Watch: Juanita Nelson (1923-2015) on War Tax Resistance, Civil Rights & Simple Living

March 13, 2015
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Juanita Nelson

longtime civil rights activist, war tax resister and farmer.

Juanita Nelson, a longtime civil rights activist, war tax resister and farmer, has died at the age of 91 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She was first arrested in the early 1940s protesting lunch counter segregation in Washington, D.C. During World War II, she met her future husband, Wally Nelson, while he was in jail for refusing to fight in the war. In the late 1940s, they worked with CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, and helped organized the first Freedom Rides in the South. At the same time, they stopped paying taxes for war.

In the 1970s, the Nelsons moved to New Mexico. "Fueled by a desire to live more simply in the face of U.S. war in Vietnam and to be less involved in the economic milieu that spawns war, they made their living by growing and selling produce and attempting to become as self-sufficient as possible," reads her obituary. "They learned to heat and cook with wood, preserve food, and make their own soap."

They later moved to Woolman Hill, a Quaker conference center in Deerfield, Massachusetts. She helped found the Valley Community Land Trust, Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, and the Greenfield Farmers’ Market. In 2005, Amy Goodman interviewed Juanita Nelson in Northampton, Massachusetts.

AMY GOODMAN: Juanita Nelson has died at the age of 91 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. She was a longtime civil rights activist, war tax resister and farmer. She was first arrested in the early ’40s protesting lunch counter segregation in Washington, D.C. During World War II, she met her future husband, Wally Nelson, while he was in jail for refusing to fight in the war. In the late ’40s, they helped organize the first Freedom Rides in the South. At the same time, they stopped paying taxes for war. In 2005, I interviewed Juanita about war tax resistance.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1959, Juanita became one of only six people imprisoned for war tax resistance between the end of World War II and the Vietnam War. After moving to western Massachusetts, she and her late husband, Wally, co-founded the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters. They had met in 1948 when Wally was in jail serving a sentence for refusing to fight in World War II. Juanita now lives on a farm on Woolman Hill in Deerfield. She has also begun to address the underlying issues, underlying causes for war by focusing on local organic agriculture. And we’ll talk about how she makes that connection. She co-founded the Pioneer Valley Community Land Trust and the Greenfield Farmers’ Market, and continues to farm at Woolman Hill in Deerfield. Welcome to this live broadcast.


AMY GOODMAN: Why haven’t you paid taxes in more than 50 years?

JUANITA NELSON: Because I don’t want to buy what I—I don’t want to pay for what I don’t want. I won’t buy what I don’t want. I’m that way with everything. So, why not war? I don’t want it either, so...

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when you first made that decision?

JUANITA NELSON: Well, I’ll have to go back a little bit to say that my connection with World War II was really through my husband. It was in about 1943 or '44 that I met him, when he was in jail in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was then a young journalist on a weekly newspaper. And I was asked to come down and visit the jail by the superintendent, and there I met Wally. I won't go into how it all happened, but whatever. And he and his friend, who had been in a CPS camp—Civilian Public Service, or, as Wally would say, Civilian Public Slavery—decided that they should never have registered, and so they walked out, and of course were arrested. So he was in the jail awaiting—he had got a five-year sentence, but they were working on their appeal. And so, I got to talk to them.

I had already been very much involved in direct action. I was arrested for the first time in my life while I was a student at Howard University in D.C. for asking for a cup of hot chocolate at a store downtown. And then, when I got to Cleveland, I helped to start Cleveland CORE and all that sort of thing. But I was impressed when I talked to Wally and his friend, you know, people in jail because they refused to cooperate. And I asked the question that many people ask: What would you do if someone were going to kill you, or you thought they were? He said, "I would try to defend myself by, you know, maybe rolling up in a ball or whatever. But in the end, I couldn’t decide that my life was worth more than somebody else’s."

AMY GOODMAN: But you were just telling this story of you and your husband, Wally Nelson, your late husband, and why you decided to come off the grid and begin by not paying war taxes.

