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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A conscientious objector joins the military

Burgess explains how he came to register for the army during World War II after his initial opposition to the draft. As a seminary student, Burgess's conscientious objections dovetailed with his faith. His relationship with noted theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, led Burgess to see the utility of violence to bolster his pacifist philosophies. This theme of using violence when necessary recurs later in the transcript.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DAVID BURGESS:
Yes, I met her first at a planning meeting for the National Student Assembly which took place in the Christmas season of 1941 in Miami, Ohio. We met in February, saw each other two or three weekends, were engaged, and married soon thereafter. I had quite a dilemma because in 1940 I was going through rather stormy times. I almost went to jail because I was one of 20 students at Union Theological Seminary who said they weren't going to register for the draft for a number of reasons. I'm glad I finally registered.
BILL FINGER:
You didn't register?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes, I did. I finally registered as a CO. A lot of my friends went to jail and that was quite a stormy experience. I stayed out of seminary. My father had had a near-fatal heart attack; I wasn't sure enough of my position. I was a first year student at Union. My pacifism and my religious faith were all confused together, if I may use those words. I am glad that in 1940 I decided to enter Union Seminary.
BILL FINGER:
What were the things that got you to Union then? You were interested in religious questions?
DAVID BURGESS:
Well, Reinhold Niebuhr. I would say I was a violent pacifist, if you can use those words together.
JACQUELYN HALL:
At Oberlin?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes, and I was also at Union Seminary. I fought Reiny all the way through seminary, and eventually agreed with him, reversed my position, volunteered as a chaplain, but was turned down because of health reasons.
BILL FINGER:
Did he influence you in your changing?
DAVID BURGESS:
Well, I felt that I could not deny the use of violence in the labor movement. This being the case, I couldn't deny it in war. Having been in picket lines and seeing what happens on picket lines in fights, scab conflicts and so forth in the mine areas, I couldn't take an absolutist position on this. I took it more or less on an individual basis, but I couldn't take it on a collective basis. And also I think, secondly, Reiny's making me look much more deeply at my own action, in the labor movement and of course in my life.