LET IT aLL sTART hERE
For Catholics who care...
I am always looking for a hero. Maybe it is the generation of my coming to age that makes me inclined to do so (I was born in 1963, there were the ghosts of a good many, good men roaming about), or maybe I have always required a measuring stick to track my personal development, or maybe it’s just that as I age and witness what is happening in the small towns, the large cities and the families I pass through, maybe, I’m perennially searching for someone to save us.
Enter Wally and Juanita Nelson: Civil rights activists, tax-resisters, pacifists, humanists and resident Western Mass heroes. They were mavericks from a different era, well known to some and a novelty to others. Still, most people having lived in and about the Deerfield area know something of the intrepid couple and their history. For example, of their participating in civil rights actions like challenging racists by sitting in each car of a Jim Crow train as Juanita did when she was only sixteen years old. It was 1939. Or becoming partners and members of Peacemakers, as both Nelsons did in 1948. The Peacemakers was a group of American pacifists that advocated nonviolent resistance in the support of peace. It was at that time that the Nelsons become war tax resisters.While researching, I read or listened to one person after the other tell me triumphant tales of the Nelsons and their unceasing efforts to effect positive change the world. I found my mind wandering to my “what if place”. It’s the place I reserve for big dreams, big possibilities and big hopes. I found myself wondering: What if Wally and Juanita Nelson were alive today? What would they think of Trump’s America? What would they do about it?
Juanita was a poet, homesteader and journalist, (In Cleveland, Ohio, in the midst of World War II, Juanita was hired to write for a weekly newspaper: “The best thing that ever happened to me was being a reporter,” Juanita recalls while being interviewed by First Person Oral History. “…that’s where I met Wally—how I met Wally—who became my life partner. He was in prison, in jail at the time, in the Cuyahoga County Jail because he was a conscientious objector; that is, he would not go to war....”) Her beloved Wally was a “confrontational pacifist” whocontinued to walk his talk long after he was released from prison after serving three years for refusing to participate in World War ll activities. And as humanists, the Nelsons recognized later, after working arduously to support The Civil Rights Movement since its inception, that the problems people of color faced was less about their skin and more about the large divide between people who were economically stable and people who were in economic hardship.
Long-time friend Ellie Kastanopolous, who had known and worked alongside the Nelsons since the late 90’s answered a rarely asked questions about the Nelsons: What about racism? And could we learn anything from the Nelsons as to how we might survive what America has become? Ellie began by offering: “I have withdrawn from watching or listening to the news for the last four or five years so I can’t say much about the state of our country other than the gossip I get. But I can say that Juanita wouldn’t have much to say about it or President Trump’s America either. She gave up being political.” When I asked Ellie about Wally’s experience as a share cropper, the legacy of Slavery both he and Juanita witnessed and how they felt about white people… more specifically: Were they at all racists? Ellie answered: “Absolutely 1000% not. Both Juanita and Wally were intensely involved in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. They did amazing stuff and worked there hearts out. But they came to the point within that time of realizing the issues weren’t black or white, they were ‘haves and have nots’. So they started to pull back, step away.” Their focus became more centered on what they could do themselves and in 1974 the Nelsons moved to Woolman Hill in Deerfield, Massachusetts, where they started an organic vegetable farm and helped organize the Greenfield Farmer Market. In 1975 they encouraged the organization of the Pioneer Valley Tax Resisters.
As Wally himself said: “I guess a long time ago I got it out of my head I was going to save the world. So, I act to save Willy and his integrity. I would hope that other people would be inspired to do what they ought to do.”