Last time I shared about my neighbor Judith’s numerous efforts to shut down the School of the Americas (SOA) and protest violence through peaceful demonstrations.
In April, 1997, After years of hard work, she received word about being presented the YWCA’s annual Peacemaker Award as a peace activist. But hours before the award ceremony, it was canceled.
Here’s what happened.
The Peacemaker Award Fiasco
When word got out that Judith would be the recipient of the YWCA’s annual Peacemaker award, a prominent Waukesha citizen sent a letter of protest to the YWCA. In essence, he said, “How can we support the YWCA who gives awards to lawbreakers and disobeys her government?” He threatened to drop financial support if Judith received the award.
Fearful of losing support from him and other donors, the YWCA canceled the award ceremony–shortly before it was scheduled to occur.
This sent the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Waukesha Freeman buzzing.
It also sent Waukesha tongues wagging. Some folks canceled YWCA memberships because of the canceled award. Others withdrew support from the one who complained. The private letter went public.
On May 3, 1997, a Waukesha Freeman headline read: “YWCA shamed itself in award episode.” Arthur Koch of Oconomowoc stated, “For years, concerned (YW) members have tried to close this obscene school which has trained thousands of Latin American sadists, including four dictators, who have returned to their respective countries to butcher hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children . . . Possibly some leaders of the YWCA think the “C” in the acronym stands for “cave-in or “cop-out” rather than Christian.”
“Judith William’s protest against that institution (SOA)
is a logical response to the Gospel challenge to be a voice for the voice,
to protect the downtrodden, and to give hope to the poor.”
teacher at Waukesha Catholic Memorial High School
Meanwhile, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Waukesha edition (April 28, 1997), Judith’s opponent affirmed his stance. “I disagree with her breaking laws in order for her to achieve her goals. . . . She is misguided in her belief that we can achieve peace through (military) weakness.”
Judith refused to criticize her opponent.
“We both have deeply held religious beliefs.
But they are different. My belief is that God’s law
is different than the law of government. . . .
Civil disobedience and non-violent actions have a place in America.
Martin Luther King, Jr. led non-violent demonstrations
Former Wisconsin Governor Dreyfus had his say
Lee Dreyfus was Wisconsin’s governor, 1979 – 1983, lived in Waukesha, and had a weekly column in the Freeman. He called the YWCA board gutless. “I have a big fight with any institutional recipient that allows its internal decisions and its principles to be determined by that donor, no matter how much the donation!”
He claimed that Americans have the right to oppose their government in a civil manner, as long as they accept the consequences of getting arrested.
“If we withdrew the awards and public praise for Americans
who opposed their government and even broke the law to do so,
the list would be incredibly long.”
–former Governor Lee Dreyfus, 1997
He named many instances, beginning in colonial America when opposition against a NY governor precipitated our freedom of the press. He cited Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, General Billy Mitchell, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. all violators of the law. Add to the list those who operated the underground railway during the Civil War and today’s Right to Life leaders.
Also consider Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Muhammed Ali, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German Lutheran pastor killed by Hitler), and Henry David Thoreau.
Controversy brought awareness
Ironically, by Judith being denied this award, more people heard about the core issue: shutting down the School of the Americas.
As a result, Judith conducted a symposium for discussing her protests against SOA and their links to Central and South American massacres. Sixty-five people attended a meeting at Carroll College on May 1, 1997.
“Being denied the award has opened up the door
for talk about non-violent civil disobedience.
I think what happened will be educational for everybody.”
—Judith, May 1997
The YWCA apologizes
On May 2, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline announced “YW finally musters its courage.” The YWCA board decided to award Judith after all, with an apology.
The YWCA’s apology letter, published in the Freeman on May 6, 1997, said (in part):
“The course of events of the last week (April 23 – 30) and a hasty decision under pressure have caused much soul-searching by the board of directors of the YWCA of Waukesha.
“We must stand by our mission. Though we all believe in equality, justice and peace for all, we differ in our understanding of civil disobedience and the decision of a citizen to break laws and take the consequences.
“The 1997 Peacemaker Award focus was to recognize an individual living or working in Waukesha County, who has demonstrated leadership in developing, teaching and/or offering peaceful intervention and alternatives to violence. The nominees were considered in terms of the amount of time devoted to the research and /or implementation of alternative strategies to violence, the leadership provided, the kinds of commitments made, the kind of role model provided, the impact on the community, and their demonstrated service to the community. The board has resolved to offer the award to Judith as planned.
“In the spirit of peace, we ask the community to join with us in affirming the unity of this community for peace among all those who hold differing opinions and the right of our organization and other community organizations to determine and carry out their mission.”
Judith received the 1997 Peacemaker Award on May 22 at the YWCA.
Peace is not passive
Judith’s sister sums it up:
“Peace is not passive. It’s active!
It’s visiting prisoners in dismal jails to give them some hope.
It’s leading songs of joy while playing a guitar in a nursing home.
It’s confronting those in authority who are schooling people (with tax money)
in methods of terror, warfare, and murder.
It’s living in poverty in order to give everything away
beyond your basic daily needs.
It’s editing a newsletter to encourage
and inform those who are interested in going beyond their comfort zones
to make a difference in this crazy world.
Judith Williams has done, is doing, and will continue to do all of these things and
many more that may never be known. She has no thought of rewards or awards. –
–Sally L. Winkler, Judith’s sister, in 1997 letter to the YWCA
Sam Martino, editor of the Waukesha Journal Sentinel, published a letter sent all the way from Annapolis, Maryland. Part of it said:
“As for Judith Williams, I am sure she will continue
to do the good work for peace and justice
she did before this brouhaha. That is what is really important.
An Award here and there may be a sweetener
but is never the real motivation for the hard work
of witnessing for peace and justice.”
I can attest to this. Judith does not go around tooting her own horn. I’ve known her sixteen years. Though she shared about some of her work, including protests that led to jail time, I had no idea about the Peacemaker Award. She never mentioned it until last month when I interviewed her.
Who inspires you to do bigger and better things?
I’d love to hear from you!