William Stringfellow (1928-1985) was an Episcopalian lay theologian, social activist, and lawyer, who advocated for nonviolence and civil rights as struggle against “the powers” at work to corrupt and destroy God’s people. He shared his home with Anthony Towne (1928-1980), a poet.
On May 17, 1968, Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1921-2016), a prominent Catholic peace activist, joined eight associates in using homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board office. After his sentencing, Berrigan went on the run. He was sheltered by several friends, until being apprehended at Stringfellow and Towne’s home on Block Island, Rhode Island on August 11, 1970. Berrigan went on to serve a year and a half in federal prison. The protest led by the “Catonsville Nine” sparked similar acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War.
Ultimately the charges against Stringfellow and Towne, the “Block Island Two,” were dismissed, but they went on to write an account of the ordeal, Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness (1971). The story below appeared in an issue of The Living Church published on February 14, 1971, fifty years ago this week.
A national committee for the defense of William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, accused on two counts of harboring the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., while he was a fugitive from justice, has been announced in New York. The statement of support said that there would be no prosecution of the two Episcopal laymen were it not for “the moral attrition America has suffered in the past decade on account of the war in Vietnam.”
Mr. Stringfellow, an attorney and theologian, and Mr. Towne, an author, were indicted in December for harboring Fr. Berrigan, who failed to report to federal prison after being convicted of destroying draft files. The anti-war priest was seized at the Stringfellow-Towne home on Block Island, R.I., last August.
In addition to harboring a fugitive from justice, the two were accused of being accessories after the fact of Fr. Berrigan’s crime. They have entered pleas of not guilty in a Rhode Island court, agreeing that they did “relieve, receive, comfort, and assist” Fr. Berrigan but did not “harbor” or “conceal” him or “hinder” authorities in their pursuit of the priest. Both of the men charged appeared at the press conference Jan. 22 where the defense committee was announced. They see the charges against them in the context of a “pervasive spirit of repression in America.”
Asked who was responsible for the repression, Mr. Stringfellow said, “We are… Citizens — because of omissions and defaults.” He added that too many persons, especially white, middle-class Americans, have been too preoccupied with paying debts and other private matters to give attention to social and political matters. He said that some citizens have been “intimidated and made afraid to speak” by such developments as the case against the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and his brother, the Rev. Philip Berrigan, S.S.J., who were convicted for destruction of draft records in Catonsville, Md.
Mr. Stringfellow said the charges and sentences against the Berrigans — now in a federal prison in Connecticut — were too harsh, serving as a message to Americans that if they “dissent seriously” they will “risk radical jeopardy.”
The statement from the defense committee was read by the Rev. Howard Moody, pastor of New York’s Judson Memorial Church. The signers held that the Stringfellow-Towne case should be seen in a “political context” because of the Vietnam war and could affect “the freedom of all citizens.” Dr. John C. Bennett, former president of Union Theological Seminary, is chairman of the committee.
Also at the press conference were the Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rt. Rev. Stuart Wetmore, Suffragan Bishop of New York, and several other signers of the support statement.
Mr. Young, in what was taken to be a jab at FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, said the charges against Stringfellow and Towne are a testimony to “senility in high places.” He said the “government is giving in to old age.”
Bp. Wetmore made one of the most dramatic appeals for support of the accused men. The bishop identified himself as neither “a pacifist nor a peacenik.” He noted his public disagreements with Mr. Stringfellow in the past. “I am more on the side of law and order,” he said, “and I hate bad laws and administration which ignores good laws.” He asserted that the conduct of the Vietnam war had ignored the laws of the U.S. for waging war and said that he believed the draft system is based on “bad laws.” The bishop said that he stands with Mr. Stringfellow and Mr. Towne because in welcoming Fr. Berrigan to their home they did “the only thing a Christian man could do.” He conveyed the “warm greetings” of the Rt. Rev. Horace W. B. Donegan, Bishop of New York, and the Bishop Coadjutor, the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Jr.
Asked if he was not expected under law to report to authorities that a fugitive (Fr. Berrigan) was on his property, Mr. Stringfellow noted that there is no such legal provision. He said the existing laws of “harboring” make no such stipulation partly because they were drafted in the days of Prohibition when it did not seem wise to report other people violating anti-drinking statutes.
The Rev. Melvin Schoonover, dean of continuing education at New York Theological Seminary, is coordinator of the defense committee.
Other signers of the support statement included the Rt. Rev. William Crittenden, Bishop of Erie; the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt, Bishop of Pennsylvania; the Rt. Rev. William Davidson, Bishop of Western Kansas; Dorothy Day of The Catholic Worker; Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Dr. Benjamin Spock; the Rev. William Sloane Coffin of Yale; the Rev. Malcolm Boyd; Allen Ginsberg; and both Berrigan brothers.