Barbara Deming (1917–1984)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing
The activist and essayist Barbara Deming was born 100 years ago this Sunday, July 23.
During the 1950s, before Deming became a prominent force in the peace and civil rights movements, she and her partner, the painter Mary Meigs, were part of a Cape Cod crowd that included the painter Mark Rothko and the author Mary McCarthy, whose 1955 novel, A Charmed Life, includes a thinly disguised character unflatteringly based on Meigs. Their circle eventually included McCarthy’s ex-husband, Edmund Wilson—the literary critic who originally promoted the idea for a series of books that would become Library of America.
At the end of the decade, Meigs and Deming went on a trip to Asia and ended up in India, where Deming immersed herself in the works of Gandhi. The next spring, Deming made her way to Cuba, where she confronted Fidel Castro on a street corner and, while expressing her support for the end of Batista’s rule, argued with him about the importance of avoiding violence. (“She advises me not to get angry,” he told the crowd that had assembled during their interview—including a crew from NBC News.) “Barbara’s exposure to Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution and to Castro’s violent one seems to have quite suddenly activated her earnest, searching, moral side,” writes historian Martin Duberman, and upon returning to the U.S. she joined the Committee for Nonviolent Action.
One of her early essays describes a peace walk from Nashville to Washington in April 1962, and how its organizers decided to integrate the event—a decision that met not only with the expected threats from outside agitators but also criticism from other activists who felt that the mere presence of black marchers would turn the peace walk into a civil rights march. In honor of the centennial of this remarkable woman, we present Deming’s account, “Southern Peace Walk,” as our Story of the Week selection.