very modest houses, often with extended members of their families. Hundreds of these houses were torn down when the highway system was built in Grand Rapids between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. 

While it is clear that the Furniture Barons made their wealth on the backs of thousands of workers, they were not interested in sharing the very same wealth that the workers generated during the decades when the furniture companies flourished.

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A.J. Muste: radical pacifist, labor organizer and former Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation spent his formative years in Grand Rapids


One never knows how our lives evolve and what impact we will have on social issues and the various movements for radical social justice. Abraham Johannes Muste, also known as AJ, was one of those people who had and continues to have a lasting impact on critical social movements within the United States.

AJ Muste was born in the Netherlands, but by age 5 had moved with his family to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1891. Living on Quimby Street, AJ’s father got a job working for $6 a week for 60 hours of work.

Muste’s family was part of the Reformed Church and AJ attended a parochial school while living in Grand Rapids. At the young age of 13, Muste became a member of Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids and had strong religious convictions. During the time he lived with his family, the other major issue that impacted his life was that of working class values and the struggles of workers in Grand Rapids who were fighting to be part of a union. The labor struggles in Grand Rapids and members of his family had a deep impact on Muste and would later be a major focus of his work.hope_photo_5

AJ then applied to attend Hope College. The online resource digital Holland has this to say about Muste’s time at Hope: 

When he completed preparatory school, Muste enrolled in Hope College. During the eight years Muste spent at Hope, he excelled in the classroom and was involved in numerous extra-curricular activities. He served as the school’s first athletic director, while playing football and baseball, and captained the basketball team as well. Muste wrote for the Anchor, won the Hope College oratorical contest as a sophomore, and placed second in the interstate oratorical competition. In addition to excelling in school, Muste also held several jobs. He led Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and sold Bibles, a job he strongly disliked. He also worked at the Hope College library, wrapped presents during the holidays, worked at the Quimby Furniture Factory, and served as an assistant to Holland’s coroner. Muste graduated from Hope in 1905 at the age of 20. He was valedictorian of his class.

Muste then left the area and took a job teaching at Northwestern Classical Academy in Orange City, Iowa. AJ didn’t stay there long and quickly moved to New York City in the summer of 1908. The living conditions of the working poor activities of labor unions had a significant impact on how Muste viewed his faith. Muste was so impacted by what he saw in New York City, that he shifted his political affiliation from the Republican Party to support for the Socialist Party. In fact, Muste voted for the radical labor organizer Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party in 1912.

By the time that the US became involved in World War I, Muste’s faith was again shaken by the moral conundrum of the violence of war. It was during this time that Muste eventually became a committed pacifist and could not support war and institutionalized violence for any reason. During Muste’s conversion to pacifism, he was the pastor of a Congregational Church in Massachusetts. When members of his congregation had lost sons during WWI, Muste grappled with his own convictions and the needs of the members of his congregation. Muste eventually could not reconcile the conflict and decided to resign from the ministry. Muste did develop a relationship with Quakers at the time and became involved in the newly formed group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

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No longer rooted in the church, Muste was then drawn to the struggles of working class people and cut his labor organizing teeth during the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike. Muste first began by raising funds for the striking workers, but eventually discovered his oratory skills were useful for the strike and the ex-preacher had become the spokesperson for the 30,000 striking workers. Muste also put his pacifism to the test, by being on the picket line and, like his fellow workers, was beaten by cops and other hired thugs working for the textile mill.

This experience with the Lawrence Textile strike led Muste to become a longtime member of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America and eventually to become a member of the faculty at Brookwood Labor College in New York. Muste was also instrumental in the 1930s in the formation of the American Workers Party. There is a great audio lecture delivered by Muste in the mid-1960s, where Muste talks about his involvement in labor struggles in the 1930s. 

Pacifism and the Civil Rights Movement

However, by 1936, Muste had become disillusioned with party politics and socialism. Muste found his way back to pacifism and particularly Christian pacifism. From 1940 – 1953, Muste had become the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

Many of the people that Muste came into contact through FOR, particularly as a mentor, were students who gone on to form the group, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). Muste not only encourage the formation of CORE, he was one of its main fundraiser during its early years.1642161

Another person who became a critical organizer in the Civil Rights movement, was Bayard Rustin. Rustin was one of the main organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and out of that experience became a close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin would later reflect on the importance of his relationship with Muste. “During all my work with Martin King, I never made a difficult decision without talking the problem over with AJ first.”

