In Memoriam: A Font of Moral Courage

from the Isthmus
February 2 2001
by Bill Lueders

Just before the last election, Sam Day called Isthmus to propose writing an opinion column taking Ralph Nader to task for not being outspoken enough on issues of progressive concern. We weren't able to fit it in, but the pitch was quintessential Sam: forthright, uncompromising, perhaps more principled than politic.

Day, who died last Friday at age 74 after suffering a massive stroke in his home, was a font of moral courage the likes of which Madison may not see again. Time and again, as a journalist and activist, he put himself on the line fighting social injustice and the insanity of nuclear weapons. He was, in the best sense of the word, a partriot, serving not a nation but a notion -- that we can, and therefore must, create a world that's fairer and less dangerous.

In 1979, as managing editor of The Progressive, Day helped conceive an audacious article that challenged nuclear secrecy by revealing what was considered to be a secret of H-bomb design. For six months, the U.S. government tried to block publication, until it was forced to abandon its case.

Day went on to found the anti-nuclear group Nukewatch; to fight the owners of East Towne, unsuccessfully, for free-speech rights in shopping malls; to chase after and report on trucks that surreptitiously transport nuclear bomb materials on the nation's highways; and to participate in direct actions against nuclear weapons sites, in one case drawing a six-month prison term. In recent years, Day has led the effort to secure the release from prison of Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician who blew the whistle on that country's secret nuclear weapons program.

The son of an American diplomat, Day lived in South Africa until he was 12. (In 1982, he returned to write a superb investigative piece on that nation's secret campaign to build and test a nuclear bomb.)

After graduating from Swarthmore College, he embarked on a career in journalism by taking an entry-level job at the Washington Evening Star, which he chose over another option -- a State Department position in Asia -- with the flip of a coin. Much of his middle years were spent as a reporter in Idaho, where he met Kathleen, his wife of more than four decades, and eventually became editor of the Intermountain Observer, a feisty weekly in Boise.

Unlike the usual life trajectory, in which advancing age tends to instill caution, Day grew more radical and daring as his life went on. His first venture into direct political action, a human traffic blockade in Boise to protest a U.S. nuclear weapons test in Alaska, took place in 1971, when Day was 45 and the father of three sons. As he recalled in his 1991 autobiography, Crossing the Line, the succession of emotions he experienced -- inner struggle, deep fear, calm during the action itself and then exhilaration -- would recur with each confrontation with authority.

Day's decision to cross the line precipitated the demise of his paper and launched him on a new path, beginning with his editorship of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1974 to 1978 and continuing with his years (1978-1980) at The Progressive, where he helped make the magazine a national leader in reporting on nuclear issues, and subsequent work for Nukewatch. From 1984 to 1994, Day contributed regular opinion columns to Isthmus, writing, sometimes from prison and jail, on everything from Gov. Tommy Thompson's harsh anti-welfare agenda to why moms should be able to bring their babies to work. The loss of much of his eyesight while in prison in 1989 broadened the focus of his activism to include the rights of the blind.

Part of Sam Day's peculiar courage was that he valued truth above personal consequences. It was Day who leaked to the press a memo of grievances written by long-suffering women staffers at The Progressive and, more consequentially, a letter from a civilian nuclear weapons buff whose publication in the Madison Press Connection prompted the U.S. government to drop its attempt to block publication of the H-bomb story.

But Day never wore his courage as a badge of honor: gracious and unassuming, he inspired others by his example, not by his insistence that he was correct. He was, above all, a kind man. He left his mark on the world, and his death leaves a void the rest of us will be hard-pressed to fill. But his life and his legacy instruct us to try.

"Now, more than ever, there is good reason to cross the line," Day's autobiography concludes. "In crossing over, I want to help build a society of peace and justice on the good gound beyond."