PM Press Blog

Friendship & Admiration

By Louis H. Battalen
The Catholic Worker
January-February, 2024

Juanita Morrow Nelson and Dorothy Day were two radical pacifists committed to advocating and practicing peace and economic and social justice through the shared lens of nonviolence as both a technique and as a way of life. They shared their lives and activism side by side on several key occasions, most momentously and vigorously during the 1950s and 60s collaborating in what Daniel Berrigan called the community of resistance.

Juanita was both founder and participant in many of the significant social movements of the second half of the 20″ century in the United States—including civil rights, war tax resistance, back-to-the-land and community land trusts. Indeed, in several instances, the events of Juanita’s life were the precursors of those struggles cast onto a larger, national stage: a successful sit-down effort with two Howard University classmates to integrate a lunch counter in segregated Washington, DC in the early 1940s almost twenty years before similar sit-ins swept across the South, and her refusal to pay federal income taxes as far back as 1948 to demonstrate her opposition to war.

She and her life long companion Wallace (Wally) joined forces in 1948, coinciding with their being on thé ground floor of the founding of the radical pacifist movement Peacemakers, eventually living in an intentional Peacemaker community in one of its rare interracial cells on the outskirts of Cincinnati. There they founded the Cincinnati Committee on Human Relations (CCHR) which quickly became the Cincinnati Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter. During this period Wally was CORE’s sole national field representative and Juanita served on its national board.

Peacemakers sought to create a collective movement with nonviolence as the spirit and method to be used in all relationships and activities. They called on the “transformation of the individual”—to live a demonstrated lifestyle practicing and promoting the very economic and social changes they extolled; living nonviolently. In 1975, Day wrote of Peacemakers, “When there is trouble there the Peacemakers have been also, finding the antidote to hatred in every field.”

The Nelsons’ quest to live a nonviolent, simple life culminated in their 1974 move to western Massachusetts where ‘they became, as Juanita would say, “self provisioning: farmers” practicing organic methods. Living in a cabin they built largely of recycled materials, absent electricity and indoor plumbing, they sought to reduce their material consumption, setting out “to be neither oppressed nor oppressor, to examine what our needs are, as opposed to our desires,” as she would write in her “Manifesto for Living Peace in an Age of War.” Juanita turned her attention and activism to exploring the connections of agriculture, nonviolence, and self-reliance, founding such community-initiated endeavors as the free Community Supper, the Winter Farmers Market, Valley Community Land Trust, and a Community Supported Agriculture cooperative called Common Wealth.

Numerous similarities in the respective resumes of Juanita and Dorothy abound, each foregoing their early conventional career paths as journalists, though never their passion for the written word as an integral component of expressing their beliefs. Indeed, they would act on their beliefs for a full half century; their respective first arrests were when they were in their twenties, the last in their seventies. Both renounced war and, as such, were tax resisters. Both were influenced by anarchists and were close readers of Tolstoy and Kropotkin, favoring in particular the latter’s mutual economic tenets. Both vigorously worked—though not together—for the rights of the farm laborer, supporting the unionization efforts and the grape and lettuce boycotts in the late 1960s. Both came to be called on as public speakers in their later years, and both were recipients of the Courage of Conscience Award from the Sherborne Peace Abbey.

Tn the February 1968 Catholic Worker, Dorothy reported on the Nelsons who were jointly serving time in the Cincinnati workhouse as the result of participating in a peace demonstration: “Wally refused to cooperate with his arrest and trial, and he was dragged from the police van by his legs, an action that caused his wife Juanita to follow him, cradling his head in her hands. When they arrived at Wally’s cell, Nita bent over to kiss him, was arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ and fined twenty-five dollars and costs. This she refused to pay, and was ordered to the workhouse.”

Among the pieces of Juanita’s published in The Catholic Worker was a March-April 1978 front page article of an-anarchist homesteader’s conundrum, “Reflections On the Marketplace”; a May 1986 article adapted from a talk Juanita gave at a conference on socially responsible investments, “Building A Responsible Economy,” viewing interest as theft, believing “we should divest ourselves of our surplus money;” and Juanita’s tender obituary of Wally in 2002.

Founded as an intentional interracial community just outside of Americus in southwest Georgia in 1942, Koinonia Farm was “committed to the belief that brotherhood and nonviolence must be practiced as well as preached and that truth must be lived as well as praised.”

