David Harris, an activist, and journalist who gained notoriety in the late 1960s for urging young men to refuse the draft to fight in the Vietnam War and who himself went to jail for doing so, passed away on Monday in his Mill Valley, California, home. He was 76. Lung cancer, according to his wife Cheri Forrester, was at blame.
The antiwar movement’s unusual spokesperson was Mr. Harris. He was born in the Central Valley of California, the son of a lawyer and a devoutly conservative mother. In 1963, he was chosen as “kid of the year” by his high school, where he debated and earned a football letter.
He was persuaded that his generation had a moral duty to oppose injustice, including what he perceived as the mounting tragedy in Vietnam, by an awakening during his first year of college, which included a few weeks of work in Mississippi at the close of Freedom Summer in 1964. He called on his fellow students and other young people to directly challenge the draft throughout the course of the ensuing years, using his position within the system to propel himself to national notoriety.
Although he was occasionally called a draft evader, he was actually quite the reverse. He encouraged his fellow students to submit their draft cards to the government in protest, advocating resistance rather than avoidance.
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Doing so was a felony, and when Mr. Harris himself was drafted, in 1968, he refused to report for induction. He was almost immediately indicted by the federal authorities. “I dodged nothing,” he wrote in a guest essay for The New York Times in 2017. “I courted arrest, speaking truth to power, and power responded with an order for me to report for military service.”
He married singer Joan Baez, whom he met through the antiwar movement, a few months after his indictment. In order to warm up for his anti-war stemwinders, she sang and played the guitar while the two of them were on a 16-month cross-country tour.
In a phone interview, Ms. Baez stated, “There was no doubt to me that this kid had an immense skill for speaking. People would gather to listen to David Harris speak about how we’re going to change the world as we performed this “dog and pony show” in front of them.
In 1969, Mr. Harris was found guilty and given a three-year prison term, which he completed in 15 months. The lyrics of Ms. Baez’s song “A Song for David,” which she wrote shortly after David’s conviction, lamented, “The stars in your sky/Are the stars in mine/And both prisoners/Of this life are we.”
When he was finally freed in 1970, he found it difficult to adjust to life outside of prison on both a personal and professional level. Both the war and the antiwar movement were coming to an end. A few months later, he and Ms. Baez got divorced, but they remained good friends for the remainder of his life.
On a whim, he wrote a letter to Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, offering to sell him a series of antiwar essays. Mr. Wenner demurred, but he liked Mr. Harris’s writing enough to let him try something else: a profile of Ron Kovic, a Marine whose battlefield injuries in Vietnam had left him unable to use his legs, and who went on to be a prominent antiwar activist.
The article, “Ask a Marine,” ran in 1973. Three years later Mr. Kovic published his autobiography, “Born on the Fourth of July,” and in 1989 Oliver Stone made a critically acclaimed film version of the book, starring Tom Cruise as Mr. Kovic.
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The article also launched Mr. Harris’s second career, as a magazine journalist and author. He spent the next five years writing for Rolling Stone and in 1978 became a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. A decade later, he left the magazine to write books full-time
His reporting frequently drew on the effects of the Vietnam War and the social unrest of the 1960s. It had an insightful essay about Allard K. Lowenstein, a liberal activist, and politician who served as one of Mr. Harris’ Stanford mentors and was assassinated in 1980 by Dennis Sweeney, a fellow former Stanford student, and close friend.
He wrote, “Dreams of bettering the world were still envisioned as simple things back in the early 1960s.” Nobody had ever witnessed a vision buckle under the pressure of the reactions it would bring forth.
The son of Elaine (Jensen) Harris, a housewife, and rock-ribbed Republican lawyer Clifton Harris Jr., David Victor Harris was born on February 28, 1946, in Fresno, California.
He has raised in an affluent environment thanks to the postwar boom in California. He was a standout student at Fresno High School and had aspirations of attending West Point and working for the FBI, but he chose Stanford instead. Though their social and political paths rarely overlapped, he shared a dorm with future Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Mr. Harris was soon drawn to a group of students involved in the civil rights movement, and he begged his father to let him join them on a trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. His father insisted that he instead stay home and work.
“I came back for the start of my sophomore year afraid that I had missed the great adventure of my lifetime,” he said in a phone interview for this obituary last year.
March 1965 saw him attend his first demonstration. The encounter “felt like an emergence, from darkness into light, from the forest into a clearing,” he said in his book “Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us” (1996).
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He added that he focused his activism on the draft issue since it allowed him to personally and concretely change things while also potentially making a sacrifice. He sent his draft card back to the U.S. Selective Service in 1966, stating that he would refuse to carry it and would not accept a call to duty should he be selected.
“I sealed the envelope, walked down the block to the mailbox, and put the envelope in,” he wrote. “I remember that summer afternoon, the dirt of the road nearby, and I remember feeling like I could have flapped my arms and flown back to my house if I had wanted. I felt like I was my own man for the first time in my life.”
Mr. Harris, a talented orator, quickly became in demand as a speaker at antiwar protests all around California. He came upon Ms. Baez, who had established the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel, California, along the road. Mr. Harris traveled there one day in search of grants.
“He was just this lovely cowboy,” Ms. Baez said. “And that was my introduction to what the resistance was all about. I mean, I knew a little, but he was certainly the best representative to have.”
He was unmoved, displaying a stoicism that he carried into the courtroom during his trial for refusing the draft. In 2019, he told Alta magazine, “There comes a period when you have to prove who you are. “I had to stand up in court and inform the judge that I was aware of six technicalities in my Selective Service record that could have led to the dismissal of the entire case. However, I said that I didn’t want to utilize them because I wanted the matter to be resolved.
He organized hunger strikes within the prison to improve living conditions for prisoners, first at a camp with minimal security in Arizona and then at a prison in Texas with stricter supervision after being sentenced to it.
Mr. Harris married Lacey Fosburgh, a writer and former reporter for The New York Times, in 1977. She died in 1993. He met Ms. Forrester in 1993, and they married in 2011. Along with his wife, he is survived by his son with Ms. Baez, Gabriel Harris; his daughter with Ms. Fosburgh, Sophie Harris; a stepdaughter, Eva Orbach; and his brother, Clifton Harris.
My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies and Other Confessions, a compilation of Mr. Harris’ newspaper and magazine stories, is the most current of Mr. Harris’ investigative books on sports, politics, and the environment that he wrote after leaving The New York Times Magazine.
He began the book by stating, “That golden age of journalism I was lucky to participate in is over today, but my confidence in that lost era’s foundations remains. We can only hope that our retrospective on those years may, in some small way, usher in a new era where Truth triumphs over everything else.
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