Arlo Tatum: 21 February 1923 - 2 April 2014

IssueJune 2014
Comment by Bill Hetherington

Arlo Tatum played significant roles in the US, British and international pacifist movements. Born into a Quaker family in Iowa, he politely wrote in 1941, aged 18, to the US attorney general announcing his refusal to register for the draft – US conscription – imposed in advance of US entry to the Second World War. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in the Federal Correctional Institution, Sandstone, Minnesota, the youngest prisoner when he entered.

A natural baritone, Arlo, on release, was awarded a scholarship at the American conservatory of music, and won a competition to sing with the Chicago concert and opera guild. However, his burgeoning career was interrupted by an order to register for a fresh draft in 1948, renewed refusal, and another imprisonment.

A serious accident in 1951 ended his singing career, and he started full-time pacifist activism, becoming co-secretary of the War Resisters’ League (US counterpart of the Peace Pledge Union – PPU). In 1955 he was appointed general secretary of War Resisters’ International (WRI), which entailed Arlo moving to London, where, apart from overseeing WRI’s first international conference outside Europe (India, 1960), he became involved in the PPU, serving as a director of Peace News, then the weekly newspaper of the PPU.

With Sybil Morrison, he compiled the PPU songbook, as well as writing songs for the Aldermaston marches. He also co-founded the World Peace Brigade, a forerunner of Peace Brigades International.

Leaving WRI in 1962, he worked for a time for the Institute for Group and Society Development in London, before returning to the US to be secretary of the central committee for conscientious objectors (CCCO), based in Philadelphia.

In 10 years of intense activity arising from the war in Vietnam, CCCO advised attorneys and counselled thousands of COs, among them Muhammad Ali. Arlo testified before a senate sub-committee chaired by Edward Kennedy. In 1972, CCCO sued the US government over army surveillance of peaceful civilian political activity; the case was won on appeal, but overturned in the supreme court: Laird v Tatum is well known in US law circles.

Arlo returned to London, becoming warden for the Coram Foundation, in Bloomsbury, and a council member of the PPU, serving as chair from 1978 to 1981. He managed the Circle Trust Club for ex-offenders, finding his own prison experience helpful.

Arlo’s final appearance at a peace event was in 2009, at the PPU’s 75th anniversary party, still sprightly, still singing.

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