Juanita Morrow Nelson

American activist

Juanita Morrow Nelson (August 17, 1923 – March 9, 2015) was a pacifist whose actions included desegregating restaurants and war tax resistance. She lived in the USA. She co-founded the group Peacemakers in 1948 and was the author of A Matter of Freedom and Other Writings (1988).

Juanita Nelson in front of her Deerfield, Massachusetts home (May 1, 2010)



A Matter of Freedom (1988)

  • I balk at the notion of contributing so directly to making atomic hash of others and perhaps of my own wonderful self.
  • I am not paying taxes because the overwhelming percentage of the budget goes for war purposes. I do not wish to participate in any phase of the collection of such taxes. I do not even want to act as if I think that anyone, including the government, has a right to punish me for an act which I consider honorable.
  • Of what does freedom of the human spirit consist, that quality on which I place so much stress?
  • I would not do anything, only suffer what was done to me.
  • I remembered almost excruciatingly an experience in the Cincinnati County jail on a charge of disorderly conduct for trying to gain admission to an amusement park which barred Negroes. I did not eat during the nine days. I would not wear the prison uniform. But, thinking I was exercising what degree of freedom I had, I wandered about the floor at will and bounced downstairs to see visitors.
  • My respect and admiration for Gandhi, though not uncritical, was deep.
  • Here was I, still struggling with the meaning of my own life and standing, it seemed sometimes, on dead center. How, then, did I have the effrontery to question a whole way of life that had been evolved slowly and painfully through the ages by the accumulated wisdom of mankind? How could I presume to have so much of the truth that I would defy constituted authority? What made me so certain of myself in this regard? I was not certain. But it seemed to me that if I could see only one thing clearly, it was not necessary to see all things clearly in order to act on that one thing.
  • One pinpoint of clarity was that it was time for man to grow out of the short pants of barbarism, of settling things by violence, and at least to get into the knee breeches of honestly seeking and trying ways more fitted to his state as a human. To take life, especially in cold-blooded, organized fashion, seems to me to be the province of no man and of no government. In the end, no government can do it-it is only men who fire guns, drop atom bombs, pierce with bayonets. If an entity called government could slay another such entity, no great harm would be done and maybe even good would come of it at least the destruction of files of papers.
  • My repudiation of violence is not based on any conventionally or conveniently religious motivation. I cannot say that it is against God's will, since I do not know that there is a god, nor would I be able in any case to assume that I was conversant with his will. But I do not consider, either, that men are gods, that they should determine when another man should die. I do not consider that I am capable of such judgments, either of my own volition or at the command of others. Such behavior in others I abhor, but may not be able to affect. I can control my own behavior. And I do not think that my participation in stupid or immoral acts can add to my stature as an individual-I think, rather, that it might detract, take me even further afield from the discovery of myself.
  • Let me first excise the horns from my own head, since it was made, I think, for something besides butting.
  • Efficiency can in no way supplant morality.
  • Is the height of man's being obedience to the common will? I think it a higher purpose to live in a creatively oriented relationship than to adopt a slavish attitude toward rules and regulations. I think it the worst part of folly to be so enamored of acting in unison that I am herded into acting inhumanly.
  • I cannot think that the measure of one's belief is the extent to which he tries to coerce others into believing it or acting upon it, but the extent to which he is willing to sacrifice for it himself. If, for instance, I am, because of my well-intentioned but mistaken notions, depriving the Department of Defense of ten dollars per year for making a guided missile, why does not someone convinced of the necessity of the weapon come forward and voluntarily make up that ten dollars? Is it not mere pettiness to insist that I would stand to be "protected" by this sacrifice? (I would also stand to be annihilated by it.) The money spent trying to make me comply could be squandered, instead, on the purposes for which my tax money would be used. But, no, this non-compliance constitutes an affront which cannot be ignored. It is no doubt the fear that even one insignificant defiance will produce a rent in the whole fabric, and that the cloth may some day be beyond repair. Perhaps we do not need the garment at all and should throw it into the rag bag before it is completely in tatters. If the idea I champion is worthless, not many will be impressed to follow suit and intransigence can be regretted, deplored and suffered. If, on the other hand, only the law keeps most people from acting with me, then this must be the worst kind of despotism-it must be the minority who are keeping the majority in line with the whip of the law. Or perhaps everyone is being kept in line with the whip, and no one dares look the thing in the face for what it is.
