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Mary Sharmat's Statement Regarding Her Civil Defense Protest
During the Eisenhower Administration, compulsory air raid drills were
conducted annually in dozens of cities throughout the United States. By the
end of the decade, citizens began to organize protests against those civil
defense exercises. Mary Sharmat was one of the organizers.
By Mary Learson Sharmat
I read on a back page of the New York Times that a civil defense drill would be
held the following noon. The public would be expected to "take cover". There
would be a "danger signal". After an appropriate lapse of minutes, an "all
clear" signal would be sounded. The public was asked to cooperate. Upon
reading the item, somewhere in the back of my mind a memory or nine pacifists
took form. They had refused to take shelter the year before and had been
arrested in Ninth Avenue by the police. I then informed my husband that I,
also, would refuse to take cover during the annual "Operation Alert" being held
the next day. He took it standing up. I invited him to join me, but he said
The reasons for my decision were not scientific, although it was clear to me
that New York City would become a desert in the event of nuclear war. Or, the
Hudson River would run into a great big hole. I felt that nuclear air-raid
drills taught fear and hate towards an enemy. No enemy was coming to attack
New York City, and I could not hate an unknown enemy in a nuclear age. I would
disobey a bad law.
I telephoned and asked a few of my newfound friends in SANE to join me, but
they declined my invitation. SANE was the first and only organization I
belonged to, so it looked like I would have to go it alone with my young son,
My husband and I discussed the implementation and implications. As I had read
about the nine pacifists being arrested, we could assume that refusing to take
shelter was against the law. We got five hundred dollars out of the savings
account for bail money. I prepared an overnight case for jail including baby
foods and plenty of extra diapers for my baby son. I called the City Desks of
all the newspapers informing them of my intentions and the location. The
location was to be on the bench by the Civil Defense truck at the center island
of Broadway and 86th Street. I prepared a roast beef for my husband and his
brother, who would be joining Bill to see me off for civil disobedience. If I
were to be in prison for awhile, they would have plenty of roast beef for
For the occasion, I wore a black and white checkered cotton suit with matching
red accessories. Jimmy wore a new blue linen outfit that looked adorable.
When arrested, we would appear our very best. Newspapers could never identify
us as "beatniks."
At 11:30 AM Jimmy, snug in this stroller, and I headed up 86th Street and
Broadway, two blocks from home. I found an empty seat right in the center of
the island and practically on the bumper of the Civil Defense truck. I tried
to look innocuous. I pushed Jimmy's stroller back and forth to keep him happy
and gritted my teeth in determination not to become a coward and return home.
At 12:00, the siren started blowing. I sat. Men in little what helmets came
out of doorways and frantically ordered people to take cover. People then
crowded into the doorways and stood under the subway entrance domes. The Civil
Defense men had noticed me sitting alone, but would first save the rest of the
population. All the people were cleared off the sidewalks, pushed into
hallways or under entrance canopies, and cars and traffic was halted. There
was only Jimmy and I, two policemen safe in a police car, an elderly lady, and
fifty men in little white helmets. All other human life was under cover.
The elderly woman was first approached. She explained that she was waiting for
a friend for a luncheon date. If she left the bench. she would miss her
friend, as they were to meet at 12:00 promptly. She appeared quite confused by
all the commotion. The man in the white helmet screamed over the sound of the
siren that was "Operation Alert," and that she must take cover immediately!
Two men forcibly helped her across the street to the subway entrance and
safety. She resisted all the way.
Then, a man came to Jimmy and me. He demanded that I take shelter, I said, "I
can't take shelter. I do not believe in this." I had prepared my statements
of length but at this point, I was in a state-of-semi-shock. These were the
only words I could utter. He said "You are nuts," and then declared that
unless I took shelter, he would call the police, I said, "Call the police."
Another Civil Defense man came over to argue sense to me, and he screamed over
the sirens. I just kept repeating, "This is wrong, I refuse to take cover."
He was terrified of me, and I of him. Jimmy was frightened also. The sirens
were unbearably loud. I gave Jimmy his bottle but nothing would stop his
crying. Then a policeman got out of his car. He walked over and said, "Lady,
we are going to give you a ticket." I said, "Give me a ticket." That was the
least of my worries. He threw up his hands and got back int his car. Both he
an other policemen waved and smiled at me. The Civil Defense men were furious.