King himself, spoke highly of Muste’e influence while he was a theology student in Pennsylvania. “I wasn’t a pacifist then, but the power of AJ’s sincerity and his hardheaded ability to defend his position stayed with me through the years. Later, I got to know him better, and I would say unequivocally that the current emphasis on nonviolent direct action in the race relations field is due more to AJ than to anyone else in the country.”6

AJ Muste continue to participate in and influence movements. In the early years of organized opposition to the Vietnam War, Muste was one of its most vocal critics and was a leader in the lead up to the massive 1967 mobilization to end the war in Vietnam. In 1966, he travel to Vietnam and met with Ho Chi Minh. In February of 1967, at the age of 82, Muste’s life came to an end.

AJ Muste was a person who not only saw how the major issues of his day were inter-related, Muste’s involvement in those movements inspired more than one generation of activists to use the power of nonviolent direct action to work for radical social change,

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Voltairine De Cleyre: Feminist and Anarchist writer lived in Grand Rapids in the 1880s

Emma Goldman once referred to Voltairine De Cleyre as, “The most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.”voltairine_de_cleyre_age_35

Voltairine De Cleyre was born in Michigan in 1866 and was named after the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire. She grew up experiencing poverty and then was forced to live in a Catholic convent by her father, who thought it would provide a better education for her. Life at the convent did have a positive effect, but not the one that her father had hoped for. What Voltairine developed was not only a critical understanding of the world, she would also eventually identify as an atheist because of the oppressive nature of the Catholic education.

By the early 1880s she moved to the Grand Rapids area and eventually to Grand Rapids and was active in the anti-clerical, Free Thought Movement. Voltairine soon began writing for various publications and exploring other political disciplines. However, it was the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that finally brought her to embrace anarchism. More specifically, it was the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs in 1887, that solidified her belief and commitment in political anarchism.

There is an excellent zine produced by Sprout Distro in Grand Rapids on the history of Anarchism in Grand Rapids, with a section on De Cleyre that is worth citing:


In addition to De Cleyre’s deep feminist thought, she began devoting a great deal of time to the memory and legacy of the Haymarket Martyrs. In fact, between 1895 and 1910, she began to give speeches throughout the midwest and east coast on the anniversary of Haymarket, on May 1. Paul Avrich, the anarchist historian, eventually put together a collection of these Haymarket speeches by De Cleyre, in a small book entitled, The First Mayday: the Haymarket speeches 1895 – 1910.

In the speech she delivered in 1906 in Chicago, De Cleyre shared these eloquent words:


For the text of that entire 1906 speech, go to this link

However, De Cleyre did not limit herself to writing just about the Haymarket Martyrs. She was a prolific writer of poetry and essays. In her poem entitled, The Burial of My Past, the anarchist wrote:

And now, Humanity, I turn to you;

I consecrate my service to the world!

Perish the old love, welcome the new –

Broad as the space-aisles where the stars are whirled!

Voltairine De Cleyre was an astute observer of the world. She wrote about anarchism and the particularly anarchism in America. She wrote about Direct Action, Crime & Punishment and the Paris Commune. In 1911, the year before she died, she wrote about the Mexican Revolution.

De Cleyre stated, “The Mexican revolution is one of the prominent manifestations of the world-wide economic revolt. It possibly holds as important a place in the present disruption and reconstruction of economic institutions, as the great revolution of France held in the eighteenth century movement.”

De Cleyre was an admirer of the Mexican anarchist, Rigardo Flores Magon and her last poem was dedicated to the Mexican Revolution.

Gods of the World! Their mouths are dumb!

Your guns have spoken and they are dust.voltairinedecleyre

But the shrouded Living, whose hearts were numb,

Have felt the beat of a wakening drum

Within them sounding – Dead Men’s tongue –

Calling: “Smite off the ancient rust!”

Have beheld “Resurrexit,” the word of the Dead,

Written – in – red.

                             from the poem, Written in Red

Voltairine De Cleyre died in 1912, at the young age of 46. However, despite her short life, she not only impacted those who heard her speeches, she continues to inspire generations of people who will consecrate their service to the world!

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Malcolm X Spoke in Grand Rapids in 1962


On February 12, 1962, Malcolm X spoke at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids to an estimated crowd of 350 people. His lecture was part of the Great Speakers Lecture Series that Fountain Street has hosted for decades.

Before we look at the talk that Malcolm X gave at Fountain Street Church in February of 1962, it is important to put into context where Malcolm was in his own journey as a participant in the Black Freedom struggle.

