Is it crazy? Every month for 20 years–since May 1982–this little band of naysayers? visionaries? has gathered on the Fayetteville Mall in Raleigh to protest the enormity of U.S. military spending.

Cy King mentioned that when he accepted North Carolina Peace Action’s first “Peacemaker Award” recently. He’d asked his friend Slater Newman why they kept coming out when, in the current federal budget, military spending is up $48 billion. The increase alone is more than any other country in the world spends on its military, and is four times the combined military budgets of Iraq, Iran and North Korea–George W.’s “Axis of Evil.”

Said Newman: “Think how much it would have been without us!”

“It’s crazy, yes,” King said, “but the right kind of crazy.”

So last Wednesday, there they were, King, a tennis-playing 79-year old, and Newman, 77, in a wheelchair from back surgery, along with half a dozen others–including King’s wife Carolyn, who’s as much the regular as he is. Here’s what they were doing: Smiling. Laughing. Holding up signs. Newman’s sign is the original, battered cardboard which he’s encased in plastic: STOP THE WAR (there’s always a war).

The banter was about who showed up that first day 20 years ago, and the days when it was bitter cold and raining but Newman wouldn’t leave so King couldn’t either, and about Jesse Helms, whose office used to be in the federal building on the Mall. Helms would see them sometimes on his way to lunch, but he never stopped to talk. “On the other hand, I must say that I always got good constituent service from Helms’ office whenever I asked for treaties, documents, that kind of thing,” Newman says.

They had some success with other politicians. Early on, the group persuaded the Raleigh City Council to pass a resolution in favor of a treaty with the Soviet Union freezing nuclear stockpiles. So every year until the Soviet Union collapsed, former City Manager Dempsey Benton wrote faithfully to Congress–with CCs to our friends–on the subject of world peace and nuclear disarmament. Dempsey Benton, radical!

In a world in which the daily images are of an angry Arafat, an angry Sharon and an angry George W., it’s the peaceniks who aren’t angry. They’re the ones who, as King says, “keep hope alive when there doesn’t seem to be much hope.”

When they started, people used to taunt and revile them: “Go back to Russia.” Newman says, “as the years passed, either there’s more apathy or more tolerance, or both. We even get some thumbs-up now.”

Maybe people used to smile at the idea that U.S. military might would someday rule the world. Now that it does, we’re all to scared to death, and the only people smiling are the ones who can imagine a different world in which peace and justice rule. Thank goodness, after 20 years, this small group can still smile. Which is why they come out month after month, year after year. Not just to change the world, but as King says, “to keep the world from changing me.”