This community found themselves under attack in early 1956 when the night riders of the 19th century returned in automobiles to Koinonia. Segregationists were infuriated by interracial displays of brotherhood, saving their most venomous wrath for the community’s white residents and allies, convinced that those who countenanced such behavior were certainly communists. Koinonians gathered to discuss whether they should stay or leave. The Koinonians chose to stay put. “They hope to stay on their farm,” Juanita wrote at the time, “to maintain their attitudes of love and nonviolence even toward those who persecute them. Koinonia is a symbol of the brotherhood which must come eventually to the South, to our whole nation, and to the world”—this from the great niece of ‘a woman who, but thirty years earlier, had been lynched one hundred miles up country in Spalding County, Georgia.

The Catholic Worker provided consistent coverage of these events in late 1956 and throughout 1957. When the violence that in 1956, initially limited in scale to destroying farm property, began threatening bodily harm, calls went out nationwide for support for the community, and the Nelsons and Dorothy were among the few volunteers who responded, prepared to use their bodies to
share and stake their philosophy and practice of nonviolence fortified with its pronounced
interracial foundation.

  • In 1957 they arrived to live and work alongside the community residents, the Nelsons for four months and Dorothy for two weeks. Dorothy observed in one of her several articles she wrote over the years about Koinonia that Juanita and Wally “give their physical and moral support. Juanita in the office—a twelve hour day, me in the kitchen and Wally everywhere. I remember one of his
    jobs was to drive around in overalls and make like a sharecropper and try to buy peanuts for
    seed and various other things needed by the community. What with the dynamiting and shooting, his life was in danger a good part of the time.” With the escalation of attacks, a nightwatch of rotating teams of two people stationed in a car was set up at the farm’s entrance. Dorothy, who herself was shot at one night when she and another woman sat in a station wagon on nightwatch, wrote “that I will not be afraid for the terror by night nor for the arrow that flieth by day.”

Juanita, too, wrote about her experiences in her journals, essays and in a three-part series published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is in the writings we find some of her most passionate prose reflecting on the inner transformation concept so inherently critical to the
Peacemaker core philosophy.

“So we were down there four months and there were about nine shootings into the community while we were there, but we were very fortunate. Nobody got hurt. It was amazing; it was absolutely amazing. That was quite an experience being down there in the Deep South, with all that going on… And what they finally did was set up a watch, put a light up on—the farm was on two sides of the road—and so they put a light up, and… members of the community stood watch outside on the road. They didn’t want us to be on watch… They felt we would be targets. They thought we’d be in more danger than other people, but we insisted that we be part of the community, so we did, and I’ll never forget that first night we were out there…

“We installed ourselves in the front seat of the car, Cars going both ways. Somewhat tense, we sat in silence. All was quiet for a long time. Then we heard a car approaching from the rear. This suspicious looking car was coming up, we could hear this…. The car seemed to slow as it neared us. Was it just somebody going home? A Ku Klux Klan member with a gun sticking out an open window? A friend coming to visit the farm? As the car came alongside us, we sort of automatically slid to the floor, and we, boom, went down on the floor.

“The auto moved past us. Probably townsfolks having fun scaring us we thought. If so, they had certainly succeeded. We got off the floor, almost too embarrassed to look at each other. We knew that hiding or running was the worst thing to do in such situations. Showing that kind of fear was the most dangerous thing in the world to do; it often encourages violence. And afterwards we felt like fools of the first order. I mean, it was just pure cowardice; it’s almost like reflex action, instinctively we ducked and immediately felt like fools for doing such a thing… ’cause, as a matter of fact, that would be the most dangerous thing we can do. But we never knew whether there was anything.

“From that time on we tried to match the bravery of the people who lived at Koinonia for years under threat and kept on doing the necessary work, including the children who endured insults and threats in and out of school. The next time we sat watch, and

from then on, we sat in the car, but whenever we heard a car coming from behind, we’d get out of the car and stand directly under the light, which is, tactically and morally, for me, the best thing to do…I mean, even as a measure to save you, that’s the best thing to do. I mean cowering inside a car is not a very great thing to do. I’m not very proud of that.

“We might not always have been free of fear, but we claimed our freedom to act in spite of fear.”

Nine years later, in an editorial titled “Tribute to the Nelsons,” Dorothy Day’s appreciation of their steadfast commitment and courage during those times had not lessened. She wished to write of them, she penned, with the “greatest admiration for their dedication. It is their vocation to realize and to lead others to realize the horror of the times through which we are passing. Itis of them particularly I wish to write, with the most heartfelt sympathy for their suffering and the greatest admiration for their dedication. In the stories of the saints, one reads of such sensitivity, such penarices undergone, such fastings endured and they are little understood by the secular world.”

A collection of Juanita’s writings, with a brief biography by this writer, is forthcoming in a volume titled Rags to Rags: With Not Much in Between, Juanita’s own choice for the title of her unfinished and pores autobiography.