A Brief History of Nebraskans for Peace

Four themes have defined Nebraskans for Peace virtually from its inception: the search for peace through negotiation and especially through the reduction of nuclear armaments; the pursuit of nonviolence; an opposition to globalization that gives untrammeled power to multinational corporations; and an assertion that we will not stand by while the rights of persons of color and other marginalized populations in our society are trampled.

Nebraskans for Peace was founded in 1970 as the opposition to the Vietnam War grew throughout America. It had been preceded in 1968 by a predecessor organization called “Rural Nebraskans for Peace” established by a number of farm, rural and church leaders—Merle Hansen, Arlo ‘Dutch’ Hoppe, Fred Schroeder, Wes and June Webb, United Methodist ministers Rev. Tom Rehorn and Rev. Nye Bond, and a little later, Henry and Evelyn Schutz and Quakers Ted and Don Reeves. Justice as well as peace was always a concern of this rural-based peace group. Decades before, the Populist Party in Nebraska and reformist political leaders like William Jennings Bryan and George Norris, had won elections as anti-war candidates and as advocates of justice for labor, farmers, and other excluded or marginalized groups. Anti-war sentiment was particularly powerful in Nebraska in the 1920s and ’30s when many people felt that World War I had accomplished nothing.

Dwight Dell of the Beatrice area, who had run for the U.S. Senate as a peace candidate in the 1950s, soon joined the Rural Nebraskans for Peace group, and some of the earliest of Nebraskans for Peace clusters included noted civil rights activists like Hughes and Lela Shanks who stressed the problem of racial discrimination. The earliest formal meetings of the activist network who comprised the planning group for Nebraskans for Peace took place after a local clergyperson, either Don Goll or Darrel Berg (our informants differ on this), came back from a national “Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War” meeting with the promise of a bit of seed money from CALC to create a statewide organization. In the early discussions of the direction of NFP, Don Reeves recalls, some discussants wanted NFP to focus on Vietnam alone; others said that Vietnam was only the symptom of deeper ills and that the range of these ills blocking peace and justice needed tackling—the view Rural Nebraskan for Peace had held for some time. The ‘peace-and-justice’ position prevailed and has accounted in part for NFP’s long life.

From the outset of the organizing efforts, Rural Nebraskans for Peace and NFP thought of themselves as truly peace and justice organizations. In the early days, tractorcades of Nebraska farmers supported African-American civil rights protests in Omaha. When student unrest overflowed in 1970, after the killing of students protesting the Cambodian invasion and civil rights violations on the Jackson State and Kent State campuses, NFP organized a rally on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus that included both the major civil rights groups as well as the major anti-war groups.

Recognizing that the organization was unlikely to long survive without a formal structure, however, these early members selected a set of officers and then proceeded to hire staff. Don Reeves of Central City was chosen as the first president and a young student named Mike Shonsey was engaged as a part-time coordinator. After a year, Mike was succeeded by Nick Meinhardt, who became the first full-time coordinator, followed in turn by Marita Heller, a nun who had been teaching in Lyons, Nebraska, and was also something of a feminist. Succeeding coordinators included Dick Littleton, Marilyn McNabb, Betty Olson, Larry Zink, Bettina Hurst, Bobbie Kierstead and Tim Rinne. During her tenure in the ’70s, Marilyn McNabb brought national peace movement organizing skills to NFP, and in the period of ’86-’90, Larry Zink brought to it a systematic organizing strategy that was helpful in making the Nebraskans for Peace a statewide organization.

Betty Olson's ten-year-long coordinatorship from 1976-1986 provided some desperately needed stability to the organization and enabled NFP, in the words of Don Reeves, to get “permanentized.” Over the course of Betty’s tenure, the group undertook a large number of organizing efforts and affiliated itself (or intensified its relation) with a number of national peace organizations such as Clergy and Laity Concerned and the Chilean Campaign for Human Rights. NFP’s organizational efforts during this period were significantly aided by Mary Alice Park, who served as the state office manager, and by Loyal Park, whose bookkeeping skills kept NFP’s funds in order.

So long as the War in Vietnam continued, this bloody military intervention and the human rights violations that went with it (e.g. the victims imprisoned in ‘tiger cages’ and the concomitant violations of the Geneva Convention) remained the organization’s primary focus. But after the war was nominally over for Americans with the fall of Saigon in 1975, Nebraskans for Peace turned its attention to securing a just peace and reconciliation with Vietnam and to justice at home.

The organization also added other concerns during this era. In the international arms race arena, we sought the reduction of nuclear armaments on both the Soviet and American sides and argued against the destructive cost of the arms race. In regard to the Middle East, during the Carter Administration, we sought to see the Iran hostage crisis resolved peacefully through negotiation, sending Father Darrell Rupiper to Iran to speak with the American hostages.