By this time, the people in the doorways and the hallways, from under the
subway entrance domes, offices and restaurants had all come out from under
cover to see what the disturbance was all about. There must have been several
hundred people lining the streets all watching the incident on the island in
the middle of 86th Street and Broadway. The men from the local stockbroker's
office left the stock tapes and came out from Loew-Neuberger. This is most
unusual. The Civil Defense men ran and took cover. Jimmy cried and I sat.
The "all clear" signal sounded at 12:15 PM. At that moment, all traffic
proceeded as usual. Commerce commenced and people continued their interrupted
shopping. I picked up a pair of shoes at the repair show and ran a few other
errands and then went home. My husband was surprised to see us. He had
anticipated a call from the jail. He went up to the bank and returned the bail
money to our savings account. I unpacked the overnight case and put back the
extra diapers and baby foods. Jimmy fell asleep in his crib.
Later in the day, my husband picked up the early edition of the New York Times.
There, right on the front page, was the picture of another young mother and her
two children being arrested at City Hall Park by the police. Her name was
Janice Smith and she had refused to take shelter at City Hall Park. Her
statement read "All these drills do are scare birds, babies and old ladies. I
will not raise my children to go underground." Certainly not a brilliant
statement but many more words than I could have uttered. The story continued
to tell how the police had arrested her and brought her to the police station
and after a lecture about disobeying the law, released her. Eleven pacifists
were arrested elsewhere in City Hall Park and were sentenced to five days each
in the house of detention. The pacifists received neither a picture in the
paper nor much attention in the wordage of the news story. Janice Smith and
her children were featured on the front pages of four New York dailies.
My husband encouraged me to contact Janice Smith. "Find her." He felt that
she was a woman who knew a great deal about public relations as well as feeling
the same as I did about air-raid drills. She certainly knew how to obtain
sympathetic and effective press coverage.
The next day, I proceeded to phone all the Smiths in the phone directory. I
started with the A. Smiths. There are hundreds of Smiths listed in the
Manhattan phone directory. Each Smith I called I asked, "Does Janice Smith who
refused to take shelter live here? You can imagine some of the reactions.
Well, Janice Smith was finally found. Her husband's first name is Jack.
Therefore, I didn't have to go through the entire alphabet and call all the
Smith's in the phone book. I was thankful that J for Jack is located in the
first half of the alphabet.
It was a wonderful experience to speak with Janice. We both felt so completely
alone. We told each other, in detail, just what had happened to us. Neither
of us could stop talking. We were kindred spirits. There was not one woman
who had refused to take shelter. There were two. And, if I wasn't alone, and
there were two of us, certainly there were other women in this vast city who
had refused to take shelter as well. Perhaps they had stood with children in
the playground, the local park, and the neighborhood shopping area and likewise
disobeyed what they believed to be a bad law. These women must have been
seeking others to speak with, to join with, to share a belief with that civil
defense was a moral wrong.
Janice and I would ferret our friends out. We had a strong weapon in the hand
of any woman; the telephone. We felt that if we devoted an hour a day on the
telephone for the next year, together our efforts would be able to locate
eight, maybe ten, mothers who would agree to refuse to take shelter together in
a group. Our goal at the end of our first telephone conversation was eight
women for the 1960 "Operation Alert." Janice's husband was employed by the
United Press International press service. Thus, our project would have to
receive nationwide attention.
Then we found Pat McMahon. Pat and I traveled to the same playground at 83rd
Street and Riverside Park. Pat had four children. We were chatting one day
while the children were playing in the sandbox. Pat explained to me that she
was a follower of the philosophies of Gandhi. She believed in the theory of
non-violence. She belonged to an organization called "The War Resister's
League." I told her about Janice's and my project. She would proudly join
And then, there were three.
Pat was able to obtain lists of names and telephone numbers of women from her
organizations' mailing list. These women might be like-minded to the cause.
We composed a letter addressed to "Dear Mother." Not being writers, the letter
took weeks to compose. And-uneducated in the ways of Madison Avenue - it was
three pages long. The letter was terse, emotional but sincere.
