The year was 1978. Connie Blitt had come to New York after college, looking to find others with a passion for social change. She joined the staff of WIN, where she became immersed in the issues of the day. Her life changed forever when a call came in to the WIN office: Ninety-year-old peace activist Anne McVey Upshure needed a home care companion. Connie accepted the short-lived position; before it ended, she had become devoted to Anne, whom she saw as a role model.
The next year she asked fellow journalist and her partner at the time, WBAI producer Dennis J. Bernstein, if he would join her in a special project. Anne wanted to move back to the country after six decades in New York City. Dennis agreed, and off they went looking for a place where they could live and support Anne in her final years. They received far more than they could have imagined: They inherited Anne’s legacy.
Anne McVey Upshure was a lifelong advocate for peace and justice. She lived her activism; her values permeated her personal interactions, as well as her political stands. During the Vietnam War, the War Resisters League chose to honor Anne with their annual Peace Award. She respectfully declined, saying that peace was not the work of an individual, but of entire communities.
“In declining, Anne pointed out the elitism of this sort of gesture,” recalled longtime WRL staff member Karl Bissinger years later. “However, she joined us for dinner, we all had a wonderful time, and Annie is still awardless except in our hearts.”
When Anne was 91 and could no longer take advantage of New York City’s many offerings, we moved with her into a recon- stituted farmhouse in Middletown, New York, on an old back road in the middle of hundreds of acres of farmland. Our living room was filled with art and sculpture from her many years of living in New York. There Anne welcomed activists and friends of various generations as they found their way to visit her.
Our home in the country brought back memories for Anne of her upbringing in Centerview, Missouri, and she began to tell us vivid stories of her life. Her mother had died giving birth to her on August 25, 1887; Anne was raised by her father, a homeopath and, as she said, a “Eugene Debs socialist.” In the morning before going to their one-room schoolhouse, Anne and her sisters would brush each other’s hair until it shone, while their father read to them from Walt Whitman and Emma Goldman. (Decades later, Anne’s father opposed U.S. participation in World War I and went to jail for his courageous resis- tance to that very bloody war.) When she was eight years old, Anne was shocked by the way Native Americans were portrayed in class. She remembered stamping her feet and saying “How would you like it if someone came and took your land away?”
Early in the 20th century, Anne went to California and studied theater at UCLA, then moved to New York, where she directed her favorite play, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. In 1926, at the age of 38, Anne met her soul mate: Luke Theodore Upshure, a disabled composer and philosopher, and the son of a former slave from the deep South. Together the interracial couple set up a loft in Greenwich Village that was alive with music, poetry, and political discussion. I inherited an archive
of hand-written letters, flyers, and leaflets that opens a window into their life and concerns through the years.
In an invitation to a party at their home on May 6, 1934, Theo wrote, “Please, come rest, meditate, make merry a while among friends in an atmosphere of tranquility far removed from the chaotic muddled world with its ghastly hypocrisies and eternal stupidity. It is my desire to give you a musical feast with wholesome music, just a sip of nectar before we are hurled back to the alcoves of the unknown.” Anne had poignant and vivid memories of many gatherings at the loft, including those that both preceded and protested the state murders of Sacco and Vanzetti and of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Eventually Anne and Theodore moved to a low-income housing project in Harlem. In 1965, Anne wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King about the Selma-to-Montgomery march. “We have followed the moving events of the past days with full hearts.
... We have witnessed the moving of mountains by a people possessed of faith and a burning desire for rights and justice. ... But Dr. King how can there be justice without peace in the world? Vietnam hangs as a dark and threatening cloud over our rejoicings,” she lamented. “You Dr. King have been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. You have been destined to lead your (our) people out of the wilderness. ... Selma has become the symbol of the might of a people when united in the right ... how wonderful if our people, in the middle of their triumph, were to extend themselves beyond their horizons, to include all suffering people of the world.” (Dr. King did publicly op- pose the Vietnam War three years later, shortly before he was assassinated.)
After Theo’s death in 1969, Anne redoubled her efforts for peace and justice. She continued to keep her doors open as a community gathering place—and to speak truth to power. Over the time we lived with her, we heard many tales of her political resistance and personal testimonies of her compassion from the waves of people she had moved over the years.
“I knew Anne when she lived in the Grant Projects in Harlem,” Rose Lilly told us. “[When I was 18], my father was beating me with belts. Anne knew of my home life situation, so she gave me the key to stay with her whenever I needed to. When I was thrown out of my home, I don’t know where I would have gone if it wasn’t for Anne.”
Anne’s home in Harlem was a way station for draft resisters during the Vietnam War. Years later, while visiting Anne in Middletown, Chuck Matthei, founder of Equity Trust, a local community economic development organization, told us he had been staying with Anne in Harlem when the FBI came to arrest him for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
According to Anne’s FBI file (which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), “Mrs. Upshure began crying and weeping and quoting poems by Walt Whitman and praising the subject [Chuck Matthei] as a man of peace and verbally abus- ing the agents. She expressed her dislike for the FBI, terming it an evil organization. She voluntarily stated that she is 81 years of age, had been a socialist all her life, and that her father was arrested during World War I for anti-war [sic] activity.”
Chuck remembered it this way. When they came to ar- rest him, in an act of nonviolent resistance, he refused to cooperate. So they picked him up, and carried him down the hall horizontally in the air, with an FBI agent holding each arm and leg. When the elevator door opened, the elevator was full of people.
“The FBI men flashed their badges and shouted ‘FBI, we have a prisoner, clear the elevator,’” Chuck recalled. “But before anybody could move, Anne, who was about 5’1”, white haired, and well known to everyone in the project and much loved, jumped into the elevator door- way, spread her arms and legs blocking the doorway, and said ‘Darlings stay where you are, do you know what they are doing? They have come to take him away because he won’t kill people. Save those beautiful babies in Vietnam, stop this bloody war, resist the draft, don’t pay war taxes, and stay in the elevator!’” Chuck ended the story with, “I am hanging in mid-air, and thinking if you have to be sent away this is the way to do it!”
As she was slowing down in her 93rd year, Anne was determined to make a public stand for peace. “Wild horses couldn’t hold me back!” she said, when she heard about plans for women to encircle the Pentagon and disrupt the business of making war.
So late one cold November night in 1980, after much preparation, Dennis helped Anne into the car, then she and Connie headed off to Washington. There they joined the historic Women’s Pentagon Action, where 2000 women encircled the Pentagon and (as WRL described it years later) “put grave- stones in the lawn, wove yarn across the entrances to symbol- ically reweave the web of life, and created rituals of mourning and defiance by chanting, yelling, and banging on cans.” In an extraordinarily beautiful moment captured in a film by WRL’s Kate Donnelly, there is Anne at 93, steadily beating her drum, first softly, then louder and louder, as younger women around her whoop with joy and solidarity.
Anne’s conviction that there really is power in the people never wavered; memories of her inspire the two of us and countless others to this day.