Lillian's Choices

A family council took place in a large Manhattan loft on December 26, 2003. George and Lillian Willoughby were discussing their health and welfare with three of their children—the fourth joined in via speakerphone—and two of the children’s spouses. They had all met three to four times a year since 2000, when George had heart bypass surgery. He had just turned 89; Lillian was only a few weeks away from her own 89th birthday.

The first item on the agenda was not their health but Lillian’s arrest and presumed court date, and how she would respond. She was one of 107 activists who, on March 20, 2003, had blockaded the federal building in downtown Philadelphia in protest of the invasion of Iraq. As the police moved in, her daughter Sally suggested ironically that she should be handcuffed. One policeman, seeing the elderly protester sitting in a wheelchair, was moved almost to apologize. "Oh, we’re not all that bad," he said. He seemed more concerned how to get Lillian on a bus that would take the demonstrators to the front of the federal building to be processed.

With Lillian were both Sally and George, as her support team. Over the course of many protests, George and Lillian had learned to commit civil disobedience singly, with the other spouse standing out of harm’s way to provide moral support to the one facing the U.S. judicial system. This day—"a really cold, rainy day," she recalled—Lillian meditated in her wheelchair as she waited for the law to take its course.

The Willoughbys had been working for peace for as long as they had known each other. In 1939, Scattergood Friends Boarding School in West Branch, Iowa, which Lillian had attended for three years, took on the role of a hostel and resettlement post for East European refugees. Lillian came on board to run the food service. George was then a graduate student at University of Iowa, only 13 miles away. Mutual friends arranged a blind date for the two of them. The dates continued, and after their marriage, six months later, George joined Lillian in work at the hostel.

They married in 1940, under the care of West Branch Meeting. George, who had been raised a Presbyterian, liked to say it "saved $5 that others paid to the preacher." After a year of teaching at a New Mexico college, they returned to real-life peacemaking. George worked, early in World War II, to help resettle Japanese Americans who had been interned in camps in the mountains of the West. This task took the couple to Denver, where they became active in Fellowship of Reconciliation and Congress on Racial Equality and met activists A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer. While George tried to place Japanese Americans in suitable jobs, Lillian participated in activities meant to integrate Denver’s theaters. They had already found their calling.

They remained in Denver only a few months. Selective Service caught up with 28-year-old George and ordered him to report for alternative service as a conscientious objector. He entered an AFSC camp in Trenton, North Dakota. Lillian returned home to Iowa to give birth to their first child. Later, George arranged a transfer to Alexian Brothers hospital in Chicago, where Lillian (with infant Sharon) joined him and found employment as the hospital dietitian.

By the time Selective Service released George, Sally was on the way. In all, four children were born to the Willoughbys between 1944 and 1949. George became the chief breadwinner; Lillian was busy at home. They spent eight years in Des Moines, during which time George with others succeeded in establishing an AFSC regional office. For her part, Lillian was instrumental in setting up an unprogrammed meeting in the city.

The family moved to the Philadelphia area in 1954, so that George could take up work counseling conscientious objectors. For another three years, Lillian nurtured her family and worked on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Religious Education Committee, together with three friends from Westtown School, where she had finished high school. She also helped integrate Woodbury Friends School, which some of her children attended. Her action did not endear her to all the members of meeting. This was the 1950s, after all, and even Quakers, she recalled, "were looking for communists behind the benches."

Her role changed dramatically in 1957, when she and George joined a protest at the Mercury Flats atomic testing grounds in Nevada. On August 6, 1957, she was one of 11 protesters—and the only woman—to trespass on the testing site and be arrested. Suddenly, her name was in newspapers and on television across the land and she had attained noted status in the peace movement. She was not jailed or fined, but barred from the test site for a year. In fact, it would be 31 years before she returned to trespass again.

In 1958, George made the headlines, when he and three other men attempted to sail a ketch, The Golden Rule, into the Pacific nuclear test zone and were imprisoned in Honolulu. Lillian did not sit home waiting by the phone. With others, she conducted a sit-in at the Maryland headquarters of the Atomic Energy Agency; the protesters stayed until the director, Admiral Lewis Strauss, agreed to meet with them. Meanwhile she fasted for six days, believing that fasting helped her clarify her thoughts. Before George returned from his six months’ imprisonment, she had also joined a successful effort to integrate the new Levittown (now Willingboro), New Jersey.

During the early 1960s, while George was acting globally, including forays into India, Lillian busied herself with service activities close to home. She helped to establish a library in her hometown of Deptford, N.J., where there had never been one before. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the South Jersey Peace Center, which took the peace message to local schools and became a draft counseling center during the Vietnam War.