I called a Dr. Robert Gilmore, Secretary of the American Friends Service
Committee here in New York City. I had met him once at a SANE meeting and he
appeared to be a man who liked women. I explained to him that we had a
desperate need for a mimeograph machine. After much hesitation, he agreed to
see us. And, after several conversations and sessions together, he finally
agreed to let us use the Service Committee mimeograph machine. This was a big
break for us as we would be able to mass-produce copy to distribute to the
public. Dr. Gilmore was very supportive!!
We had our "Dear Mother" letter mimeographed in bulk. Each afternoon Pat and I
would fill her baby carriage full of copies and hand them out at the Riverside
Park playground. We walked from playground to playground with the five
children, her four and my one and attempted to enlist followers to the cause.
Meanwhile, the three of us were also hitting the telephones. We discovered two
mothers who had refused to take shelter by standing in the middle of the Grand
Concourse in the Bronx.
We found, or she found us, Adrienne Winegrand, who took over the coordination
of material distribution in Central Park playgrounds. Adrienne had a dynamic
personality and was most successful at recruiting Central Park West women in
joining a civil disobedience demonstration.
In six months, we were fifty.
1960 "Operation Alert" drew near. A series of meetings began to be held. At
these meetings, we discussed how to dress (as if one were going to business or
an afternoon tea. No shorts, slacks or sneakers). Also, how to behave (as
ladies), what to do when arrested (cooperate if possible) and bail (a personal
Each individual had the choice of three actions: 1. To join the protest, but
to leave when the sirens sounded. These people could give out literature in
the shelters and serve as baby sitters for arrested mothers who had to spend
time in prison. 2. Two stay when the sirens sounded, but leave when
personally asked by an officer of the law to take shelter, therefore avoiding
arrest. 3. To refuse to take shelter under any circumstances, even when
threatened with arrest.
We girls felt that no individual should feel qualms about a last minute
hesitation and retreat. Arrest is a serious matter. Certainly our
demonstration should be open to as many individuals as wished to participate to
whatever extent they felt they could be involved. If a man or woman had a
large family to support and worked for the government, this person was
courageous to show up in the protest area and even for a few moments join with
lawbreakers would certainly have a good reason to avoid arrest.
Two weeks before "Operation Alert," we had in hand 250 signed pledges of women
who would refuse to take shelter at City Hall Park. Several Volkswagen buses
were contributed to help us with transportation. We set up a series of bus
stops to carry women and children to City Hall Park. One main bus stop was set
up at Central Park West and the 93rd Street playground. Adrienne Winegrand
organized this particular playground. Nine mothers who spent afternoons there
were pledged to travel to City Hall Park to commit civil disobedience.
An orientation meeting was held at my house. Twenty-one women attended.
Everything was discussed from what to wear to what to do when riot squad
arrived and turned on the hoses.
Janice Smith sent our a mailing of maps. It would be a disaster, if the
pledges got lost on the subway while trying to find City Hall Park and the
chosen place of protest. Janice composed an eye-catching and meticulous map.
Every subway and bus stop from all areas of the city was carefully labeled. No
one with the map in hand could get lost on the New York Transit System. All
roads led to City Hall Park.
I receive a phone call from the police headquarters. A letter had been written
to the correct police authorities informing them in full of the project and our
plans. Now, they wished to have further information. I was nervous, but the
police chief on the other end of the wire was shaking with tension. He said
that the police did not wish to arrest any ladies. He begged us to stay home.
He was sincerely concerned about the children. He asked if there would be any
resistance to arrest as the police found it most embarrassing to "manhandle" a
woman. He was so relieved to hear that we did not plan to go "limp" and that
we liked the New York City police force. The police were worried that in case
of forced arrest they would grab a woman in the wrong physical area. I told
him about the time the police had ben so cooperative in attempting to locate
some lost jewelry for me. I tried to make clear to the police chief that we
did care for them, we had no bone to pick with the police. We were sorry they
were compelled to be involved with Civil Defense, and that our fight was solely
with the Civil Defense authorities and the war effort.
Phone calls were being made until the last moment in the hopes of recruiting
every last person who would be interested. Surprisingly, reactions on the
other end were seldom hostile. Many women disagreed with the tactics but after
discussion, they offered to baby-sit in case of arrests. Several husbands were
very hostile, though, when various phone bills were opened. We had to set up a
special fund to help pay phone bills.