At home we supported the continuing civil rights struggles of persons of color whether related to the Wounded Knee occupation or in the African-American community in North Omaha. Abroad in the civil and human rights arena, we sought the divestiture of state funds from the Apartheid South Africa. So far as America's domestic relations with Hispanic people was concerned, we sought to preserve proper Mexican-American representation before state government by fighting for the Mexican American Commission's existence and continued funding.

With respect to American policy toward Latin America during the Reagan years, we opposed the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile and hosted the wife of one of the victims of that carnage, Isabel Latelier. We emphatically questioned the Reagan Administration's support of repressive regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador and its illegal support for the right-wing Contras seeking to subvert a legitimately elected Nicaraguan government. To better respond to these geo-political crises in Latin America, NFP hired its first human rights coordinator, Suzy Prenger; sent Witness for Peace delegations to Nicaragua; gave leadership to the refugee sanctuary movement; and supported numerous trips to Central America by knowledgeable persons—especially by Bob Epp and Suzy—who reported what was going in Nicaragua to subvert the Sandinista government. We examined the suppression of civil rights in America's Central and South American client states, and acted to help those injured by the war. In order to assist NFP members’ understanding of the sorts of economic oppression that was being inflicted on these Central American nations, we increased our efforts to provide education concerning the relationships between structural inequality, economic interdependence and food and hunger issues.

Ronald Reagan’s election was to introduce a whole new series of nuclear issues, especially the administration’s effort to place MX missiles in Nebraska and the propagation of the notion that it is possible to fight and win a nuclear war. In consequence, NFP helped launch the Nebraska Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which achieved some notable successes in several parts of the state: most notably the NO MX campaign in western Nebraska, which succeeded in keeping the multi-warhead MX nuclear missile from being deployed in the Panhandle and ultimately led to the radical reduction of plans for that program nationwide.

In the period before the fall of the Soviet Union, NFP sponsored trips to the Soviet Union by American peace activists who could see for themselves the strengths and weaknesses of the peace movement there and what was going on in the Soviet nation domestically. We also sent representatives to commemorations of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; to the United Nations Disarmament talks; and to numerous peace movement marches on Washington, D. C.

We had to have money to survive, and most of it came from memberships. But in the ’80s, NFP also developed the ‘Cat Lovers Against the Bomb’ calendar—and idea originated by DeCourcy Squire, Esther Cope and Bill Waters in the first 1984 edition. DeCourcy continued as editor in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Then former NFP State Coordinator Betty Olson assumed the editorship, beginning with the 1988 calendar and continuing on through the 2000 edition. Following her death, a committee was set up to carry on this unique fundraiser for NFP—a fundraising instrument that provides a fifth of NFP’s annual revenue. Loyal and Mary Alice Park presently serve as co-leaders of the committee.

To the degree that Bush Sr. carried on Reagan's policies, we opposed them. We opposed his invasion of Kuwait to evict Iraqi forces prior to exhausting all peaceful international means. At the same time, we were among the earliest of American domestic organizations calling for a universal healthcare system, particularly to assist poor people and those not sufficiently insured to have adequate health care. It may not be accidental that a Nebraskan, Senator Bob Kerrey, was among the first national leaders to call for such a plan. From the ’80s on, we had opposed ‘globalization,’ featuring Richard Barnet, the author of Global Reach, as a speaker. And we continued to support the causes of those who were being oppressed by national economic policies—specifically Nebraska farmers and minorities. We campaigned for the continued funding of the Indian Commission, the Mexican-American Commission, and the Nebraska Commission on the Status of Women.

In the ’90s and throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Nebraskans for Peace has fought domestically for the same commissions. We have supported provisions for a living wage, for civil rights for Latinos, Mexicans and others working at meatpacking plants, and for equal protection for Native Americans savaged by the addictive alcohol trade at Whiteclay. Wherever people are marginalized, we have fought for and with them. As a case in point, we have created coalitions that got an anti-bullying policy through the Nebraska State Board of Education, and we have worked with domestic violence coalitions to reduce violence in the home.

We have fought against NAFTA and other globalization efforts that have helped to destroy stability and decent standards of living for millions of people. We opposed Bush Jr.’s initiatives, including the madness of the War on Terror, which is being used to justify torture and the violation of civil rights for many Americans. We oppose the cost of these ill-intended ventures both in blood and in money. Not only do we oppose these abominations, but also we oppose the past publication (apparently under University of Nebraska and Afghan exile auspices) of textbooks that encourage Afghan children to jihad, surely part of the problem in Afghanistan suffers under now. And, finally, we oppose the madness of the culture of violence and exploitation that is so prevalent under our government’s policies both abroad and here at home.

(Information provided by Don Reeves, Suzy Prenger, Paul Olson, Mary Alice Park and Tim Rinne)

Information provided by Don Reeves, Suzy Prenger, Paul Olson, Mary Alice Park and Tim Rinne

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