JUANITA NELSON: It seemed to us, when we did begin our lives together, that it didn’t make any sense whatever to pay somebody else to do what he wouldn’t do. Also, meanwhile, a group called Peacemakers had been started, and we became members of that, either the first or second year that it was formed, and it saw nonviolence as a way of life, not simply against war, but the things it made for war, the things it made for poverty, all that sort of thing. And so we just didn’t pay taxes, and we never filed after that. And neither of us had paid taxes very much anyway. We never had much money anyhow. But I always wanted to make at least 10 cents more, so I could thumb my nose at the government. And I was arrested only once because of that. And I’ve written A Matter of Freedom, à la Thoreau, you know, about my one day in jail, and he wrote about his one night in jail. So, that happened, that.

But because of all our beliefs, and certainly because of Peacemakers, like, for instance, we have lived in community. We try to live—we lived simply. And then, in 1970, when we were living in Philadelphia, I began to see, during the Vietnam War, so much that everything we did was tied in with things that I did not believe, our whole system, and we wanted to get a little further from it. So we started out by moving to a small village of 500 in New Mexico called Ojo Caliente, which was a really good place to go, because everybody used an outhouse, and most people used wood for cooking or heating, and it was a very simple life. The only thing people got excited about was the water rights. Everything else was pretty independent. And so, we did that. And I—it was a new life for me, because I came from the city, and I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. And Wally thought that I was being romantic, because I had never done this sort of thing before, but he changed his mind. And so, we had an outhouse, and we had a wood stove, and we drew our water from a well, and that sort of thing. And incidentally, I have a piece that I’ve called the "Outhouse Blues," which would explain my whole philosophy without my going into that. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we wrap up with you reading your piece?


AMY GOODMAN: Called "Outhouse Blues."

JUANITA NELSON: All right, all right.

AMY GOODMAN: I think a lot of people here are intrigued right now.

JUANITA NELSON: You can see that it’s quite dated, but it still expresses my—by the way, being as old as I am, I forgot my glasses, so I borrowed somebody else’s, and I think I can see all right. And I wanted to say one other thing: I was very intrigued when you mentioned the Hermes typewriter, because that’s my mode of communication.


JUANITA NELSON: A wonderful Hermes typewriter is a great piece of technology. I recommend it.

AMY GOODMAN: From Wilfred Burchett to Juanita Nelson.


Well, I went out to the country to live the simple life,
Get away form all that concrete and avoid some of that strife,
Get off the backs of poor folks, stop supporting Uncle Sam
In all that stuff he’s puttin’ down, like bombing Vietnam
Oh, but it ain’t easy, ’specially on a chilly night
When I beat it to the outhouse with my trusty dim flashlight
The seat is absolutely frigid, not a BTU of heat…
That’s when I think the simple life is not for us elite.

Well, I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs,
I even make my own soap and my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil and ITT and those other gouging guys.
Oh, but it ain’t easy to leave my cozy bed
To make it with my flashlight to that air-conditioned shed
When the seat’s so cold it takes away that freedom ecstasy,
That’s when I fear the simple life maybe wasn’t meant for me.

Well, I cook my food on a wood stove and heat with wood also,
Though when my parents left the South I said, "This has got to go,"
But I figure that the best way to say all folks are my kin
Is try to live so I don’t take nobody’s pound of skin.
Oh, but it ain’t easy, when it’s rainy and there’s mud
To put on my old bathrobe and walk out in that crud;
I look out through the open door and see a distant star
And sometimes think this simple life is taking things too far.

But then I get to thinkin’, if we’re ever gonna see
The end of that old con game the change has got to start with me.
Quit wheelin’ and quit dealin’ to be a leader in any band,
And it appears the best way is to get back on the land.
If I produce my own needs I know what’s goin’ down,
I’m not quite so footsy with those Wall Street pimps in town.
’Cause let me tell you something, though it may not be good news,
If some folks win you better know somebody’s got to lose.

So I guess I’ll have to cast my lot with those who’re optin’ out.
And even though on freezing nights I will have my naggin’ doubts,
Long as I talk the line I do and spout my way out views
I’ll keep on usin’ the outhouse and singin’ the outhouse blues.

AMY GOODMAN: A standing ovation for Juanita Nelson, here on the stage at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Juanita Nelson, thanks so much for being with us.

JUANITA NELSON: Thank you. I simply want to say that you can do this in western Mass. I still have an outhouse. I still cook and heat with wood. I have two gas lights, and I pull my water up by hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Juanita Nelson, living off the grid here in Massachusetts.

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