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A Radical Takes Root
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Activist Karl H. Meyer, AB'58, has spent the past four decades fighting for peaceful causes. He's been arrested, imprisoned, and, even worse, ignored. Now he's settling down-but he's not giving up.

PHOTO:  Karl Meyer fought the Health Board with the same vigor that he fought the bomb...A MEMO FROM KARL MEYER'S FBI FILES DESCRIBES him in 1960 as a "pacifist with a martyr complex." They got it half right. For better than 40 years, Meyer has lived a life of stubborn commitment to the principle of nonviolence. He has been arrested 50 or 60 times while protesting, among other things, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the death penalty, and, most recently, UN sanctions against Iraq. He has been carried or thrown out of South Vietnam, France, East Germany, and-more than once-both federal buildings in downtown Chicago. He has served nine months in a federal penitentiary for refusing to pay his income tax. And he has been cited by the Nashville, Tennessee, Health Department for declining to make war on weeds.

These are only a few milestones in a long career of radical dissent. But rejecting violence is only one side of Karl Meyer, AB'58. Meyer has also devoted himself to the less dramatic but more exacting work of embracing peace. He has done this no less radically, living much of his life in voluntary poverty while trying to serve the poor and the unemployed. For many years he ran a house for the homeless on Chicago's Near North Side. Recently he moved to a poor neighborhood in Nashville, where he is experimenting with urban agriculture. He hopes his example will suggest a way to revive blighted inner-city areas. "It would involve overcoming our fear of poor neighborhoods," he notes.

For all this, Meyer insists he is no martyr. "I don't believe we are called to lay down our lives for each other," he says. "But we are called to live our lives with and for each other, and our lives will be richer for that." He then adds, with a grin: "I might have been a pacifist with a Gandhi complex, or maybe a messiah complex. But not a martyr complex."

Meyer is short and slightly built, with brown hair fading to gray, a neatly trimmed white beard, silver-rimmed glasses, and features beginning to turn craggy with age. At 63, he belongs to an old and distinguished tradition of Catholic radicalism that emerged out of the suffering of the Great Depression. It's a tradition he himself helped to shape. Since the 1950s, Meyer's pacifist convictions have made him one of the leading figures of the Catholic Worker Movement, a loose national organization of Catholics and non-Catholic sympathizers united by their commitment to social justice, nonviolence, and "personalism"-the belief that large social problems like poverty impose on each individual, in the words of one of the movement's founders, "the personal obligation of looking after the needs of our brother." The Catholic Worker's radicalism is not the radicalism of Marx and Lenin but of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

Meyer is best known for his contribution to the anti-war protests of the 1960s. His writings, first published in the Catholic Worker newspaper, inspired thousands of Americans to withhold their income taxes and federal telephone taxes to protest American involvement in Vietnam. Yet for many of his friends and acquaintances, what stands out over his long career is something both less and more-the example of a life lived deliberately and well.

"Karl is among the most consistent people I've ever met," says Bradley Simpson, 28, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University who became friends with Meyer several years ago when they were both protesting violence in East Timor. "More than anyone else I've ever known, he lives what he believes. He practices what he preaches with a discipline that is almost ruthless. The personal beliefs that led him to pacifism place an almost absolute demand on Karl. I think he's lived an exemplary life."


PHOTO:  Karl Meyer fought the Health Board with the same vigor that he fought the bomb...MEYER GREW UP IN WEST RUPERT, VERMONT, where his father worked as a soil-conservation agent and later served a term as a Democratic member of Congress. Meyer was a shy, bookish child who admired pacifists at the age when most boys are still enamored of police officers and firemen. He wrote a poem about Gandhi after the Indian leader's assassination in 1948. Anti-war feeling was in his genes. According to family lore, his great-grandfather refused to serve in the Prussian Army. His father stayed out of World War II.

In 1953 at the age of 16, Meyer entered the University of Chicago on a Ford Foundation scholarship, but Meyer struggled with depression and at the beginning of his second year dropped out and went back east to New York City where he found a job as a stock clerk at the Barnes and Noble bookstore. He stayed in touch with his former resident head, Kenneth Lewalski, AM'52, PhD'60, then a graduate student in history, and confided to him his pacifist convictions.

Lewalski recommended a handful of books, among them works by Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day, leaders in the Catholic Worker Movement. Meyer followed up on Lewalski's recommendations. Sitting in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, he read avidly the books that would change his life.

In Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy, Meyer found "two of the most right-thinking, right-living people in America." Unlike his other heroes-Gandhi, Tolstoy, Joan of Arc-these were his contemporaries. Dorothy Day was a Communist-turned-Catholic who in 1933 had started the Catholic Worker newspaper on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She had also opened a "house of hospitality," a place where volunteers fed and housed men and women who had been thrown out of work by the Depression or otherwise made homeless. A charismatic leader, she attracted followers all over the country, especially Catholics who were impatient with their church's conservative politics. Hennacy was an old member of the movement and Day's close associate.

"In the Catholic Worker, I found the most authentic American movement for change," Meyer recalls. He wasn't a Catholic, but he soon became one. He also committed his first act of civil disobedience. In those days, at the height of the Cold War, New York held annual civil-defense drills as a way of preparing for nuclear attack. And every year, Day, Hennacy, and other pacifists staged a protest. On the day of the annual protest in 1957, Meyer slipped out of Barnes and Nobles at lunch and hurried down to the Catholic Worker offices. He was deeply earnest young man, and Dorothy Day spoke to him kindly but directly. "We plead guilty," she warned. "And we don't take bail."

Meyer didn't back out. While the sirens blared, he and 11 others sat on park benches just across from the Catholic Worker offices. The police and some reporters were there, too. Meyer had left work that day expecting to return the next morning. Instead he found himself serving a month in juvenile prison on Rikers Island. He was 20 years old.

"It was a watershed event for me," he says. Until then he had been a liberal with pacifist convictions. Following Day and Hennacy turned him into a radical.

Meyer returned to the U of C that fall to finish his degree. In 1958, newly graduated, he and another student, Edward Morin, AM'58, started a Catholic Worker hospitality house in a rented storefront at the corner of Oak and Wells just a couple blocks from Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project. St. Stephen's House would survive until 1971. During those years, Meyer ran the house, lived in voluntary poverty, and deepened his involvement in the peace movement. In 1959 he and a dozen other protesters, including the well-known pacifist A. J. Muste, crossed the barbed-wire fence at a missile-testing site in Mead, Nebraska. This time Meyer got six months in prison.

In those days, radical dissent was even lonelier work than it is today. Anti-communism was the American religion, and few were willing to defy it. But protests like the one in Nebraska were widely reported, and they awakened Americans to the existence of religious opposition to the weapons race. They had a more profound effect on people who shared Meyer's pacifist views. One of these was the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, a high school teacher in Brooklyn who became a famous leader of draft resistance during the Vietnam War.

"I have an indelible picture in my mind of Karl and A. J. Muste stepping over that fence," says Berrigan, now retired and living in an apartment on New York's Upper West Side. Meyer's example showed him how pacifism could be put into action. "It was something you could do," Berrigan goes on. "I would rank Karl in those days right up there with Dorothy Day. These people got me started."

In 1961, seeking "an absolute act of peace," Meyer joined a group of pacifists who were walking from San Francisco to Moscow to call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They walked to New York, flew over the Atlantic, and marched across Europe, rattling governments as they went. France and East Germany deported them, but the Soviets allowed them as far as the gates of the Kremlin. There, Meyer and the others handed out thousands of anti-war leaflets to a clamoring Red Square crowd. Meyer hoped to stay and work with Russian workers as an even deeper gesture of peace. But the Soviets turned him down.

As radical pacifism flowered in the 1960s, Meyer found plenty of company. His most dramatic gesture of those years came in 1966, when he flew with a handful of pacifists to Vietnam. They met with Vietnamese anti-war activists and tried to demonstrate outside the American embassy in Saigon. But this proved more dangerous than calling for disarmament in Red Square. The Vietnamese police quickly arrested them and put them on the next plane for Hong Kong.

His most enduring contribution to the anti-war movement was as a leader and strategist of tax resistance. In 1959 he had refused military conscription but he came to believe that resisting the draft was not enough. The government, he reasoned, had two ways to coerce citizens into supporting war. One was conscription. The other was taxation. Meyer himself had stopped paying taxes in 1960. In 1969 the Catholic Worker published an article by Meyer that was both a manifesto for war tax resistance and a guide for how to do it-mainly by claiming extra "dependents" on one's W-4 form. "Let us affirm," Meyer wrote, "that it would be very practicable for us to get together in our own resistance movement to prevent the conscription of our money by the military and to create a Fund for Mankind to support the things we believe in and provide mutual aid in the difficulties that might come as a consequence of our resistance."

The article, "A Fund for Mankind Through Effective Tax Resistance," was reprinted widely, and it won many converts. Even today, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee publishes pamphlets based on Meyer's thinking. But what seems practicable to Meyer does not always seem that way to others, and although thousands of people joined him the Fund for Mankind never became the movement he envisioned. Soon enough, too, Meyer came under scrutiny from the IRS. In 1971 he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion.