I was unable to convince any of my neighbors to join me. My girlfriends here
in my buildings were intrigued with the idea and followed the progress of the
demonstration but at the final moment, all had excuses to stay home.
April 1, 1960: The weather was beautiful, a good omen for a big turnout for a
demonstration on such an early spring day. I wore a large white hat trimmed in
lace, a pink and white checkered dress with a wide full skirt. Jimmy and I
took a taxi to City Hall Park even though we lived on the Upper West Side and
from here to there, it was an expensive haul. I had the compulsion temptation
to say to our cab driver, "Guess what? You are bringing passengers to City
Hall Park to disobey the law. How do you feel being an accessory to the crime
of fighting for peace." I wonder what his answer would have been to that
Well, everyone knows what happened on April 1st. I was not alone. Janice was
not alone. The two mothers from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx were not
alone. Over five hundred friends gathered in City Hall Park. Many men came
down. Our skirts gave them courage. We loaned out extra babies to bachelor's
who had the misfortune to be childless. Dozens of children played in an area
designated "Stay off the Grass." Some of the students brought their musical
instruments and softly played folk songs such as "We Shall Overcome" and "We
Shall not be Moved."
At noon, the sirens sounded. We stood. Mothers with children, fathers with
mutual deep concern bachelors who had hopes and a borrowed baby, maiden aunts
who had no children but were taking care of the rest of us. We stood. There
was dead silence throughout the park. Those who had planned to leave did not.
Those who planned to leave upon being requested to do by police never were
asked. My husband Bill, and his best buddy had traveled down solely to wish me
good luck. They had no intentions of being arrested. They were never asked to
leave by the police. The crowd was just too big and therefore stayed through
the entire drill. So many others were in the same situation, therefore lending
numbers to a mass. Across the street, on Park Row, stood at least two thousand
spectators, all having left shelter to watch the arrests of those who refused
to take shelter.
Twenty-eight arrests were made at random. The police were instructed to arrest
those who appeared disreputable. We were not prepared for token arrests. The
one woman who had attended the meeting at my house and who had not dressed "as
if going to business" was arrested. She wore shorts and sneakers. Several
women who were arrested panicked and went limp. More arrests would have been
made, but the police only had two paddy wagons. One policeman was overheard to
say, "Next year, we'll bring ten wagons."
Every New York daily carried the event in headlines. It was the lead news item
on television news programs. It remained top news for a week through the
trials, the sentencing, and the picket lines outside the Women's House of
Detention at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. Civil Defense at last had become an
issue. It was no longer ignored as an unimportant nothing to put up with
because it was easier to do so. Legislators for more drills and shelters
introduced Civil Defense bills. Other drills were introduced by legislators
for the absolution of drills and shelters. Voters came back home at the polls
began to care.
1961: Operation Alert" was held nationally and protest was held nationally with
arrests made in nine states. Over two hundred and fifty people were arrested
by token arrest in cities on the East Coast alone. Civil Disobedience against
Civil Defense made headlines in every small town and metropolitan newspaper.
The Manchester Union of New Hampshire had eighteen headlines concerning the
arrests of nine students who had stood in the middle of the street on campus
during the drill. New Hampshire State Governor Powell went on television (he
paid for the time out of his own pocket) to ask for their expulsion from the
University of New Hampshire. The President of the University refused to expel
the students. He was soon replaced as President. At the next election,
Governor Powell was replaced as Governor.
In 1960, compulsory Civil Defense was somewhat discarded by Civil Defense
authorities. No "Operation Alert" was held in New York City. No more pictures
of Mayor Wagner walking the deserted Times Square area with a walky-talky in
his hand. We were informed by rumors that the fact that the 1962 protest was
to be held in Times Square and gained the police on our side. The New York
police could not abide the thought of thousands of women refusing to take
shelter in Times Square. They dreaded having not abide the thought of
thousands of women refusing to take shelter in Times Square. They dreaded
having to arrest a woman who might go "limp." The police held a conference
with us answering their questions, and we had to answer that we could not speak
for every individual. At a later date, the police held a conference with the
heads of Civil Defense, begging that 1962 "Operation Alert" to be cancelled.
The 1962 "Operation Alert" was cancelled. No compulsory drill has been held to
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