Radical Takes Root
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
PERSON LOOKING FOR CONTRADICTIONS IN
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."
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
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
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?"
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."
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."
Mertens is a freelance writer and doctoral student in the Committee
on Social Thought.