He served nine months in Sandstone, Minnesota. It was not lost time. Prison was a kind of graduate school in radicalism: "Nine months in prison was a more valuable educational experience than nine months at the University of Chicago, because of what it told me about the human condition and about our society," he says. "It was an education in trying to see the world the way it is-like Socrates-not to see the shadows, but the reality."

When the Vietnam War ended, Meyer took a rest from politics for a few years. In 1975 he separated from his wife. Married in 1962, he had three children. But a life of service to the poor and resistance to war was sometimes hard on his family, especially on his wife. "She wanted a more traditional type of home life," says William Meyer, the couple's eldest child, now an editor in New York.

In any event, the fallow period did not last long. In 1980 Jimmy Carter re-instituted draft registration. Then came the Reagan years, which brought American involvement in El Salvador, the Nicaraguan contras, and the first version of Star Wars. Now, under George W. Bush, Meyer notes ruefully, Star Wars is back. Each administration, it seems, creates new opportunities for pacifist dissent, and it is not in Meyer's nature to hold back.

Among radicals, Meyer is known as an innovator. In 1965, for example, to protest Illinois's death penalty, he pulled a mock electric chair, rickshaw-style, 220 miles to Springfield, the capital. To protest a trade embargo against Nicaragua, he and his second wife, Kathy Kelly, smuggled 152 pounds of Nicaraguan coffee beans over the U.S.-Canada border at Detroit, then served hot coffee in the office of the U.S. district attorney in Chicago. During the 1990s Meyer spent six winters driving around the country in a heavy-duty Ford truck, talking about peace. On the back of the truck was a varnished wood hut that he'd spent a year building. The Peace House, as he called it, had glass display windows with exhibits celebrating such peacemakers as Gandhi, Jesus, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. He was the Johnny Appleseed of peace.

There is something of the prophet in Karl Meyer that made the Peace House appealing. During his travels he talked to schoolchildren, reporters, church groups, anyone who would listen. Sometimes he would drive onto a military base, an adventure that usually ended in his arrest. For Meyer, an arrest is just an opportunity for more conversation. Other times he just showed up in a town, parked the Peace House, and waited. But Meyer believes that how one lives is as much a message as what one says, and four years ago he realized his traveling was sending the wrong message.

"I was out there trying to teach about nonviolence, but with the Gulf War I realized that excess petroleum usage is the greatest source of violence in the world today. It's the source of our need to dominate in the Middle East. It's the biggest threat to the ecology of our planet-and it's destroying the topsoil through mechanized agriculture. We need to use far less."


THUS WAS BORN NASHVILLE, GREENLANDS, a community devoted to settling down. Meyer parked the Peace House for good in North Nashville, a poor section of the city bounded by a loop in the Cumberland River. He bought a vacant house for $18,000 and a vacant lot next door for $8,000 more. He planted trees and vines and a big garden, and he invited others to join him. Some did.

Meyer's idea was to live with a small group of like-minded people who shared his desire to live simply, practice nonviolence, and grow their own food organically. "It's right livelihood, first," he explains one day, sitting in his little brick house on Heiman Street. "It's me trying to live in a right relationship to other people and to the earth itself-a sustainable relationship that will not destroy the earth, but will acknowledge the will to life of every other organism on earth. It's a less destructive way of life, a life-nourishing way of life. I want to live that way of life myself. And I want to live with people I love and who share that vision.

"The second thing is to communicate that vision to others, so they can say, 'Hey, I'd like to live that way, too. I'd like to stop selling my soul to capitalism, to live simply and to do what I believe.' There would be young people who would come and share the vision and carry it on, who would be educated about this way of life as an alternative to the American way of life."

In 1999 a Quaker friend named Pam Beziat bought a second house about three-quarters of a mile away, expanding the experiment to two households. Today Nashville Greenlands has six members, two living with Meyer. Others have come, stayed a year, and moved on to other work. "A lot of what he is fits in with the Quaker sensibility, but it is actually lived out," says Beziat. "To me this seemed an opportunity to really live it out and not just talk about it."

To be sure, some of Meyer's neighbors wondered what might bring a white man to an all-black neighborhood. "I think there was some curiosity," says Janet Parham, a former head of the North Nashville Organization for Community Improvement. "Why is he moving here? Maybe something is getting ready to happen I don't know about." Gradually, she believes, people have come to realize that he cares about the neighborhood and that he intends to stay. They also have come to value his political savvy. "People perceive him as a person who is good for the neighborhood," Parham says.