  • Most people who take any notice of my position are appalled by my lawbreaking and not at all about the reasons for my not paying taxes. Instead of trying to make me justify my civil disobedience, why do they not question themselves and the government about a course of action which makes billions available for weapons, but cannot provide decent housing and education for a large segment of the population?
  • because I believe that it is more important to do what is right than what is lawful or expedient, I have declined to pay the tax.
  • I believe that I have every right, nay, every responsibility, to act according to my best judgment, not waiting for one-hundred and fifty million others to concur. This one act may not lead inevitably to a good end, but I do not see that it can lead to a bad one. Why should I expect or accept punishment for exercising my best judgment?
  • how can one have respect for others without self-respect?
  • I think that what I was saying with my robe was that I was doing what I thought right. I was convinced enough to feel that it would be good if others were moved to do likewise. But I some time ago gave up the notion that it was my province to reform the world. But I think that if I have helped to start a fire, the first thing I must do is stop adding fuel to it. I could not very well help going to jail when seven strong men were determined I should go, but I did not wish them to think for a moment that I was on their side. You will do what you think you should, what you have been ordered to do, but I shall not help you do it, no, not even to the extent of getting dressed so that you may feel more comfortable in your mission. If a law is bad or unjust, is not every phase of its enforcement simply an extension of the law and to be as greatly resisted?
  • I wanted passionately, perhaps grimly, to be myself. Somewhere that self existed, independent of, though cognizant of, all other selves, a being and a striving to be in inevitable loneliness. I wanted to strip to the skeleton and clothe it with my own humanity, my own meaning. Some parts of that self could be satisfied only in the context of other selves, but that participation would have to be voluntary, whether bound to other selves in marriage, social club, or government. There is no collective conscience. I think it is too bad that: anyone should suppose that holding me within their bounds, forcing me to do what they think is good, is within their prerogatives.
  • It is, as far as I can see, an unpleasant fact that we cannot avoid decision-making. We are not absolved by following the dictates of a mentor or of a majority. For we then have made the decision to do that-have concluded because of belief or of fear or of apathy that this is the thing which we should do or cannot avoid doing. And we then share in the consequences of any such action. Are we doing more than trying to hide our nakedness with a fig leaf when we take the view expressed by a friend who belonged to a fundamental religious sect?
  • We were interested in how we lived every day, not just going out to a demonstration, not just voting, and not just writing letters.
  • If I could choose a title for myself, I think I would be a 'want to be' practitioner of non-violence.
  • I'm not an activist in the sense that most people talk about, I'm not even sure exactly what that means...I like this thing a friend of mine inCalifornia does: she’s been a tax-refuser for quite some time. ‘And she goes to demonstrations, but instead of walking, she Just stands there with a sign: “Don’t like war? Then don’t pay for it! Refuse to pay war-taxes! I haven’t bought a bomb since 1971!” That’s more my style.
  • I didn't ever miss school until I was sixteen years old and I went with my mother to visit her parents in Georgia. That's where I guess I did my very first action, because our train was late for changing in Cincinnati and we were rushed into a car. By the time we got settled, I recalled, I looked around and saw that we were in a Jim Crow car. Now I'd heard of these things, and I knew about that sort of thing...This was at a time when all people who had darker-colored skin, or part dark African ancestry, were seated in a particular place and could not go anywhere else-in streetcars and so forth. In the South particularly they had fountains that said, "whites," "colored," all that sort of thing. It was a very much division in talking about races, which I don't like. I think there's one race anyway, as far as I'm concerned. So I asked my mother if we couldn't change cars and she said, "Oh Nita, I'm just tired." And I think that was true. And I sat and fumed, and finally I got up and sat in every car in that train because I was so upset, and my recollection-this was a long time ago, of course-is that nobody bothered me except the porter, and he was afraid that something would happen to me, because he had the same color skin that I had. Then I went back and sat by my Mother and I felt better because I had expressed myself.
