Standing on the Shoulders of Women Peacemakers

Fifty years ago today, on Monday, June 5, 1961, eighteen year-old Shirley Thompson, of New Orleans, was getting ready to take a trip. She was a student at George Washington Carver High School. The next day, she would board a Trailways bus bound for Jackson, Mississippi. She’d be traveling with six men: four college students, one writer and one photographer. (1)

Shirley and the six men were Freedom Riders. Shirley was by far the youngest person in the group, and the only black woman. They had all completed rigorous training in non-violence from the New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They all knew that previous Freedom Riders had been arrested and jailed upon arrival in Jackson, and they fully expected the same fate. (1)

In fact, several weeks earlier, Shirley’s 19 year-old sister, Jean, had been part of the first group of Freedom Riders to be arrested in Jackson. Jean had been thrown into Hinds County Penal Farm, where she had been struck in the face by Max Thomas, the superintendent, because she hadn’t called him “sir.” Several other Freedom Riders had also been hit. The Jackson sheriff, J. R. Gilfoy, had called the whole incident “funny.” Shirley’s 22 year-old sister, Alice, was a CORE activist and would participate in a Freedom Ride later that fall. The Thompson girls’ involvement in the civil rights movement had cost their father, a forklift operator, his job. But despite the risks and the high cost of their involvement in the civil rights movement, Shirley, Jean and Alice were dedicated to pursuing justice and equality through peaceful means. (1)

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That same summer of 1961, half a world away, in Gallneukirchen, Austria, 37 year-old Fran Nyce, of Westminster, Maryland, was serving as a volunteer with Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS). (2) Fran served at a Protestant institution for people with physical and mental disabilities (now Evangelical Diakonia Gallneukirchen). At that time, it was the only facility of its kind in Austria because the Nazi regime had murdered many of the people who might have needed such a place (including 64 people with disabilities who were taken from Diakonia in 1941 and murdered) (3). Fran worked with children at the institution who had Down Syndrome. She often sang to them and taught them some of her favorite songs. Fran’s work also included participation in a four-week International Peace Seminar with people from other countries that had been at war with each other. Seminar participants were brought together to study and work side by side in an effort to build cross-cultural relationships and foster peace. (4)

When the Peace Seminar ended, Fran was sent to Berlin through BVS. The Berlin Wall was completed late in the summer of 1961. Fran’s service in Berlin included traveling back and forth through Checkpoint Charlie to serve as a liaison between people in East and West Berlin who had been part of a church congregation that had been split by the building of the Wall. One of the women Fran visited in East Berlin was Frau von Prittwitz, who directed a church retreat center and seminary there. The two women became friends. Despite the staggering poverty and hardship in East Berlin, when Fran asked her friend how she felt about being there, Frau von Prittwitz replied simply: “This is my mission. I belong here.” It was a powerful lesson for Fran. Another occurred when she returned to the children’s home in Gallneukirchen, and saw one of the young girls she had taught there. The staff at the home told Fran the girl’s condition had deteriorated to a point where she no longer spoke. But when Fran walked into the room, the girl looked up at Fran and started singing one of the songs Fran had taught her. “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Fran told me, “to know that I had touched the life of this one little girl.”

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Back in the United States that summer of ‘61, Dagmar Wilson, a 45 year-old homemaker, mother of three young daughters and children’s storybook illustrator, was watching the unfolding crisis in Berlin and the escalating US-Soviet nuclear arms race with growing alarm and anger. She started calling other women to talk about these issues and invited a group of them to meet at her home to figure out what they could do. Together the women formed “Women Strike for Peace” (WSP) and organized a one-day protest to “End the Arms Race – Not the Human Race.” The women distributed a mimeographed flyer and organized an extensive phone-calling campaign to get other women across the US to leave their homes and jobs on November 1, 1961 to participate in demonstrations for peace and nuclear disarmament around the country. They wrote letters to Jacqueline Kennedy and Nina Kruschev urging them to talk with their husbands about the dangers of the arms race. The November 1st event was the largest women’s peace protest in America, with over 50,000 women participating (most of them housewives and mothers) in 60 cities. The following year, when asked about the protest by a New York Times reporter, Dagmar said, “I decided that there are some things the individual citizen can do. At least we can make some noise and see.” (5)

