For more than three decades, DAVID McREYNOLDS , who was born on this date (d: 2018) was among the most outspoken socialists and pacifists in America, a leftist organizer who combined a belief in wealth redistribution with a fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons.
As a leader of the War Resisters League, he spurred a wave of antiwar demonstrations in 1965, when he joined four other men in lighting their draft cards on fire, defying a federal law that could have sent him to prison for five years and earned him a $10,000 fine.
He went on to become one of the first candidates to come out as Gay to run for Congress and president. Although he never came close to winning office, he helped “define modern pacifism in the United States,” said his friend Bruce Cronin, chair of the political science department at the City College of New York.
McReynolds, who died in August 2018 at a hospital in Manhattan, drew the attention of the FBI and landed in jail several times as a result of his activism. His political career was all the more remarkable given his upbringing in Los Angeles, where he was raised by a family of conservative Baptists and joined the Prohibition Party in his youth.
Though he came to don tie-dye shirts, beads and patchouli cologne with other Vietnam-era peaceniks, he honed his public speaking skills with a group called the Traveling Temperance Talking Team, in which sharply dressed teenagers competed to see who could best denounce the evils of alcohol.
Indeed, McReynolds was described as more professorial than proletarian, with interests that ranged far beyond political rallies and campaigns. He was a prolific photographer, taking more than 50,000 pictures of New York City streetscapes and activists such as the gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (whom McReynolds described as a mentor) and the pacifist A.J. Muste (for whom he worked as a top lieutenant).
McReynolds was also a member of the Bromeliad Society, an international botanical group, and filled his East Village apartment with tropical plants and hundreds of bottles of perfume, which he created himself and arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves. He was found unconscious in the apartment Wednesday, several weeks after suffering a fall, said his younger brother, Martin McReynolds.
Active in the anti-Korean War and civil rights movements, McReynolds joined the War Resisters League in 1960 and was soon named field secretary. Alongside Norma Becker and Sidney Peck, he became a behind-the-scenes architect of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Cronin said, known for maintaining unity in a coalition that included members of the political left and right.
“If you can bring together labor, teachers, students, folks from all walks of life, then you can turn the country. That’s painstaking work,” said Cronin, who met McReynolds while preparing for a 1982 nuclear disarmament rally that, by some estimates, drew 1 million people to Central Park.
“It took somebody like David to bring people together and say, ‘Look, let’s keep the focus on what we want and not break up over trifles.’”
Among the league’s most controversial actions was the burning of draft cards. McReynolds made national headlines when he appeared on a wooden platform in Manhattan’s Union Square to burn his card on Nov. 6, 1965, amid counterprotests from a group chanting, “Drop dead, red.”
The burning was interrupted, the New York Times reported, when a man sprayed McReynolds and his fellow demonstrators with a fire extinguisher: “The pacifists managed to dry the cards over the flame of a cigarette lighter, however, and the cards burned crisply.”
At 36, McReynolds was the oldest member of the group, which included Tom Cornell, Marc Paul Edelman, Roy Lisker and James Wilson. While the others were indicted on charges of defacing their cards (three were sentenced to six months in prison), McReynolds was left alone, reportedly because he was too old to be drafted.
He went on to coordinate antiwar rallies across the country and twice met with dissident groups in Vietnam. According to “A Saving Remnant,” a biography of McReynolds by Martin Duberman, he was visiting Czechoslovakia when the Soviets invaded in 1968 to quash the Prague Spring.
McReynolds — who said he was a socialist, not a communist — was able to return to the United States in time to run for a U.S. House seat that fall, on Eldridge Cleaver’s Peace and Freedom ticket. As in 1958, during his first bid for Congress, he was crushed, receiving just 5% of the vote.
Undaunted, he went on to run for president with the Socialist Party USA in 1980, on a platform that called for nuclear disarmament, the breakup of large corporations and sharp reductions in military spending.
“We have no illusions that we will win the presidential election,” he said after a rally with his running mate Diane Drufenbrock, a nun. “Our purpose is to make possible a discussion of socialism and to raise issues on foreign policy and unemployment.”
McReynolds received fewer than 7,000 votes. He ran once more, in 2000, and four years later mounted a Green Party campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York.
In part, he said, his electoral defeats could be chalked up to an imaging problem in a country where “socialism” has long been a dirty word.
“One of the tragedies is that the things a Socialist candidate will say are things that really could be said by a compassionate and moderately insightful Republican,” he told the Progressive magazine in 2000. “If I say we should have much greater mass transit in the major cities, that we should be able to rebuild the railroad system so that Amtrak actually connects all the small towns, that’s a reasonable thing. It’s not a radical proposal.”
David Ernest McReynolds was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1929, one day after the Black Thursday stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Depression.