  • I did go to Howard University, and that was where I was arrested for the first time. I went with two of my friends who were undergrad coeds, downtown in Washington, DC, which was about as segregated as anyplace in the United States at that time. I went to Howard in 1941. This was in '43 though, at the beginning of the year, I think. And we went to a drugstore that had a lunch counter-asked for some hot chocolate. We were told, "We don't serve Negroes." We said, "Well, we'd like to see the manager." "The manager isn't in." And we said, "Well, we have plenty of time. We'll just sit here." And finally they brought the hot chocolate, but they gave us tickets, bills for 25 cents, when it clearly stated on the board that hot chocolate was ten cents a cup, so that's what we put down. And I always like to say that's probably all we had anyway. But, then we walked out and were met by-my recollection is-seven of DC's finest, that is, the police. And they put us in the paddy wagon and took us to jail. After we had this incident, a woman who became a very dear friend, Pauli Murray, was there. She was about ten years older than us coeds. She was in law school, and she knew about CORE that had started. And we formed the Howard's—I think it was called "Civil Rights Committee" and actually opened up a restaurant on the edge of campus in one week, less than a week. I never had such a quick victory, never since that time. It was just a sort of a greasy spoon restaurant, but it was a heady victory for us. We had a picket line; we had a sit–in; lots of people agreed with us, and he capitulated. (By "opened up") I mean we desegregated it.
  • I sometimes regretted having left Howard because they did some bus testing. Because you know, DC is surrounded—Virginia, Maryland and so forth, and they were all, of course, very segregated, too.
  • But the best thing that ever happened to me, being a reporter: 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 [Ohio] County Jail because he was a conscientious objector; that is, he would not go to war. And he signed up as a conscientious objector and was put in one of the camps, CO camps, called "civilian public service," although he called it "civilian public slavery."
  • Cleveland was no bastion of freedom-sometimes you couldn't-there were theaters you couldn't go to; we tested restaurants, all that sort of thing. It wasn't quite as blatant as it was in the south.
  • I remember very well, when I was, I think it was in junior high school, somebody called me "nigger." And I went home, crying, or anyway, very disconsolate. My mother said, "Why are you worrying about...you know who you are." So... I've always appreciated that.
  • I had already been involved in CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, that helped to start a chapter of CORE in Cleveland, along with a man named George Howser
  • I would do whatever job to keep body and soul together, that was good work, or at least not bad work, let's put it that way; at least wasn't bad work. And that I would just live my life and do the things that I believe in.
  • a group called Peacemakers was formed (in 1948). They saw nonviolence as a way of life, not just a tactic, or different campaigns, and one of the things that was a hallmark of Peacemakers was refusing to pay taxes for war, and so I say that that was a very pivotal year in my life, '48. Wally and I started living together; I became a tax refuser; we became tax refusers. You see, he spent thirty–three months in prison because he wouldn't go; how was he going to pay for somebody else to go and kill people? We just had no problem with that.
  • most—at least half of the budget is for the military. It was then; it is now, continues to be.
  • (While living in Cincinnati) somebody said to us, "The birds and the bees don't live together; why should the blacks and the whites live together?"
  • We had a friend who lived in Philadelphia, and he was doing what they called "interracial housing." Now Wally would never let anybody say that; he said, "Interracial, you mean, a monkey and a human being," et cetera, they might be different races.
  • We never made much money, but we never spent much. As a matter of fact, we used to lend money to friends sometimes [chuckle] because we so hated this interest thing anyway, that if somebody needed to buy a car—I don't mean we had tons of money—maybe a friend would, we would lend him some money, obviously at no interest. And the other thing is I don't like having money hanging around; what's the use of having it doing nothing?
  • I think we moved there in '58, 1958, I think. But before we could even get settled in Philadelphia, we got a call, "Would we go down to Georgia to Koinonia Farm?" which was an intentional community where people just put everything they had into the community. They were really being bombarded by the Ku Klux Klan because they had no barriers as to color. Their farm market was bombed and destroyed, and the kids were harassed on the buses. It was just terrible.
  • Clarence Jordan was very, very funny. I know that during those days before we came down there, somebody came around, like some of the Ku Klux Klanners came around and, once they came and—?cause blacks worked on the farm even before anybody moved there, and so they would eat lunch together, and one of these guys came and said, "Preacher, I don't wanna see the sun set on you havin' niggers here anymore." And Clarence reached out his hand and said, "Well, I'm so glad to know you, I'm so glad to know somebody who can keep the sun from setting." He was funny.
