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Wallace Floyd Nelson (27 March 1909 – 23 May 2002) was an American civil rights activist and war tax resister.
Wally Nelson died at the age of 93 after more than a half-century of war tax resistance and activism. He spent three and a half years in prison as a conscientious objector during World War II, was on the first of the “freedom rides” (then called the “Journey of Reconciliation”) enforcing desegregation in 1947 and was the first national field organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality.
In 1948, he began his lifelong relationship with Juanita, who met him while she was working as a journalist and went to interview him in jail. Together, they began engaging in war tax resistance. “When we became tax resisters in 1948,” they wrote, “it included not filing, not answering notices to supply information and making sure we had something to refuse.”
Over time, the Nelsons came to adopt the income-reduction method of war tax refusal. “Living on a reduced income is related to our refusal only as a progression of awareness, that our entire economic life is tied into violence. It seemed logical that the less we participated, the less we’d be giving to that system.”
The Nelsons cut their expenses dramatically — building a house with salvaged materials and without electricity or plumbing, and growing the majority of their own food on a half-acre of land. Eventually they came to live on less than $5,000 per year. As they aged, they wrote, “we may soon face some difficult decisions… We have no insurance. In latter years we’ve had our share of medical problems. Hospitalizations are covered by aid to the indigent. We talk with doctors before they take us on. Mostly they don’t charge; sometimes we agree on something up to twenty percent of the fee. Our greatest insurance has been the outpouring of support from many, many younger friends (and some older ones).”
Wally Nelson countered complaints about government with stern words about individual responsibility. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, he told a reporter: “What happened in China last month was because you had people following orders. There was damn fools out there doing it. You got to have somebody take orders to do it.” He added: “I never accuse presidents of doing anything — we do it.”
For their role as farmers, civil rights activists, pacifists, war tax resisters, their love & generosity and their spirited life of service to the movements of social justice, activist nonviolence and peace, Wally Nelson and his wife, Juanita Nelson received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts.
Wally & Juanita were also founding members of the Valley Community Land Trust in western Massachusetts. A no-interest loan fund is now held by the trust in Wally's memory.
Wally Nelson was born on March 27, 1909 to Lydia and Duncan Nelson. He was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a younger son in a larger Family of sharecroppers, this began to shape some of Nelson's values. Later, he went north to join his brother's, working odd-jobs, and trying to get a higher education. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University.
Wally Nelson was thoroughly committed non-violence as a way of life and therefore refused to bear arms in World War II. He was charged as a Conscientious Objector and was given the choice to serve in a Civilian Service Camp for civilian public service (he referred to it as "civilian public slavery"). Immediately after beginning at the service camp, he realized that it was a mistake as he did not want to cooperate with the war effort by working for the government on the home front. After a year at the labor camp he left. For choosing to leave he was given a lengthy jail sentence. He served three and a half years in a federal prison. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Juanita. She came to Cuyahoga County Jail as a reporter, working on a story on jail conditions. He and his cell mate asked to meet her and after that they kept in touch through the mail.
Toward the end of his jailing, he went on a hunger strike, saying "You've got me in jail; you're responsible for this, and I'm not going to eat until I am on the other side of these walls". During this hunger strike he went for eighteen days without eating anything at all. After this, they started to force feed him. The first time that the guards force fed him, they purposefully made the tubes too large, making this process torturous for Nelson. The tubes went through his nose and directly into his stomach. After this particular event, Nelson had to be hospitalized for his injuries. It had made him very sick and he lost a lot of weight due to it. The force feedings went on for a total of about 87 days until Nelson was finally released from prison.
Nelson Participated in the first Freedom Ride (then referred to as the Journey of Reconciliation) in which people purposefully rode in the “wrong” seats (blacks in the front, whites in the back) in 1947. He rode with a number of notable Freedom Riders such including James Peck, Igal Roodenko, and George Houser. All of the participants were men, because they did not want women to be included as they thought the idea of black men being with white women would be cause too much outrage and be too dangerous. Many of the men who took part in the original Freedom Ride were men who had also been imprisoned for being Conscientious Objectors and refusing to work in the labor camps.
In 1948, Nelson cofounded the Peacemakers. This was a national organization dedicated to active non-violence as a way of life. He and his wife Juanita began their practice of refusing to pay taxes used for armaments and killing, they did this for the rest of their lives.
In the early 1950s Nelson served as the first national field officer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). For this job he directed many workshops on non-violent direct action in Washington D.C.
In 1968, He fasted once again, for 21 days, this time in support of the United Farm Workers campaign for just wages and working conditions for Farm Laborers.
He and his Juanita moved to Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1974 and started and organic vegetable farm. During this time they were some of the founders of such things as the Valley Community Land Trust, the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters, and the Greenfield Farmer's Market.
He annually participated in the war-tax protest in front of the Greenfield Post office on Tax day.
Nelson Died on May 23, 2002 in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the age of 93.
- Juanita Nelson - 1943-1946: Juanita meets Wally Nelson
- Wally Nelson, a Committee Activist
- Wally Nelson As remembered by Sheila Michaels
- The "first" freedom ride?
- Radical Stories #1: Wally Nelson