‘The government won’t be on your side’: How a group of Camden clergymen and anti-war activists stood up to injustice 50 years ago

The first thing you notice about Father Michael Doyle is his voice. He speaks in a steady, thick, Irish accent, commanding attention with every word.

But his voice, more broadly—the amalgamation of his experiences and the realization of his virtues and ideals—is also the enduring thing about him. In his 86 years on Earth, Doyle has used it to speak out for peace and justice for the Camden community he served for decades, and for the world beyond.

Born in the Irish countryside, Doyle has been a Camden resident since 1959, sticking with the city through thick and thin. He preached at Sacred Heart Church in the Waterfront South neighborhood of the city until 2020. In that time, Doyle has used his voice to speak out for Camden residents, to give hope and wisdom to his parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, and to speak truth to power.

So effective has Doyle been in using his voice that he and a group of religious leaders and anti-war activists were able to stand up to the U.S. government. Fifty years later, this week, we look back at how his involvement in the raiding of a Camden draft board resonates today.

The ’60s and ’70s were a turbulent time in Camden. The city suffered from loss of industry with factories closing, and white residents leaving Camden for suburbs such as Cherry Hill and Voorhees. Race riots also occurred in the city in 1969 and 1971 due to police brutality. What happened in Camden in those decades also happened in Trenton and Newark, and, in fact, throughout the United States. 

Amid this unrest, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the Nixon administration kept a close eye on activists around the U.S., particularly left-wing and anti-war activists and groups. One of those groups that captured their attention was the growing “Catholic Left” movement, a group of Catholics who spoke out against the Vietnam War. 

Father Doyle was inspired by Catholic Left and in particular by the Berrigan Brothers, two anti-war Catholic priests who were part of the “Catonsville Nine.” In 1968, the Nine broke into the draft building in Catonsville, Maryland, and destroyed draft files in response to the Vietnam War. 

What happened in suburban Baltimore would be replicated around the U.S. in similar fashion. In 1968, along with the “Catonsville Nine” there was the “Milwaukee Fourteen,” who broke into a federal building in Milwaukee and burned draft cards. 

Such action would come to New Jersey on August 22, 1971, courtesy of Doyle and company, eventually known as the Camden 28.

The Camden 28 were a group of priests, clergymen, workers and anti-war activists, and they wanted to make a statement about their opposition to the Vietnam War.

They were upset with how young men in the poor and majority-minority city were being sent off to fight in a war that the group saw as unnecessary, and pitted them against the poor people of Vietnam. 

“The war took poor kids from Camden and took them to fight against poor people in Vietnam. Very few rich kids were sent to Vietnam,” says Doyle.

Inspired by the Berrigan brothers, and resistance icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Doyle was adamant that any actions that the group would take would be nonviolent. “The mission of this group was to promote nonviolence in our actions,” says Doyle. 

The group decided to raid the Federal building in downtown Camden and destroy draft records and draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. 

In the days leading up to the raid of the draft building, the group set up shop in a parking garage in downtown Camden to scout what time the guards would raise the flags. They also wanted to check what days the police were active in the city to make sure that the group picked a good day to do it. The group picked Aug. 22, a Sunday. 

In the end, it didn’t really matter what day the group decided to perform their action because there was an FBI Informant in the group—Bob Hardy, a priest and a carpenter. He felt uncomfortable about being involved, and told the FBI about what his friends were planning on doing. Hardy provided the group with instructions on how to break into the building, and technical support. The FBI also wanted to use Hardy to see if the group was involved in a similar action at the draft building in nearby Media, Pennsylvania. Hardy was promised by the FBI that the group would face no jail time.

On the day of the raid, the group was able to get into the Federal building and destroy draft records; however they were arrested by the FBI. The group was surprised that the FBI knew about their plans, and then they realized that Hardy wasn’t around with them. It was only then that they realized Hardy was cooperating with authorities.

Doyle and the other people charged in the Camden 28 case were each looking at 43 years in prison for breaking into a federal building and destroying records. Despite the threats from J. Edgar Hoover, Doyle felt confident that he wouldn’t see any jail time. “The people wouldn’t have allowed us to go to jail for 43 years,” says Doyle, “there would have been a lot of outrage.” 

Two years later, the group went on trial. The Camden 28 trial lasted three months and former Supreme Court Justice William Brennen called it, “one of the great trials of the 20th century.” The court had all of the evidence it needed, and the Camden 28 members admitted to what they did. 

The members who were indicted all defended themselves in court. Doyle, looking back, says the trial was a great experience—a chance to use his voice to defend his actions by way of prosecuting those who were perpetrating the injustice he saw.

“I loved being on trial,” says Doyle. “I loved being my own lawyer and being able to cross-examine FBI agents.”

The trial also featured parents who had lost children in Vietnam and spoke out in support of the 28. Historian and author of The People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn spoke out in support of the Camden 28. Zinn said at the trial, “These people were doing something part of an honorable tradition in American history. That they weren’t simply criminals. That they were doing what the Boston Tea Party people had done in the American Revolution. They were doing what the people who defied the Fugitive Slave Law Acts and freed slaves before the Civil War did. They were doing what Americans had done all through American history in order to win justice for people.”

Even Bob Hardy came around to the defense of the Camden 28 during the trial. Hardy felt used by the FBI because they promised him that his friends would receive no jail time, and there they were, on trial facing jail time. 

The group was acquitted on all charges and found not guilty by the jury. It was a huge victory for the anti-war movement in America, which had suffered defeats in similar cases. 

The Camden 28 also rubbed off on prosecutors as well. John Barry was the prosecutor for the case, and when Barry died, Doyle showed up at this funeral. It was there he was approached by Maryanne Trump Barry, the sister of former President Donald Trump—Trump Barry told Doyle how much her late husband loved him. 

Fifty years later, Doyle says he “has no regrets about raiding the draft building,” and, “wouldn’t do anything differently.” His advice for young activists would be to realize that “the government won’t be on your side.”