  • It was in 1970 during the Viet Nam War. We were refusing to pay taxes; we were working in CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]; we were working with the great brokers, Cesar Chavez and those. Wally fasted for twenty–three days once in front of one of the big chain stores to try to get them to stop using, either grapes, or something, whatever it was that they were doing. And yet, we began to feel, and I in particular, that our whole lives were tied up in war stuff, because we live on this war system.
  • I have something at my house now—somebody sent it; it says, "Peace would destroy civilization as we know it." And indeed it would, because we could not consume with, 5% of the population that we have, forty, fifty, whatever percent of the world's goods. And we have bases all over the world and so forth.
  • For two years they worked on the plantation of a, in quotes, white man, and he had both blacks and whites. They lived separately, but treated them all the same, pitted them one against the other. As Wally would say, he'd ask the poor whites to do something and if they complained he'd say, "That's alright, I'll go and ask the niggers; I'll tell the niggers to do it," and vice–a–versa...Then the next time they did the venture, they worked on a plantation owned by a black man, and he said it was the same thing. He didn't have any whites on his..., except that you could call him by his first name, but he was trying to get everything he could out of everybody. No different, no different. And that's something I believe, and it's discouraging; it really is discouraging, but people are people. Everybody seems to want to just wring everything they can out of people, and all of us do. This is society. [pause] I don't know, I've heard some figures—one percent of the population of the United States makes thirty times as much as a regular worker. And to say a worker is... that's like an epithet. The worker is the ones who keep the world going, so what's [laugh] I don't really quite understand that, but that's the way it seems to be.
  • That's the only way you can stop war, stop participating in it, and stop so much consumption that requires war, at least that's the way I look at it.
  • I don't know; I guess maybe I'm atypical, but I know that the groups I work in—for instance, CORE had no color line, and Peacemakers had no color line—didn't have any age line either. For a while I think I was about the youngest person in Peacemakers, and I felt very close to somebody who was in her 80s, and...even now, I don't feel that age difference. I mean, I'm getting older; I know that. But I have friends who are one–third my age, one–fourth my age, and we're just on the same boundary. So I don't really know that—I really couldn't tell you much about that, because, or couldn't speak much to that. I think most of the people who were people who were against the war, or in a very active way, and I don't mean just saying it, but doing something, didn't have those kinds of barriers, weren't divided into that... Now in the general population, I honestly don't know.
    • "Could I ask you to talk about the Viet Nam War, related to race relations?...what relationships were like during the Viet Nam War between black people and white people."
  • we went into the Bar H Truck Stop, and sat at the table, and then were startled when the waitress came and said, "We don't serve colored." And we thought, oh my god, we're fifty miles from home—we wanna go home,; we don't wanna have a big deal. So, we're not gonna fight this thing. We're just gonna sit here for twenty minutes, half hour, just to show that we don't approve of this. Well, we were within no more than five minutes of leaving when two policemen came. They had sent the dishwasher down to the police barracks, that was about a mile down the road, and they came and said, you know...very officious, "Show me your..." I've forgotten; they asked some question, and we looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and answered, and then [they] said, "Show me your driver's license." And reluctantly, the three of them did, and I was going to do it, I'm sure, but I said, "I want to ask you a question." "Ahp...Show me your license." And I said it again. They arrested me. And people always want to know, what were you going to ask, and I really don't know. I think I was really stalling because it hurt me so much to comply with this. Then I didn't cooperate; they carried me out to the police car, and the others followed in our car. This was in Elkton, Maryland; I shall never forget it. They stopped the car in front of the jail and told me to get out. "Am I going home?" "No." "Well then I'm not going to get out." So they put something—I think they call them "twisters"—they're handcuffs, but they have little points in them and they twisted them, and I hollered. It hurt. The others came over to complain and they arrested them. All four of us were arrested in Elkton, Maryland, carried up to the jail; they tried to fingerprint us, we wouldn't—so they would move us from one place to another, and open our fingers and do that sort of thing... It was in all the papers and stuff because Route 40 was quite something; it was notorious.
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