'Choosing the Hard Path': Local man’s memoir centers on tumultuous times

Gwen Chamberlain
Special to The Chronicle-Express
"Choosing the Hard Path"

HIMROD — So many people knew Jim Wilson, who led The Arc of Schuyler County for 32 years, but very few of them knew all the secrets he carried in his heart from choices he made during the dynamic 1960s. 

Jim Wilson

Wilson died on Jan. 8 this year. But as he came to terms with his personal history after retirement, and knowing his time could be short because of a chronic health condition, he began to document the twists and turns in his personal history to leave a more complete picture of his time on earth.

In his memoir, "Choosing the Hard Path," Wilson relives the events of his life that took him from the front lines of the Civil Rights movement to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York City, to an iconic draft card burning demonstration, and beyond. 

Wilson was the youngest son of upper middle class New Jersey family with strong ties to the Catholic Church and schools. An early interest in social justice led him to St. Anslem’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire. There he and his schoolmates shared their concerns about the war in Vietnam, the draft, the Civil Rights movement, poverty and more. In March 1965, spurred by the TV images of the bloody and brutal attack on peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama, Wilson and others decided to travel south to support the protests. 

Civil Rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

He wrote: “Plane schedules and tickets were procured; people began packing small bags and getting ready for the trip to the airport. As I was cleaning up in the dorm bathroom and showers, my group of friends all came in with long faces. I asked what was wrong, and one of them spoke up and said they couldn’t go. I said, ’What do you mean you can’t go?’ One of the fellows volunteered that they had all called their parents and had been told they couldn’t go to such a dangerous place. I laughed and asked, ‘Why did you call your parents? Of course they’d say no.”

He made the trip alone. “I would arrive on Tuesday, alone and scared to death.”

Fear did not keep him from taking more firm positions over the coming months. He and four other young men stood on a platform at Union Square in November 1965 and burned their draft cards in a public protest witnessed by about 1,500 supporters. The penalty was five years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine. Rather than challenge the law’s constitutionality like the others, he said his position was in keeping with the philosophy of the Catholic Worker — planning to plead guilty and live with the consequences. 

A clipping showing Jim Wilson (left) and his fellow defendants charged with burning their draft cards.

How that choice had an impact on the rest of his life includes his interpretation of his parent’s reactions; his encounters with others who were involved in anti-war and Civil Right movements; his young family’s move to rural New York; an attempt to seek public office; and his career in services for people with disabilities. 

In recent years, he retraced his trip to Selma and began sharing his thoughts and memories in a personal blog “The Gadfly.” Some of his blog posts evolved into the chapters of his memoir. 

On July 1, 1973, the draft officially ended; but by then Wilson was already carrying the scars from the consequences of his actions. A discussion of the book will be held at 4 p.m. June 29 via Zoom and hosted by Penn Yan Public Library. The event will begin with a presentation of a video interview with Wilson followed by a discussion of the book. 

"Choosing the Hard Path" is available at Longs’ Cards & Books in Penn Yan and through Amazon.