Marv Davidov: My Friend, My Inspiration
By Michael Orange
Marv Davidov, the man the noted historian, Howard Zinn, called "the apostle of nonviolent direct action," died on January 14 at 80 years of age. The litany of Davidov's life as a devoted advocate matches the turbulent history of the peace, justice, labor, and environmental movements over the last six decades. He was a Freedom Rider and protester on the Peoples March on Washington, a hunger striker in several Southern jails, a union organizer, a protector of family farms and Native American rights, a riveting speaker and teacher, and a tireless leader in the fight to end the Vietnam War.
Best known for founding the Honeywell Project in 1968, a worldwide movement to stop the production of indiscriminate weapons of war, Marv also founded the Minnesota chapter of the War Resisters League and helped found the Minnesota Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which was part of the international organization that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
With Marv's life of dedication and unflagging work across the country, it would be hard to find a famous peace and justice worker who didn't know Marv. He was admired and embraced by the likes of Phil Berrigan, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Dave Dellinger, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few. In fact, the Justice Studies Association chose Marv for its 2007 Noam Chomsky Award. To honor Marv and his contributions, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the Minnesota House of Representatives proclaimed March 10 as Marv Davidov Day.
Soon after he died, I was in Marv's room at a local nursing home helping his closest friend, Barbara Mishler, and my wife, Cynthia, with his possessions. We stepped out of the room when the man from the Cremation Society arrived so he could do his job. A few minutes later, he told us he would now bring out Marv's body. He slowly wheeled the blanket draped gurney out of the room and paused where the three of us had lined up to offer our deep respect and love for this giant of the peace and justice community. We said our last goodbyes and stood there for a few moments more, almost at attention, as one would do when the body of a dignitary or national hero passes for military review.
Marv and I were both in the service, and I thought of saluting but dismissed the idea even though it always struck me that the story I heard Marv tell repeatedly was about the incident while in the Army that launched his activist vocation. He refused to participate in the brutal beating of another soldier and that act of courage resulted in his own beating. I wanted to pay tribute to his bravery.
Although acquaintances for two decades, Marv and I became good friends after he agreed to address the students in a class I co-taught in 2007 about Vietnam and the 60s. Wearing his Honeywell Project T-shirt (as did I), his bushy white hair exploded from under his Vets for Peace cap. "Mine was a breach birth," he began. "I came out feet first kicking and then screaming and I've been doing it ever since." Then he recounted his Army story, fresh as if it was the first time, complete with his characteristic drawn-out vowels and no-holds-barred-expletives. He finished an hour and a half later only pausing occasionally to breathe. He so transfixed the students that they ranked his presentation as the highlight of the course.
On that Saturday morning with Marv, January 14, Cynthia and I joined Barbara and two other close friends of Marv at his bedside as he lay dying. His breathing was somewhat labored and, for a time, he seemed to try to speak to Barbara who sat close to him on his bed.
Earlier, Barbara described some of the last words Marv spoke the night before he died. "I said to him, 'Marv, what should I do with the rest of my life?' He thought for a long, long time; so long that I thought he forgot the question. Finally, he turned to me and said: 'You must locate your deepest private feelings—philosophical, religious and spiritual—and then decide to live out these beliefs in a commensurate way, in public, as much as possible without compromise.' It's no surprise I loved and admired him immensely."
As we gathered close around Marv, Cynthia sang him the Beetles' lullaby, Goodnight. He reached up to touch Barbara and she held his hand gently. He relaxed and his breathing grew softer. At about 1:15 p.m., he turned his face and gaze towards the ceiling as if he recognized something (or someone), then shut his eyes and died peacefully moments later.
Over the last months of his life, we started a little ritual when I visited him. I always gave him a little kiss on the top of his bald head as he lay in his bed and we both said I love you. Just before the tall man in the long black-leather coat took Marv for his last trip, I completed my role in our ritual one last time.
Michael Orange served as a Marine in Vietnam and experienced combat in numerous search-and-destroy missions during his one-year tour of duty. In 2001, he published a memoir of his service, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam and he teaches classes on the history of the war and PTSD.