His devotion to his new community is such that last November he compromised a long-standing principle and voted for the first time in his life ("I don't want to encourage them," he used to tell friends). He cast his presidential ballot for Ralph Nader, but the real reason he voted was to take part in the local city council elections. His candidate won.

But his idea of what's good for the neighborhood is not always the same as his neighbors'. For four years he fought Nashville's Health Board over the vegetation in his yard. What he saw as bio-diversity the city, and some neighbors, saw as a nuisance. Meyer refused to cut it. Nothing stirs his blood like a confrontation with authority, and he fought the Health Board with the same zeal that he fought the bomb. This time he won. Last year the two sides reached a compromise that allows him to keep much of his yard the way he wants it.

He hopes Greenlands will inspire others to use empty lots in poor neighborhoods to grow food. "The neighborhoods I've looked at in Nashville and other cities have a lot of vacant land that might be used by other people who find this idea attractive," he wrote in 1996 for the newsletter of the Rural Southern Voice for Peace.

His example has not yet inspired a rash of planting, but this does not dismay him. He has never let public disapproval or a lack of followers deter him. The radical impulse informs almost every aspect of his life, leading him to do things that most people would find odd to say the least. He catches the rats and mice in his house with a live trap and releases them in a nearby field. About once a month he makes a foray to a wealthier part of Nashville to rescue discarded loaves from the dumpster behind a fancy bakery. None of this embarrasses him. It saves him money and time. Plus, he regards waste as immoral.

Each fall Meyer drives to Chicago for two or three months of freelance carpentry, his one concession to the need to make a living. He learned carpentry years ago because it seemed a good way to work part time and earn enough to live on without paying taxes. It leaves plenty of time for his real work: protesting, writing letters and articles for the Catholic Worker and other pacifist publications, following community affairs, and growing food.

The garden is thriving. Last summer, he harvested, among other vegetables, 2,000 tomatoes. It is like Meyer to keep count. A friend describes him as "the most organized anarchist I have ever seen." Meyer also has planted apple trees, pear trees, paw-paws, Illinois mulberry, cherry, persimmon, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and eight varieties of grapes-more than growing food, it's a way "to bring biodiversity back into the cities."


A PERSON LOOKING FOR CONTRADICTIONS IN Karl Meyer's life would have to look hard to find them. But it would be wrong to think of Meyer as unchanging. He no longer considers himself Catholic, for one thing. "There's a poetic and passionate depth to Catholic doctrine which still appeals to me," he says. "But it's myth to me. They take it for reality." And yet he still thinks of himself as a Catholic Worker. His experiment in urban agrarianism has taken him back to the roots of the movement, with its emphasis on simplicity and community. "Eat what you raise, raise what you eat," Meyer says. "That's been part of the Catholic Worker Movement from the beginning."

And the radical flame still burns in him. In January he went by Greyhound to New York, where he took part in a series of protests against the economic sanctions that have caused so much suffering among the Iraqi people. At the end, the protesters tried unsuccessfully to deliver a symbolic meal of lentils and dirty river water to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke. For this Meyer spent another night in jail. Among his fellow inmates was his old friend Daniel Berrigan. "It was very beautiful for me to be in the pokey with him, to be manacled with him, and to go through this unpleasant experience with him," Berrigan says.

Still, after so many years of radical commitment, a sense of disappointment haunts him. He is in some ways not an easy man to be around. His children, he says, "maybe didn't think I was as warm a father as they wanted." He lacks the charisma of his heroes. He can seem arrogant or overbearing. And, of course, the world is rarely kind to the likes of Karl Meyer. For whatever reason, he has never been able to command the following he hoped for as a young man.

"I was ambitious about my life," he says. "I thought I would be the American Gandhi! But what have we achieved? We've slowed down a few imperialist wars, but how far have we gotten in abolishing war?"

He would like to be remembered "as a speaker of truth and a doer of the right thing." It has been these qualities, rather than any wider accomplishment, that have meant the most to the people who know him. His wife, Kathy Kelly, a leader of the campaign to end the Iraq sanctions, says Meyer's radicalism "showed a way for a generation of us to embrace it and make it a way of life." Francis Sicius, a historian of the Catholic Worker Movement, once described Meyer as one of "those little-known heroes whose lives exemplify the spirit of the movement."

Even the less-than-radical have found his example instructive and memorable. Kenneth Lewalski, now a retired history professor living in Rhode Island, has not seen Meyer for more than three decades, but he has hardly forgotten him. "I admire Karl immensely," he says. "He has defined what his values and beliefs are, and he acts upon them. Most people are willing to compromise, or are up for sale. There are very few people like him."


Richard Mertens is a freelance writer and doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought.


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