Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: King of Prussia, Montgomery County
Award winning poet Philip Berrigan wrote his autobiography and The Criminality of Nuclear Deterrence in prison for leading a protest at the GE plant in King of Prussia.
Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, was a well known activist for social reform during the Vietnam War. He wrote poetry, essays, and biographies discussing his religious beliefs and faith in the teachings of the Catholic community regarding peace and understanding. Berrigan wrote several autobiographies discussing his experiences in prison after eight major acts of civil disobedience lead him to more than 11 years behind bars. In 1980, Berrigan poured blood and hammered on warheads at a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He was convicted and imprisoned for this action, which eventually ignited the international Plowshares Movement. Berrigan was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died on December 6, 2002, at his home in Maryland.
Philip Berrigan was born to Frieda Fromhart and Thomas Berrigan on October 5, 1923, on the Minnesota Iron Range. Before becoming a well known priest, civil rights activist, draft protestor, and peace activist, Berrigan served in World War II as an artillery officer in Europe. After returning from the war, Berrigan attended the College of the Holy Cross and graduated in 1949. Berrigan’s focus soon shifted to the church. His brother, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, was already a priest for the Jesuit community and his example encouraged Philip to dedicate himself to a religious calling. Philip Berrigan decided that his beliefs were in tune with the Josephite Order and he soon became a Catholic priest specializing in inner city ministry. After completing his religious education, Berrigan was assigned to teach at St. Augustine’s high school in New Orleans, an all-black school, until 1963. Teaching at this school was the beginning of Berrigan’s involvement in the civil rights movement. His attention to society’s divisions based on color began his journey as an activist of his Catholic beliefs and reformist views. Berrigan’s activism in encouraging equal rights eventually lead him to become the first priest to ride in a civil rights movement, Freedom Ride, in the hope of desegregation. He participated in several sit-ins and bus boycotts at this time, simultaneously attempting to end racism and argue against the violence of war. Berrigan’s first book, No More Strangers, was published in 1966. It recounted many of the religious and political agendas that Berrigan formed while serving at a parish in Baltimore. Berrigan put these beliefs into action in October of 1967. In an effort to promote his anti-war position, he poured blood on Selective Service draft files in the Baltimore Customs House with three others who would later be known as the “Baltimore Four.” Once Berrigan was released on bail for this first offense, he formed a similar group involving his brother, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, called the “Catonsville Nine.” The “nine” were sentenced to six years in prison for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, only seven months later. Both Berrigan-led groups’ efforts attracted support because of their religious associations and their peaceful intentions. After failed attempts to appeal his sentence and escape the law, Berrigan was imprisoned again. While in jail, he wrote journals and essays that were later published into books, such as Punishment for Peace and Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary. Berrigan’s efforts to document his cause and suffering in prison were noted by the public and this recognition encouraged him to continue his fight against what he believed were societal injustices upon his release. The end of the Vietnam War and Berrigan’s release from prison encouraged him to protest against the nuclear policies of the United States. On September 9, 1980, Berrigan and seven others, later referred to as the “Plowshares Eight,” poured blood and hammered on warheads at General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-Entry Division plant (where Mark 21A warheads were made) in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He was convicted and imprisoned on ten different felony and misdemeanor counts for this action that ignited the International Plowshares Movement. The “Plowshares Eight” continued this movement, nonviolently acting against the nuclear capabilities of the United States, and were imprisoned for 10 years and eventually released with over 20 months parole. Philip Berrigan died on December 6, 2002, at his home in Baltimore after two months of battling liver and kidney cancer. He spent his last days in Jonah House, a religiously-based peace community he began in 1973 with family and friends committed to values similar to his own. In his last statement, recorded the day before his death, Berrigan said, “I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself.” It is clear that Berrigan’s belief in the hard work of his life lasted though to his last breath.
A Punishment for Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Widen the Prison Gates; writing from jails, April, 1970-December, 1972. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Of Beasts and Beastly Images: Essays under the Tomb. Portland: Sunburst Press, 1978.
Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire: The Autobiography of Philip Berrigan. Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1996.
Religion and Politics
No More Strangers. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
American Catholic Exodus. Washington: Corpus Books, 1968.