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While the Thompson sisters, Fran Nyce and Dagmar Wilson were involved in their work, a 20 year-old woman named Karen Snyder had work of another kind to do. She was 9 months pregnant and her baby was overdue. Her husband, Pete, was in the Navy. He had been at home on leave with her in their little second floor apartment on South 5th Street in Philadelphia for a week, awaiting the arrival of their first child, and celebrating their first wedding anniversary. But when his week was up, the baby STILL had not arrived. Pete had to return to Norfolk, VA to board the USS Galveston.

On Monday June 5, 1961, in the wee hours of the morning, Karen finally went into labor. A neighbor who was also a Navy wife, drove Karen to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, and Navy officials notified Pete that his wife was in labor and gave him an additional week of home leave. As he drove through the night back to Philadelphia, Karen gave birth to a nearly 8-pound baby girl. She named the girl “Melanie Gaye”, the first name after the character Melanie Hamilton Wilkes from the book “Gone With the Wind,” and the middle name signifying joy.

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• Shirley Thompson got to see her sister, Jean, before boarding the Trailways bus on June 6, 1961. Jean had posted bond, been released from the Hinds County Penal Farm and returned to New Orleans just a few days before Shirley’s Freedom Ride.

Shirley lived to age 56. She died in Baton Rouge, LA in January 1990. (1)

• After her experience at Hinds County Penal Farm, Jean Thompson filed a complaint with the FBI against the penal farm superintendent who had hit her. She went on to participate in a second Freedom Ride in December, 1961. (1) Jean talked about her experience in the recent PBS documentary Freedom Riders. Jean and I have exchanged several emails over the past month.

• Fran Nyce lives in Maryland and continues to be involved in peace and justice initiatives through the Westminster Church of the Brethren. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with Fran on several occasions over the past few years. She shared stories of her BVS experience with me in a recent phone conversation.

• For Dagmar Wilson and the women of the WSP, their one-day protest in November, 1961, was just the beginning. They became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-Communism investigations. But Dagmar and the women of WSP persevered, and went on to protest the war in Vietnam and other anti-war efforts. Dagmar continued to speak out publicly against war and weapons, and was a tireless advocate for peace. She died in January of this year. She was 94 years old. (5)

• Karen (formerly Snyder) Powell lives in Kentucky with her second husband, Paul. They’ve been married for 32 years. She is the first to admit that her life and her relationships haven’t always been peaceful. But she’s a survivor and, as she says with her Southern drawl, “Darlin’, I’m strong as grits.” Now age 70, she continues to strive to be at peace with herself, with the course of her life, and with me, her daughter.

• And I am 50 years old today. I’m immensely grateful for women like Shirley, Jean and Alice Thompson, like Fran Nyce and Frau von Prittwitz, like Dagmar Wilson and the 50,000 homemakers, mothers and other women who left their classrooms, their kitchens, their living rooms, their office desks, to take a stand for peace and justice back in the days when women’s voices often went un-heard. Women who believed that one person, acting upon the convictions of her heart, CAN make a difference. I feel blessed to have been born while women such as these were already at work in the world. All of us stand on their shoulders.

Most of all, I am grateful for my mother, Karen, for giving me life. For giving me love. For giving me laughter . . . and a goodly share of that gritty strength.

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(1) Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom riders: 1961 and the struggle for racial justice‬, Oxford University Press, 2006.
(2) BVS had been established in 1948 to provide opportunities for “young people to volunteer for year-long service positions that would promote peace, prevent war, and be about justice in the world,” (pre-dating creation of the Peace Corps by 13 years). BVS was later expanded to provide alternative service for conscientious objectors.
(3) Diakoniewerk online chronology (translated by Google)
(4) These International Peace Seminars had been started by M. R. “Bob” Zigler, a leader in the Church of the Brethren and long-time peace advocate who also helped to develop the Heifer Project. Sources:
a. Heifer Project article by Peggy Reiff Miller

b. Seagoing Cowboys article by Peggy Reiff Miller

(5) New York Times article about Dagmar Wilson

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: peace

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