October 17, 1963
Picketing of the White House
Old but Aimless Practice
By Ernest A. Lotito
Shortly After 9 A.M. on Jan. 10, 1917, 14 women marched through Washington's Lafayette Square, their long dresses swishing in unison. They crossed Pennsylvania Ave. And posted themselves on both sides of the White House's two front gates. Guardes smiled.
The ladies stood as still as cigar store Indians int he warm sun. Their leaders, Commander Mabel Vernon and Sargeant of the Guard Mary GertrudeFendall shouted no orders because everyone was well briefed. Two held banners that read: "Mr. President, What will you do for Woman sufferage."
An hour later, when President Wilson returned from a round of golf, he seemed to ignore the women as he entered his house. They received more attention from five stalwart Comanches from Oklahoma, who were passing by. The Indians halted, stared incredulously at the women for several minutes and then walked on, muttering.
President Wilson remained outwardly oblivious to the Suffragettes. But he came to know them well. They picketed constantly for five months, through rain, sleet and windstorm, and finally, after a series of arrests, won a court test legalizing White House picketing.
The White House picketing craze had been born. The wide sidewalk in front of the spacious mansion at 1600 Pennsylbania ave. Would never be the same again. It had been a peaceful, shaded promenade. It was turned into a stage for the struttings and frettings of hundreds of thousands of loabbying performers.
Even today, in an era of grim lunch counter sitins, church kneel-ins Freedom Riders and violent demonstrations, it remains a favorite and sentimental site for pickets.
"Picketing the White House is on the increase," says Maj. Ralph C. Stoverc chief of the White House Police. "It's becoming more and more popular."
The proof: there were 409 separate demonstrations in 1962. Some were by individuals, some by large groups. On 225 days of the year, someone wase there, walking back and forth, placards in hand.
Over the years, pickets have chained themselves to the iron White House gate, and even to banisters inside the mansion. They have fought with each other. At least once, the night the Rosenbergs were executed, the situation edged toward a riot.
Pickets have asked Presidents to bring back prohibition, end the draft, give homosexuals better treatment, ban and resume nuclear testing and segregation, make up with Castro. Ostensibly, they hope to persuade a President to act in their behalf. The truth is that most often he doesn't even know they are there.
Then why do they come?
"They come because the courts have said it is a right of the First Amendment," says Metropolitan Police Captain Thomas Herlihy, head of the special assignment squad. "They come because it has become the thing to do and because they hope to get publicity."
Publicity was what the Suffragettes were after, but in getting it they also legalized White House picketing.
No one bothered them for five months. And then, on June 23, 1917, two women were arrested on the pretext that they could not carry banners. Arrest followed arrest. Mnany women were convicted and shipped to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.
But the stubborn ladies took their case to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which reversed the convictions in March, 1918. Handing down the Court's decision , Justice Van Orsdel ruled that picketing in front of the White House was not itself unlawful.
"After reviewing the common law of Assembly," he said, "the Court remarks that it was not unlawful unless gathering was for an unlawful purpose."
The decision gave respectability to White House picketing. And it opened the way for others who followed in droves, hoping to influence the president.
Other arrests have occurred, but they are insignificant compared to the total number of pickets. As Capt. Hearlihy puts it: "When someone is arrested it's usually because he wants it that way, because he wants the publicity."
Regulations are few: stay in an area assigned by police, be orderly, make no speeches, stay 500 feet from the White House when a foreign dignitary is visiting. No permit is necessary.
A favorite attention getter, guaranteed to end in arrest, is chaining oneself to the White House gate. This stunt was carried a step further in 1948 by James D. Peck, then a 33-year-old conscientious objector.
Peck, accompanying other visitors on the White House tour, peeled off his shirt when he reached a stairway near the East Room, whipped out a chain and manacled himself to the banister.
Emblazoned on his T-shirt in red and blue ink were the words: "Veto the Draft!"
Another way to end up in the paddy wagon is to obstruct passage on the sidewalk or make a speech there. Methodist Minister Rev. David Andrews has been charged with both. He was picked up once for kneeling to pray for the release of Morton Sobell, who is serving a 30-year prison term for his part in the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg spy plot. Later, he was arrested for reading the Bible aloud.
He was found innocent of the first charge and guilty of the second. His sentence: a $5 or two hours in jail - with credit for two hours already spent in lockup.
Most incidents are mild, however, compared to that of June 19, 1953, the night the Rosenbergs were executed for giving atomic secrets to the Soviets.
A thousand Rosenberg sympathizers walked in almost complete silence as the death hour approached. Across the street in Lafayette Park, an unruly crowd swelled to 7000.
At one ponint, the park mob surged toward Pennsylvania Ave. and seemed ready to swarm across the street. Police forced them back and quickly directed a steady stream of traffic over the avenue, thus placing a barrier between the groups.
When news of the execution reached the picket line, the pickets lowered their signs and shuffled toward the Mall, dropping placards under a huge elm tree in front of the White House.
Passion was boiling across the street. Men shook their fists adn shouted ugly curses at the sympathizers. They became more incensed when they saw three pickets carrying American flags.
Police requested the emblems be lowered.
A riotous spark shot up when two girl pickets were menaced by a crowd of young men. Club-swinging policemen prevented the spark from being fanned into full-scale riot.
The rest of the pickets were marched off under guard and sent out of town before any trouble.
In the next session of Congress, Rep. Brady Gentry (D-Tex) introduced a bill to prohibit picketing in the immediate vicinity of the white house. Many similar bills had been introduced over the years; this one had widespread support because of the Rosenberg incident.
It passed the House but was blocked in a Senate District Subcommittee by Sen Wayne Morse (D-Ore). Later, it was killed.
Morse conceded to his opponents that there was a risk that pickets might get out of hand. "There's always a risk living in a democracy," he said. "But it's part of the risk you run for freedom.
"The right to walk in an orderly fashion in front of the White House is a pretty important part of the right to petition," he added. "It advertises that the President is our servant, not our master, and that we have the right to petition him."
One of the best shows in town was allowed to continue. It made no difference that the actors were performers for everyone but one man who perhaps could help them.