When PBI co-founder Gene Keyes burned his draft card on Christmas Eve 1963

Published by Brent Patterson on

Gene Keyes, who helped found Peace Brigades International in September 1981, took a dramatic action against war on December 24, 1963.

He burned his draft card on that day.

That December he wrote two local newspapers in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, “Christmas Eve reminds us of our duty to work for peace on earth, a world without war. As a prayer for peace on earth, I will be holding a vigil on Christmas Eve in front of the local draft board. At midnight Christmas Eve I will be using my draft card to light a candle.”

He was not arrested because the United States government had not yet made the burning or destruction of a draft card a criminal offence (it would do so by August 1965, making it punishable with up to 5 years in prison).

Then on May 15, 1964, Keyes was drafted.

He wrote President Lyndon Johnson, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and the local draft board stating, “There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another. I hereby reject the order to report for induction.”

By July 1964, he was arrested in St. Louis for standing up in court when a friend was convicted for draft resistance. Keyes was sentenced to six months for contempt.

Then in 1965, Keyes was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to report for military service (he served one year of that sentence before being released).

Keyes has noted that he served those sentences at federal prisons in El Reno, Oklahoma, and in Springfield, Missouri.

His activism has also included civil disobedience actions against nuclear-armed Polaris missiles. In August 1961, he swam in the frigid waters of the Thames River near the naval submarine base in New London, Connecticut and tried to board the USS Ethan Allen, the first submarine designed as a ballistic missile launch platform. He served 17 days in jail for his persistent actions that day. 

Keyes has also noted, “In January-February 1964 I joined the second wave of hunger strikers in the Albany City jail, when the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Peace Walk was initially barred from going through the middle of town if integrated.”

David Dellinger has provided this context: “The authorities feared that a racially integrated peace march would embolden local activists and create more agitation. They therefore insisted that peace walkers could enter Albany only if they did not distribute leaflets in African American neighborhoods, shopping areas, the downtown, or along any major thoroughfare in the city. The first walkers entered Albany and were immediately arrested after marching straight into a busy shopping area.”

Kirkus adds that as a result of the hunger strike, “The demonstrators won a victory and were freed to march on through the town where they had been arrested.”

Keyes also took part in demonstrations at Woolworth’s in Boston in support of the call for them to desegregate the lunch counters in their stores in the American South.

By 1969, Keyes returned to university. He completed a BA in 1971 and an MA in 1973. That’s when he moved to Canada. In 1978, he completed his PhD in International Relations at York University in Toronto. He was then an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brandon University in Manitoba in 1979-80.

It was shortly after that, in September 1981, that Keyes joined with Hans Sinn, Murray Thomson and others on Grindstone Island south of Ottawa to form what would become Peace Brigades International. The founding statement highlighted, “We are building on a rich and extensive heritage of nonviolent action, which no longer can be ignored.”

Keyes, now 78 years old, lives in Berwick, Nova Scotia.

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