Bernella and William David Satterfield were among the founders of the Indiana University (IU) chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in spring of ’65. At first glance, they seem unlikely activists. Dave, aka ‘The Hawk’, born in Stoney Lonesome near Columbus IN, was a full scholarship student at Dartmouth, Class of 1962—English major, co-captain of the football team, and more. In the photo below, he is the epitome of clean-cut ‘50s youth.
The two would soon have a child, born in ’61 in New Hampshire while Dave was finishing Dartmouth. The common denominator: music. Folk, blues, and bluegrass in particular; they played fiddle and guitar and sang, sang beautifully. The place: Greenwich Village, living with friends on ‘Positively 4th Street’, hanging on Bleecker and McDougal. Friends of Bob Dylan before he became famous in those freewheelin’ days at Kettle of Fish, Café Wha?, the Gaslight, the coffeehouses. Following the footsteps of the Beat Generation: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Now, below, they look more like activists: Bernella’s dark hair has grown long; Dave has a moustache.
According to Bernella, Dave was “a gifted man and a brilliant singer.” He returned to Indiana, to IU in Bloomington, with Bernella and their daughter Cordelia to attend graduate school while Bernella pursued her music studies at the university. Dave wanted to be an English professor, but that wasn’t to be. Instead music, the tumultuous politics of the ‘60s, and the Vietnam War intervened. They soon became part of a core group of older, more experienced and serious, less conventional students accustomed to talking politics, literature, and philosophy.
Their priorities were not those of the average college student at the time. They were weaned on the Civil Rights Movement, on colonial wars of liberation, and Cold War nuclear fears as well as inner city and rural poverty and exploitation of workers. In Bernella’s own words, “most of us were ‘outsider’ types – we were beatniks, grad students, often older than the typical undergrad and some of us were from other parts of the country or the world ….we were the weirdoes, the bohemian fringe, the vanguard.” When they heard their old friend Bob Dylan’s demand for a better world in his iconic, confrontational Like a Rolling Stone in mid-‘65, they believed in actions that would revolutionize American culture and stop the war.
It’s not surprising that this group of people began efforts to form the SDS chapter at IU. Spurred by President Johnson’s broken promises and escalation of the Vietnam War in February and March of ’65, around 15 of the core founding group held the first demonstration against the war in the state of Indiana. On April 17 members took part in the massive SDS march on the Washington Monument; the demonstrators presented Congress with a petition to the end the war in Vietnam just one month after the US sent the first combat troops there. That same spring they began holding weekly Friday afternoon forums in Dunn Meadow, a large grassy field on campus which the IU trustees had declared a Free Speech Zone following a pro-Cuban student march and violent counter-demonstration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62—but that’s another story.
The new chapter published its first newsletter in November of ‘65, opening with “until today your local SDS has been a raggle-taggle federation of radicals” that included Jim Wallihan, Robin Hunter, Lucia and Peter Montague the Grove brothers John and Bob, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet, et al. The group also took seriously SDS’ idealistic Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), taking on a project in a poverty pocket south of Bloomington where underpaid workers had neither running water nor buses to take their children to school.
The Satterfields and little Cordelia lived in a radical collective at 102 North Dunn Street, a stone’s throw from the IU campus. Their upstairs apartment was the scene of many gatherings, including regular visits from FBI agents Bernella thought were there to intimidate; but the group was undeterred in its belief the war was wrong. Some of the sessions were musical, some political, but all were interesting. I vividly remember hearing Bernella and a cousin perform a song in the living room by the father of bluegrass, their harmonius voices soaring a capella:
Jeff Sharlet, one of the coterie that formed the IU SDS chapter, was part of the small, intimate group that held political discussions on leftist theory in the Satterfield living room. They were young, really fired up about politics, culture, and the war, and met frequently, often nightly. Bernella brought to the table quite a radical legacy from both sides of her family—her parents were Socialists, her grandfather a Russian anarchist, and an aunt was in the US Communist Party—as well as excitement over the possibilities, a classic ‘red diaper baby’. She thought Jeff, who by fall of ’65 was heading up the SDS chapter’s Dorm Education Project on the Vietnam War, was a strategic realist and tactical pragmatist, not a Marxist theoretician like Robin Hunter, who often led those “struggle sessions”. The group itself was more interested in the Port Huron Statement (the SDS founding document), Camus, and C. Wright Mills than in Marxist theories.
The Satterfields later split and went their separate ways. Sad to say, Dave, the musician, actor, writer, social theorist, and political leader, died in 2000 at age 59. Bernella, now Nell, still fiddling and singing, is an accomplished musician, journalist, and political activist working on progressive causes in Tennessee; in other words, still herself.
Jeff talked about her a lot, Bernella this or that, Bernella said. He had a lot of respect for her and took what she had to say to heart. He trusted her direction in things. She in turn saw Jeff, the only veteran in the group, as the voice of moral authority that was able to change activist hostility toward GIs to seeing them as victims of the system. When Dave Zeiger’s documentary Sir! No Sir!, co-dedicated to Jeff, was screened in Nashville, Nell spoke highly of Jeff; she had organized the film showing and discussion. As she wrote us recently, “It is thrilling to hear [that] you are spreading the word about Jeff's accomplishments. I am very pleased to have had the chance to share some part of my life with him.”
*Mother’s Only Sleeping by Bill Monroe