“Commitment may be seen as a constant state of fertilization of the heart and mind which fuels the determination to live up to one’s beliefs. It means keeping a promise to oneself and others. Sometimes it can be scary. Nevertheless, one feels a sense of integrity, striving to express in action the soul’s deepest sense of what is right and good.”
That quote comes from Wally Nelson, who died at the age of 93 after more than a half-century of 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” enforcing desegregation in and was the first national field organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality.
In , he began his lifelong relationship with Juanita, who met him when she was working as a journalist and went to interview him in jail. Together they started engaging in tax resistance. “When we became tax resisters in ,” they wrote, “it included not filing, not answering notices to supply information and making sure we had something to refuse.”
One account says: “In Juanita became the first woman in modern times to be apprehended for war tax refusal. She made her court appearance in the bathrobe she was wearing when apprehended at her home.” As for many others, jail was an opportunity for self-searching and reappraisal:
“Why am I going to jail? Why am I going to jail in a bathrobe? What does it matter in the scheme of things whether or not you put on your clothes? Are you not making, at best, a futile gesture, at worst, flinging yourself against something which does not exist? Is freedom more important than justice? Of what does freedom of the human spirit consist, that quality on which I place so much stress?”
Juanita was released the same day, and the government never did collect the money they claimed she owed them.
Over time, the Nelsons came to adopt the income-reduction method of 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.”
Their critique of the economic system went to eccentric extremes — at one point, Juanita convinced the Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters that interest payments were ethically insupportable. She then went into the bank that held the organization’s small account “to ask that we not be credited with interest [and to] return the interest we had previously collected.” The bank, after considerable puzzlement, eventually gave in to the request.
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 Tienanmien 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.”
“I guess a long time ago I got it out of my head I was going to save the world. So I act to save Wally and his integrity. Sometimes it’s a situation that’s dangerous and sometimes not so dangerous. But I would hope that other people would be inspired to do what they ought to do.”
— Wally Nelson