Meet My Neighbor Judith—Imagining a Better World—Part 3

In early April, 1997, my neighbor Judith Williams received a phone call that the Waukesha YWCA was going to present her with their annual Peacemaker Award on April 23 for her work as a peace activist. According the Waukesha YWCA executive director, Merry Jorgensen, Judith was being recognized “for developing, teaching and offering peaceful intervention and alternatives to violence.”

Shortly before the award ceremony was to take place, Judith received a call that the award ceremony was cancelled. No award would be given.

What happened? Before I tell you that, let me share reasons why she was chosen for this award.

Disclaimer: As you read, please put aside your politics. One doesn’t need to agree with particular viewpoints or strategies in order to appreciate the heart behind them.

The YWCA’s mission statement was
 “Strengthened by diversity,
 the Association draws together members
 who strive to create opportunities for women’s growth,
 leadership and power in order to attain a common vision:
 Peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people.”

Thus, the YWCA’s hallway had a photo display including women picketing and protesting during the temperance and suffrage movements. 

Women suffragettes picketing in front of the White House
More suffragettes.

The Peacemaker Award always went to someone who promoted peacemaking and non-violent conflict resolution. In 1997, Judith was one of four people nominated by the five-member selection committee, comprised of Waukesha community leaders. The committee’s final choice was unanimous. 

“(Judith) has participated in committees in the Waukesha community
 for promoting non-violent solutions
 in the area of church burnings and domestic abuse.”
 –Attorney Peter J Lettenberger in nomination letter

“Williams deserved the award.
 She is a 58-year-old grandmother
 who has the guts to do what most of us wouldn’t do.
 She’s willing to go to jail for her peaceful civil disobedience
–and has eight times–if that’s what it takes to get her message out.”
–Laurel Walker, columnist, Waukesha Freeman, May 2, 1997

“She is in the tradition of Gandhi.
 Judith has acted globally on a national and international scene. 
There was no doubt in our mind that she deserved the award. 
–Jean Batha, member of selection committee and YWCA board of directors

Besides being involved in the activities mentioned in my last post, Judith has been a church organist, liturgy director, and music therapist for the elderly in Waukesha’s Avalon Manor.

Protests at School of the Americas

In November, 1989, innocent civilians were killed in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter.

They were killed by native soldiers who’d been trained at the United States Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. This school brought up soldiers from Central American countries and trained them in terrorist work. 

Poster of the six who were killed in November, 1989–6 priests, plus a housekeeper and her daughter. This ignited the yearly demonstrations at SOA.

Numerous religious leaders and civilians have been victims of massacres and brutality. In 1980, Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who once gave a voice to the voiceless, was killed in a similar attack. 

To draw attention to the atrocities of SOA and aiming to close their doors permanently, protesters have gathered at Fort Benning for demonstrations every November 9 since 1990. Judith was one of the protesters who attended yearly.

In 1998, 500 people came from all over the U.S., including Pete Seeger and Martin Sheen. Protestors set up a stage and played music, an all-afternoon event. Judith had led music on stage with her guitar in earlier years.

The protests are mainly silent. Activities include dramatic portrayals of assassinations. Someone dresses as Uncle Sam and holds a rope around the necks of others, dressed as peasants, each with a name of its Central American country on his/her serape. Men in fatigues aim cardboard guns at the countries, then dig graves in a nearby playground. 

Participants waved crosses or carried coffins for a symbolic funeral procession down the street and back to the base. Many trespassed by climbing Fort Benning’s fence to plant wooden crosses. The crosses symbolize the deaths of thousands killed by former SOA military students who went on to be dictators and/or assassins. 

Postcard of the Fort Benning protest—a symbolic funeral procession. Judith is helping carry a coffin. She is wearing a pink shirt and dark green coat.

In 1998, twenty-five were arrested, including Judith. She spent six months in women’s Federal prison in Pekin, Illinois.

People had already taken note. Dozens of congressmen were creating a bill to shut down the school. In April, 1997, Judith met with some in DC during another protest against SOA at the Pentagon.