Malcolm X was already beginning his evolution to a broader understanding of religion and politics. His impact on the Nation of Islam meant a significant growth in the number of temples being created across the country and a pronounced increase in membership.

Just days after speaking in Grand Rapids, Malcolm debated Bayard Rustin in Chicago on the topic, “Integration or Separation for the Negro?” So, one can see that Malcolm was still advocating against an integration into White society and pushing for more Black autonomy and independence.

In late 1962, the first rumors of Elijah Muhammad’s adultery began circulating, which was a devastating blow to how Malcolm viewed his leader.

However, he continued to speak at rallies and became more and more involved in demonstrations against police brutality and other forms of state violence. Malcolm also continued to be critical of the mainstream civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington.

In November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and Malcolm made his famous statement about “Chickens coming home to roost,” which essentially meant that the violence that the US has perpetrated around the world and at home resulted in violence being done to them. This statement enraged Elijah Muhammad and he prohibited him from speaking in public from engaging in his ministry. Within three weeks of his being silenced by the Nation of Islam, Malcolm formed his own entities, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and Muslim Mosque Inc.

From that point on Malcolm’s evolution accelerated and he spoke at even more rallies and forums across the country and around the world. Malcolm became much more interested in international affairs and particularly in the anti-colonial movements throughout African, Asia and Latin America.

On February 21st, of 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated at an OAAU rally in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, almost 3 years after he spoke in Grand Rapids.

Malcolm’s Fountain Street Church Lecture

The title of his talk at Fountain Street Church was “Segregation, Separation and Integration.” Fountain Street Church has an audio recording of the lecture, but we have been unable to allow them to let us listen to the lecture or share it with our readers. The  only record we have is from a February 18 article written about the lecture by a reporter named Kurt Luedtke, writing for the Grand Rapids Press.

The article is not very long and the headline reads, “Black Muslims’ ‘Malcolm X’ Brings Harsh Message Here.” Luedtke refers to the Nation of Islam as a “quasi-religious organization” in the early part of the article and continues throughout to engage in hostile language towards Minister Malcolm.

The reporter does note that this was the second time in six months that Malcolm had been in Grand Rapids to recruit in the Black community. The sub-heading of the article says,”Activities Alarm Leaders of Both Races.” However, nowhere in the article are any Black or White leaders cited, so the claim seems to be unfounded or at least unsubstantiated.

At the very end of the article, the reporter states, “In its exhortation of racial superiority, Black Muslimism has been compared to the German Third Reich.” Such a conclusion only further demonstrates the lack of understand of the reporter and it exposes the contempt he had with what Malcolm X had to say and what the Nation of Islam represented at the time.

We plan to continue to look for any evidence of the recruiting visits to Grand Rapids by Malcolm X in 1962 and if we are ever able to gain access to the audio recording of his lecture we intent to post it on this site.

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Several Arrested in Grand Rapids in 1917 for passing out anti-draft information


In May of 1917, several members of the Socialist Party, two clergymen and Feminist/Labor supporter Viva Flaherty were arrested in Grand Rapids for distributing anti-conscription pamphlets near downtown Grand Rapids.

This seemingly mild act of informing people about their rights and about the imperialist nature of World War I was seen as a form of treason. There had been numerous laws passed since the beginning of the United States government, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798, which meant to silence and punish those considered to be, those “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”

The Espionage Act was passed in 1917, as a means to silence and punish those who spoke out against the US entry into World War I. However, as radical historian Howard Zinn points out, these laws were not applied equally and were meant to target dissidents during WWI, particularly radical labor organizers, socialists and anarchists. Some of those arrested for opposing the US entry into WWI were arrested and jailed, while others were arrested and deported.

The level of contempt that the US government held against radicals involved in labor organizing and anti-WWI activities eventually led to the Palmer Raids (1919-1920) as a justification for “cleansing” the US of radical leftists, socialists and anarchists.117200166_138016672849

Those arrest in May of 1917 in Grand Rapids fell under the category of dissidents and radicals. There were several who identified as Socialists and then there was Viva Flaherty. Flaherty was the only woman arrested in May of 1917, but she was possibly the most well known of the group, particularly in Grand Rapids.

Viva Flaherty was some who gave us one of the best accounts of the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike, when she published, History of the Grand Rapids Furniture Strike: With Facts Hitherto Unpublished.   

