Lela Knox Shanks Lincoln Civil Rights and Peace Activist dies
NFP State Board Member and legendary Civil Rights and peace activist, Lela Shanks, passed away on Monday, October 24 after a long struggle with cancer. Her memorial service will be held at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, October 30 at Saint Paul United Methodist Church, 1144 'M' Street in Lincoln. Reprinted below is the citation Nebraskans for Peace President Emeritus Paul Olson delivered when Lela was honored as NFP's 2008 'Peacemaker of the Year' for her lifetime of achievements in the cause of Peace & Justice.
Essential to the history of Nebraskans for Peace is its motto, “There is no peace without justice."
Lela Knox Shanks like her late husband, Hughes, lived that rule and she now lives it. Beginning in Oklahoma in the 30s, she experienced the most severe kind of segregation. She knew the price that depression and dust bowl poverty exacted from African-American and Caucasian alike in Oklahoma, and she has never forgotten about the wretched of the earth, white or black or brown or red, gay or straight. When she went to college in St. Louis she heard the myths about “the land of the free and the home of the brave” uttered by her professors as she lived in a fully segregated, caste society. She and her husband, Hughes, trained as a lawyer, married in 1947and stayed in St. Louis, hoping to avoid from Oklahoma’s racism. But, in St. Louis, they met with Missouri’s racism and the Missouri mantra, “We do not give employment applications to Negroes.”
Eventually, the family moved to Denver where Hughes worked for the Social Security administration and was told he would never receive a promotion because white women would be afraid of him when he came to the door. Then to Kansas City in the pilgrimage for justice.
In Kansas City, the Shanks family settled in an integrated neighborhood, but was told that their children had to attend a black school. There the teacher-pupil ratio was 45-1 while white schools had a 20-1 ratio. During this struggle, Hughes and Lela decided that non-violence was the way and turned to the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s non-violent teachings to guide them.
Pursuing non-violent direct action tactics, they pulled their children out of the public schools, formed a free school for black children – their own children and other people’s -- where Lela was the main teacher. She and Hughes also picketed the federal government and the school board building to call for desegregation under the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. For trying to uphold the law of the land, they experienced arrest, tapped phones, and death threats.
When Hughes went from Kansas City to Washington to participate in Martin Luther King’s 1963 march, Lela, who also planned attend the march, received a subpoena, on the very day of the march, to appear before a federal grand jury on criminal charges. Her crime: picketing the Federal Building in Kansas City in behalf of enforcing Brown vs. Board of Education. The federal prosecutor asked her what she was doing outside the building, and she answered, “I did what my husband is doing right now in Washington, D. C., marching for my freedom.” The union between non-violence and civil rights had fully flowered.
When the Shankses moved to Lincoln in the mid-60s, they again took up the struggle by forming a friendship with Tom Rehorn, one of the founders of Rural Nebraskans for Peace, supporting and working on his campaign for Congress. Rehorn ran in opposition to the Vietnam War and for justice for oppressed people of color. Later in the 60s, Hughes and Lela began the campaign for better and more pluralistic education in the Lincoln Public Schools. In this role, they shaped national educational policy through a committee that they selected composed of Chicanos, Native Americans, poor whites and Asians, a group that demanded justice and respect for poor children and children of color. Their committee modeled the creation of like parent committees all across the country in the national TTT project, a late 60s educational project. This creation, in turn, modeled the birth of multiculturalism in the schools.
In Lincoln, Hughes and Lela also worked to prevent the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s threatening of African-American and poor folks in the Lincoln’s Whittier School area, threats designed to force low-income and African-American people to sell their homes at below market value. Through similar actions, in the next 20 years, the Shanks remained at the forefront in their advocacy for civil rights and peace.
By the way, this story should not all be struggle and gloom. Lela’s efforts to obtain a decent education for her children paid off, her oldest daughter becoming a playwright and performer, her second daughter a lawyer, and her son a student now seeking a Ph.D. in political science. And her struggle for civil rights and the pursuit of peace is by no means over -- she, at eighty, is sought all over the state as a speaker on these topics.
One final note: in 1984, Lela’s husband Hughes was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For the next fourteen years Lela cared for him as he declined and learned what it takes to give love and care to someone suffering from the disease. In her Penguin book, distributed worldwide, Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks, she documents the progress of his disability and how, despite it, she cared for him. If you wish to learn what love and non-violence and care for the most vulnerable among us is, read that book. Lela Shanks, through her example, through her courage, through her sense of what prayer is, and through her integrity has taught me more about “true religion and undefiled,” in St. James phrase, than almost anyone I can remember. She has lived the story, “There is no peace without justice.” Lela Shanks, peacemaker of the year 2008.