The bill never went through. Instead, Congress changed SOA’s name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and required students to take a class on human rights.

Time in Prison

Time spent in prison was an eye-opener. Judith’s experience was the impetus for later jail ministry.

After being released, Judith taught a confirmation class to teens at St. Mary’s Church. With parents’ permission, she had students write (using pseudonyms) to inmates she’d met.

Living out east from 1985 – 1989, Judith received non-violence training through Witness for Disarmament. When she was arrested during two different protests at the White House and the Pentagon, she immediately had a chance to put her non-violence training into practice.

For example, at the Pentagon, the arresting officer kneed her in the back. En route to the jail, she asked him about his dog. He softened. At the jail, the booking officer asked, “How did the arresting officer treat you?” Judith said, “Fine.” Later, the officer thanked her.

In the 1980s, Judith went to the military base in Tegucigalpa for demonstrations when the U.S. was occupying Honduras. This time Judith dressed as Uncle Sam. She and her colleagues were arrested for performing street theater.

She recalls looking out the prison bars to see a hurricane coming, and having no protection. At one point, an officer joined her group in singing Spanish songs. She put her rosary around his neck. 

After two weeks of jail, when U.S. representatives traveled down to survey the situation, they were angry at the Americans protesting against their own country. So they took the inmates’ cots away. They slept on the floor for the remaining two weeks.  

The Honduran government deported them back to the US. Prison guards returned their costumes. Judith reached inside her Uncle Sam hat and pulled out the plane tickets that had been hidden there–safe and sound, and refundable.

Promoting Peace, sometimes through Civil Disobedience

Judith’s interest in peace activism started during the Vietnam War. Additional events include the following:

  • 1980s–was arrested and spent 28 days in solitary confinement for protesting the launch of a nuclear submarine
  • 1980s–walked down mined roads in Nicaragua in solidarity with Latin American peasants
  • 1993–was arrested at the White House for protesting sanctions against Iraq. Such sanctions denied women and children food
  • 1996–helped organize the YWCA’s “Week Without Violence” program and other programs to call attention to the burning of black churches in the South
  • 1997–hosted a symposium at Carroll College sponsored by the Plowshare Center. She discussed “Civil Disobedience and Closing the School of the Americas.”
  • 2001 to present–participates in a weekly peace vigil at the library

“Judith has led peaceful vigils and discussions in Waukesha
 to protest nuclear weapons, capital punishment,
 American foreign policy in Central America, 
production and use of land mines, political imprisonment and torture.” 
–Shirley Harris, president of Church Women United in Waukesha,
 as reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 15, 1997

Back to the Peacemaker Award. Are you wondering what happened? Join me next time for the rest of the story!

What risks are you willing to take to make this world a better place? 

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

8 thoughts on “Meet My Neighbor Judith—Imagining a Better World—Part 3

  1. I’ve never given that very much thought! Certainly not as much as Judith!! I can’t believe she has been imprisoned multiple times for protesting. I am loving the posts about her. You should be writing her biography!

    1. I definitely feel honored to be sharing her story. I’m thankful that she agreed to let me spotlight her! She believes in what she does. She wouldn’t want the focus to be her, but on the causes she supports, which help others–mainly helping the helpless.

  2. She gets more interesting and complex (and more courageous!) with each new installment!
    Well, I know she was interesting, complex and courageous long before you introduced her to us.
    But it really is like reading a great serial story! Something new each time!

    1. So glad you’re enjoying her story. I, too, am amazed at her courage, as well as her commitment to continue on the path she started blazing.

  3. Thanks for this series, Laura. Although I knew a bit about Judith’s work, I didn’t know a lot of the details about the protests and time (and number of times!) she spent in prison. I admire her convictions and commitment, especially being willing to face potentially more time in prison after enduring time in solitary confinement and being imprisoned in a foreign country. I’m impressed that Judith is so brave and steadfast and dedicated to helping others.

    1. I learned a lot, too, while interviewing her. I’d known some of the basics but she filled in with a lot of fascinating details. Yes, her dedication to the cause is definitely admirable!

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