Flaherty, along with those she was arrested with, were passing out anti-conscription pamphlets on Division Avenue near downtown Grand Rapids and on Bridge Street. They had 15,000 copies printed from the Furniture City Printing Company of Grand Rapids.

The International Socialist Review, published in Chicago, makes mention of the action taken by the state against Viva Flaherty and her fellow dissidents. Published in the July 17 edition of the ISR, this is what they had to say about the anti-conscription action: 

Almost all active members of the Socialist Party have been arrested and indicted by a Federal Grand Jury. Principal charge is that the accused, by the circulation of literature and “thru demonstrations, mass petitions and by other means,” conspired to “prevent, hinder and delay” the execution of the conscription law. There were six counts in the indictment.

National Secretary Adolph Germer, of the Socialist Party, was also indicted by the same jury and charged with conspiracy. On learning the “news,” Comrade Germer went to Grand Rapids, submitted to arrest, plead “not guilty” and was liberated on bonds. If necessary, these cases will be carried to the highest courts.Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 12.53.44 AM

Grand Rapids has a population around 130,000—mostly wage slaves. Scab labor runs its factories. It is a typical American Billy Sunday burg. Therefore all the fury of the pulpit and the press was directed against the socialists.

Among the indicted comrades are Ben A. Falkner, financial secretary of the Local. For years he has been employed in the city water works department. He has been fired and blacklisted by the political patriots. Comrade G. G. Fleser, corresponding secretary of the Local, who had worked eight years for the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad as a stenographer, was discharged by the patriotic rail-plutes. Viva L. Flaherty, social worker and writer; Charles G. Taylor, member of Board of Education; James W. Clement, manufacturer; Charles J. Callaghan, postal clerk (discharged); Dr. Martin E. Elzinga; G. H. Pangborn; Vernon Kilpatrick; Rev. Klaas Osterhuis, and our wellknown, active old-time Comrade, Ben Blumenberg.

The Grand Rapids Press wrote about the arrests, the selection of the jury and the trial itself. Much of the their reporting reflected a bias in favor of prosecution of those arrested for distributing anti-conscription material. There were a few interesting cartoons that ran during the trial in October of 1917, one with the note below Viva Flaherty’s image which says, “Viva Flaherty has many visitors during recess.”


Ultimately, Viva Flaherty and her co-conspirators were not found guilty for the charges Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 12.06.11 AMbrought against them from May of 1917. The trial ended on October 18, 1917, and it well documented by the National Socialist Party in the publication entitled, “Not Guilty.” 

Viva Flaherty may not be well know, especially for her opposition to the US entry to WWI and the military draft, but future generations should look to her for inspiration as someone who challenged political and economic power structures in Grand Rapids. Flaherty lived to be 84, eventually dying in 1968.

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10,000 March in Labor Day Parade in 1911

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According to the September 4 issue of the Grand Rapids Herald, 10,000 people planned on marching in the 1911 Labor Day Parade.

According to the Herald, fifty-two unions participated in the march, which began at 10:00am on Bridge street, making it’s way on Canal, Monroe, Division, to Wealthy and back down Bridge street.

There were eight divisions participating in the parade, with a band at the front of each division. Unions from all over the state came to the Labor Day Parade in Grand Rapids, including Lansing, Benton Harbor, Ludington and Muskegon.

The activities of the day also included a bicycle race, a motorcycle race, a boxing match and a baseball game.

Coming off of the longest labor strike in Grand Rapids history, a strike that lasted 17 weeks and involved an estimated 7,000 workers, lots of support and solidarity permeated the air on that early September day in 1911.

The furniture workers led the labor day march of course, just after voting to go back to work in August, thus ending the labor strike. The unions had run out of funds to cover the striking workers and out of desperation and the need to take care of thousands of families, the strike came to an end.

However, such a massive outpouring of support just weeks after the strike came to an end, was a further demonstration of the popular support shown by the larger community. Besides the 10,000 marchers, thousands more lined the streets to cheer the workers who had fought for the dignity of a city and its working class community. Even though the workers did not win any of their demands, they demonstrated the potential of working class people to organize the workplace.

Putting the 1911 Labor Day Parade march in perspective, 10,000 marchers may not seem like an impressive number on labor day, but consider the fact that there were only 112,000 people living in Grand Rapids at the time. This means that more than 10 percent of the population had participated in the Labor Day parade. Further evidence that the community was deeply supportive of unions and working class issues. Grand Rapids was indeed a union town.

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