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For this week’s Piece of History:
We are celebrating Black History Month with stories of incredible yet under-acknowledged African-American activists in the modern peace movement. As we shall see, the history of the Voluntown Peace Trust overlaps with many of these important black peace activists. We begin with Wally and Juanita Morrow Nelson: civil rights activists, war tax resisters, and two of the co-founders of the Peacemakers -- one of the most quietly influential early peace organizations in modern United States history.
Wally and Juanita Morrow Nelson were each impressive figures in their own right, and they inspired countless people with their personal examples of simple living and refusal to participate in an unjust economy. They were patrons of organic farms, supporters of community land trusts, promoters of simple and peaceful living, and teachers of nonviolence. Together, they are sometimes known as two of the “grandparents” of the modern war tax resistance movement.
Wally Nelson was born in Arkansas in 1909 to a family of sharecroppers and a self-taught minister. After dropping out of high school to help support his family, he took a pledge of nonviolence with a Methodist youth group, which he tried to live by for the rest of his life. During WWII, Wally registered as one of 37,000 American conscientious objectors, but then walked out on the Civilian Public Service camp to which he was assigned, reasoning that his labor still contributed to the war effort. He and five others left for Detroit to work in service of a poor community there. He was later caught and incarcerated for three and half years, but never ceased his radical work, and in fact became an important figure in the desegregation of the federal prison system. It was in prison that Wally shared a cell with Chicagoan co-founder of CORE, Joe Guinn. It was also there that he met his future life-partner, Juanita Morrow, who was working as a reporter on prison conditions. In 1947, after leaving prison, Wally had participated in the Journey of Reconciliation rides sponsored by FOR and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the first “freedom rides” to test the 1946 Supreme Court decision to integrate interstate travel. Wally also became CORE’s first Field Secretary, effectively the national field organizer for workshops and actions in Washington D.C. and the country as a whole.
Juanita Nelson was just as impressive and committed to the peace movement. Born on August 17, 1923, Juanita had always been a person of principle and action. In 1939, due to her own frustration at the indignity of segregated train cars, 16-year old Juanita decided in defiance to try sitting in every car of the train she was riding with her mother on their way to Georgia. She did so without incident, except for a black porter concerned for her safety advising her to return to her original car. Four years later, as a student at Howard University, Juanita and a few of her friends were arrested for ordering hot chocolate at a “whites-only” drugstore. Shortly after her night in jail, Juanita began working for CORE, helping to desegregate a restaurant at the edge of campus in less than a week. Leaving Howard early in part for financial reasons, she returned home and found work as a reporter for a local newspaper. In her new work, she met Wally Nelson while doing a story about segregation in the jail.
After Wally left prison, he and Juanita began their lifelong partnership, joining the pacifist group the Peacemakers which had just formed. Their personal philosophies resonated with the group’s tenets of non-registration for the draft, war tax resistance, and nonviolence as a way of life. In 1950 they moved into an intentional community with other Peacemakers, including founders Ernest and Marion Bromley, in Cincinatti, Ohio. This caused tension among the neighbors, but this would not be the first time the Nelsons would defy the norm of segregation.
The Peacemakers, founded in 1948, took their inspiration from Gandhi’s example in India and other experiments in nonviolent peace and liberation movements around the world. They also rejected the organizational principles of many other pacifist groups. Juanita Nelson, one of the co-founders, said, “Groups or cells are the real basis of the movement, for this is not an attempt to organize another pacifist membership organization, which one joins by signing a statement or paying a membership fee.” These cells were typically organized as intentional communities, so that individuals could work together to change their lives into ones consistent with radical pacifist values.
The Peacemakers focused on small direct action projects and, starting in 1957, trainings in nonviolent action. Wally and Juanita had been giving nonviolent action trainings since the late 1940s, and so many of the Peacemakers’ trainings were personally led by Juanita and/or Wally Nelson, including the ones conducted in the summer of 1960 for the Polaris Action in New London, CT. The Peacemakers conducted numerous experiments in the complete integration of radical pacifism into one’s life, leading to a “living program” of draft and war tax resistance, personal transformation, and group participation in work to promote political and economic democracy. The group also initiated the first modern organized war tax resistance movement, and published the “Handbook on the Nonpayment of War Taxes.” Along with Ernest and Marion Bromley and Reverend Maurice (Mac) McCracken, Wally and Juanita Nelson are considered by many to be the grandparents of this movement. Decisions were made at an annual Continuation Committee meeting, and starting in 1949, The Peacemaker newsletter served as an important forum for letters, announcements, and personal accounts of radical pacifists for individuals and groups associated with the peace movement. For the first decade of its existence, up until the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) was founded, the Peacemakers were the most active nonviolent direct action in the nation.
Neither Juanita nor Wally ever wavered in their commitment to the pacifist movement. In 1957, Juanita and Wally briefly joined the radical pacifist Koinonia Farm in southwest Georgia to support their racial integration efforts. In an interview, Juanita recounted how Wally would take long trips to buy supplies for the farm when local businesses boycotted them for their integrated living policy. In 1959, Juanita was arrested in her home in Philadelphia for tax refusal. In contrast to many other activists of the time, who emphasized dignified, well-dressed appearances in the face of ugly violence and injustice, Juanita refused to change out of the bathrobe in which she had been arrested, saying, "Why am I going to jail? Why am I going to jail in a bathrobe? What does it matter in the scheme of things whether or not you put on your clothes? Are you not making, at best, a futile gesture, at worst, flinging yourself against something which does not exist? Is freedom more important than justice? Of what does freedom of the human spirit consist, that quality on which I place so much stress?" By one account, “Juanita Nelson was the first woman in modern times to be apprehended for war tax refusal,” although the government was never able to collect the money they claimed she owed.
Continuing to experiment with ways to divest themselves from what they viewed as an unjust economy, the Nelsons began homesteading, first in New Mexico from 1970 to 1974, and then in New England for the rest of their lives, where they became deeply influential in the local community. They were frequent visitors to the CNVA / Voluntown Peace Trust as friends and valued resource people. From the home that they and many friends built, with an outhouse and no electricity, the Nelsons continued their work, helping found the Valley Community Land Trust, the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, and the Greenfield Farmers’ Market. They supported the development of other community land trusts started by their friends Bob Swann and Chuck Matthei through the Institute of Community Economics and Equity Trust. For their lifelong work to promote peace and justice, both Wally and Juanita Nelson received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, MA. Wally died at 93 on May 23, 2002. Juanita died on March 9, 2015 at age 91.
Next week, we will continue with stories of African-Americans whose involvement in the peace movement has been woeful undertold.
Cooney, Robert and Helen Michalowski (ed.). The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States. Peace Press.
Gross, David (ed.) "We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader." pp. 451-461