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Richmond Activists Recount Efforts Opposing Vietnam War

Benjamin Ragsdale

Benjamin Ragsdale, at his Richmond, Virginia home in 2017. Photo: Louise Ricks / 88.9 WCVE

As opposition to the Vietnam War grew, huge protest rallies in Washington DC and Berkeley, California made the headlines. In Richmond, the movement was smaller and led by a committed group of activists who quietly worked to change people’s minds about the war. In the end, they think they succeeded. 88.9 WCVE’s Mark Huffman has more in our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers.

Transcript:
January 1968. The Tet Offensive brings North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces to the edge of Saigon. It’s a wake-up call for America. In a cramped office on Richmond’s Kensington Avenue, Ben Ragsdale strategized with other peace activists on behalf of the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee.

Ben Ragsdale: It was the main meeting place for my mentors, Phyllis Conklin and Marii Hasegawa, who were leaders in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.


A poster announcing an anti-war rally in Monroe Park. (Photo: VCU Library)


Ragsdale says the two women led anti-war efforts in Richmond in the late '60s, organizing at least one protest rally at Union Seminary. Their ongoing work involved reaching out to campus organizations, teachers, clergy, and even business people. The objective was to turn sentiment against the war, and counsel young men who hoped to avoid the draft.

Ragsdale: We helped them with their choices. You know, we didn't force them to do anything, of course.

Bruce Smith was another Virginia activist. He traveled the state in 1968 for the Southern Student Organizing Committee. When the organization collapsed the following year, he founded an underground newspaper in Richmond that tried to shine a spotlight on the war.

Bruce Smith: We called it the Richmond Chronicle because I didn't want it to sound like it was anything too hippieish or crazy. It was going to be serious news. Just alternative news.


Bruce Smith, anti-war activist and publisher of The Richmond Chronicle, addressing an anti-war rally at VCU in May 1970. (Photo: VCU Library)


News readers might not get in other newspapers. Today, some of the issues of the Chronicle are in the Special Collections Archives at the VCU Library.

Ray Bonis: Almost every page in this thing has something about Vietnam.

Ray Bonis is a senior research associate at VCU.

Ray Bonis: Here's an article here, this one's called 'Waratorium,' based  in DC, about protests that happened there about a month before.


The cover of The Richmond Chronicle, an underground newspaper that focused attention of the Vietnam War and civil rights during the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Photo: VCU Library)


In 1970, the Chronicle covered the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the National Guard killing of anti-war protestors at Kent State and the police shooting of black students days later at Jackson State. In the aftermath, Smith spoke against the war at a rally on the VCU campus. That November Ragsdale took his protest to the political arena, running for Congress from Virginia’s 4th District as an anti-war candidate. Although he finished a distant third, he was not discouraged. By 1971, he says it wasn’t as important how many showed up at a rally, as who showed up.

Ragsdale: We had three city council people -- Jim Carpenter, Henry Marsh, and Howard Carwile, who spoke at our rally and that was a real breakthrough. Public opinion at that point was coming around nationwide, and it was beginning to trickle down to Richmond.


In 1970 Benjamin Ragsdale was an independent, anti-war candidate for Congress from Virginia's 4th District. (Photo: Benjamin Ragsdale)


Both Ragsdale and Smith came to the anti-war movement through the civil rights movement. In the mid 1960s, Ragsdale worked alongside Virginia Union students on voter registration while Smith worked with immigrant farm workers in the state. Once the war ended, their activism didn’t. Their takeaway from that time four decades ago?

Ragsdale: If we see any injustice in this world, it's our duty to speak up against it.

Smith: We didn't change everything and some things got worse. But it would have been worse it we had given up.


A crowd of students listen to speakers at an anti-war rally at VCU Shafer Court in May 1970. (Photo: VCU Library)


Today, Ragsdale is an advocate for immigrants before the General Assembly. Smith serves on the Prince William County Democratic Committee and works on senior issues for AARP.

Mark Huffman, WCVE News.