Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In memoriam: Sam Day, public peace intellectual

“One of my neighbors at the Minnehaha County Jail was an inmate in his thirties named Jeff, who made his living for a while as a rodeo clown.…taunting bulls is a habit not easily broken. Jeff exhibited it again on the afternoon of Monday, July 17, when he and I were ordered out of Cellblock C and told to get ready for the federal prison airlift. ‘Gee, that’s a good-looking suit,’ said Jeff, pleasantly, poking fun at the grim-faced marshal who approached him with handcuffs and waist chain. ‘Did they have one in your size?’”
—Sam Day, Jr., Crossing the line: From editor to activist to inmate—a writer’s journey, p. 216

Samuel H. Day, Jr. was a journalist who changed the practice from objective observer to conscientious participant. Sam went from reporting the news to making the news—especially since he found that the news was not acceptable.

Sam began his journalist’s career in Idaho, working for a newspaper. He became radicalized around the nuclear issue as uranium mining, open-air nuclear bomb testing, and radioactive waste forced everyone in the American West to think about it. Eventually, he took over the editorial reins at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a scholarly publication devoted to giving voice to the scientists who had been muzzled during the Manhattan Project and subsequent government employ. When that no longer was radical enough for Sam’s escalating concern about the imminent dangers of radiological weaponry and war in general, Sam took on the job of Managing Editor for The Progressive, the left-wing challenger periodical. While there, Sam helped design a story by Howard Morland on making an atomic bomb from publicly available information. The federal government attempted prior restraint and sent agents to visit Sam and Erwin Knoll, the Editor-in-Chief. Ultimately, Sam and the Progressive won that battle, but not before the fed agents had issued veiled threats of capital punishment, if not summary execution, if the story ran. “They made that threat in the elevator,” Sam told me. “They said, ‘Think about that,’ so we just thought about that—and decided to fight them.”(Knoll, Day, Morland, 1979)

Finally, when the Progressive didn’t seem activist enough to Sam, he resigned and began working with Nukewatch, eventually retiring from that activist organization to begin a serious second career as an activist inmate. Sam told me that he wanted everyone who retired to take up a criminal career for peace. As a debilitating disease slowly robbed him of his sight, turning him completely blind finally, Sam only grew more wry and ironic. Every time I saw him he’d have a different journalist joke or anecdote to tell me. My favorite was:
The young eager reporter was sent by his hardbitten old editor to cover the Johnstown flood. His first story sent via the wire began, “God looked down with great sorrow upon the destruction wrought by this terrible flood…” and the editor wired right back, “Forget flood. Interview God.”(Sam wants to know how she got in his memorial!)

Sam was the best pitchman at any big peace event. He would appear on stage, fumbling around, talking about one or two of the people involved in the organization for which he was appealing to the audience. He’d praise them, remark on how important their work was, and then he’d say that of course they could accomplish so much more with just a few more resources. Then he’d say that he’s really been just thinking about them and how valuable their work is, so that, compared to that, most other things seemed less important. “I don’t have much—I’m just an old retired editor—so, let’s see” and he’d put his hand in his pocket, feeling around, “Oh, here, I have $13. Well, I can give them $3—no, wait, their work is so valuable, I’d better make it the $10 bill and I’ll get by on the $3…but that won’t be enough! Heck! I want them to have it all!” And he’d put it all in the hat. “Well, wait a minute,” he’d say, “I have a bus token. It’s my ride home…but darn it, their work is so vital—here, let me put my bus token in there too!” And then he’d mutter a little. “All I have left is my magnifying glass—hey! Maybe they can use that too! Here!” And he’d put it in the hat, turning his pockets inside out. “Give as much as you can!” he’d shout. “Give more than you can!” At every big peace event, the organizer knew who to ask when it came time to pass the hat.

Sam Day, Jr. was born October 3, 1926, and crossed over January 26, 2001 at age 74. He was chair of the US Campaign to Free Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli whistleblower who has served so many years in Israeli prison. He worked a great deal with Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa, who founded The Nuclear Resister, a newsletter dedicated to the news and views of nonviolent civil resisters to militarism. Because he was born in apartheid South Africa, he had a special affinity for that country and for its unique decision to unbuild its nuclear arsenal—a decision made in secret by the apartheid regime when it knew its days were numbered. Sam wrote brilliant pieces on these issues that few would cover well and was so credible that we were very reassured whenever he would categorically state something because he’d invariably be proven correct.

When Donna Howard and I got out of prison for our Plowshares act of Earth Day, 1996, we were invited to a gala party at Anathoth Community Farm, where at least 100 friends were crowded into the main house. We were still wearing the electronic ankle bracelets so the state could track our whereabouts. We made our way through the crowd to Sam, who was lost in conversation with Barb Kass. When we got to Sam, Donna, who has a quiet voice, said, “Hi, Sam.” Blind by then, Sam looked up and said, “Donna? Is that you, Donna? Come here. I hear you have to wear one of those ankle bracelets. Let me see it.” Donna held up her foot and Sam found her knee and began to run his hands down her calf, coming at last to the plastic band with the little box. He lifted it to his mouth, suddenly, startling Donna and everyone, and began to say in a loud voice, “Sheriff? Come in, Sheriff! I’ve got them under surveillance, so don’t worry! Expect my report! Over and out!” And let her foot go.

It was vintage Sam Day, a man who didn’t hesitate to interpose in violent situations, apparently intuiting that no one would gain a thing from roughing him up. Prison stories about Sam putting himself in harms way for some inmate being bullied by a guard or by another inmate solidified his reputation amongst those who watched and participated in nonviolent civil resistance; Sam was a great soul in all respects, a public peace scholar from the world of journalism.

For more on this great man, see his memorial website.


Day, Jr., Samuel H. (1991). Crossing the line: From editor to activist to inmate—a writer’s journey. Baltimore MD: Fortkamp Publishing.

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