By the time of Vietnam, Lillian, a life-long tax resister, had become well acquainted with the Internal Revenue Service; she liked to speak of herself as "educating the IRS." In one celebrated incident, after the IRS seized the Willoughbys’ car, the couple raised sufficient funds to redeem it at auction. Indeed, they raised much more than enough, and so they could claim their car and a refund as well. Lillian had brought a cake and lemonade to the IRS offices on the day of the auction. Once their bid had been declared the winner, she staged a party outside the auction room; one or two of the agents shared refreshments with them. When their refund came, she and George donated it to the peace movement.

During the early ’60s, she had been comparatively inactive in the protests in which George played a central role. She was for much of that time chief family breadwinner as a dietetics consultant. And she still had children at home. The Willoughby children joined their parents in a variety of peacemaking activities: demonstrations at army arsenals, vigils, marches in support of various causes. Son Alan liked to say, "This was our way of going on vacation." As the children grew up and went out on their own, Lillian took on more and more responsibilities outside the home, and George and she increasingly became a team in peace activities.

In 1972, she participated in one of the first protest actions of the new Movement for a New Society (MNS). Sometime during that spring, MNS got word that munitions bound for Vietnam were to be brought by train to a ship in the port at Leonardo, N.J. That summer, with a host of other participants, Lillian carried a Star of David and a Cross from a nearby church onto the railroad tracks, where they mounted them to try to block the train, then sat down to worship. After being warned, those who remained in worship were arrested and dragged roughly onto a bus, until Lillian stood on the bus steps and admonished the arresting authorities: "Let’s not have so much pushing here!"

When she was summoned to trial, she and another Quaker wrote a letter to the judge advising him that they would not rise at a judge’s entrance, although they meant no disrespect. The bailiff instructed everyone to remain seated when the court came into session and the judge seemed predisposed to leniency. When he asked Lillian to account for her actions, she gave what had become her standard statement, that "we [the United States] should not be making war on people, and we [Lillian and like-minded taxpayers] should not have to pay for it." The judge levied a $250 fine; she announced that she had no intention of paying it; he gave her 30 days to think it over. As George put it many years later, "She’s still thinking about it."

By the time of the Leonardo incident, the Willoughbys were living in an intentional community called the Life Center, in West Philadelphia. For a few years they were content to experiment with communal life, living in harmony with dozens of fellow activists the ages of their own children. They were content—but not complacent or locked in place. George had developed a strong affinity to India, and Lillian wanted to learn about it for herself. Twice during the 1970s they left the Life Center for around-the-world trips whose central point, physically and intellectually, was India.

Their main activity on these trips was to lead nonviolence training workshops. One of their topics addressed the need for women to assert their own independent spirits. Lillian modeled gender equality for her audiences. She insisted on equal billing on the podium, she spoke first in half the workshops, and she went her separate way at times. On the first trip (1974-5), for example, she briefly joined a pilgrimage by four women who walked from village to village promoting Gandhian concepts. There were occasional setbacks. When she asked a group of village women what message she could take to the women back home, one veiled listener replied, "Tell them to cover their faces."

The first trip lasted a year. The second, in 1979-80, was shorter but harder, as both Willoughbys struggled with dysentery, thefts, and scheduling and visiting problems that sometimes left them spending the night on railroad platforms. George contracted tubercular meningitis, which manifested itself after their return. Yet they never missed a workshop—not bad for two people who were now by U.S. standards senior citizens.

In 1984 the Life Center/Movement for a New Society went into decline, and the Willoughbys moved back to their New Jersey home. It was not actually theirs any longer. Back in 1973, before most people had even thought of such matters, they had formed a land trust of their original three acres and deeded their house to the trust for a token amount. In time they acquired 35 more acres, and so created a beautiful wilderness area in the township of Deptford, New Jersey.

In the late 1980s, the Nevada desert called both Willoughbys back to peace activities, separately. There were annual protests at the Mercury Flats testing grounds. In 1986, George trained protesters for nonviolent direct action. As a pioneer woman in the anti-nuclear testing movement, Lillian was invited several times to participate again—to perhaps "close the circle" on her lifelong antiwar commitment—and she accepted the challenge for a Mother’s Day protest in 1988. She and Sally both trespassed on the site and were arrested. Release came quickly, but they were ordered to appear before a local court on July 5 and pay a $375 fine. They did neither; somewhere in Nevada there may be a bench warrant for Lillian’s arrest.

The first Gulf War in early 1991 triggered another Willoughby protest. They were in Thailand at the time. Lillian wrote her granddaughter Ariella an account of their standing with another demonstrator, Yeshua Moser, outside the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok with protest signs. "As we stood holding our signs for the passers-by to see, a tall, sour-looking policeman tried . . . to grab and pull Yeshua’s sign away. I shook my finger at him quietly but firmly and he backed away." The scene caused a stir and the arrival of a larger, higher-powered police detachment. When the Willoughbys wouldn’t yield, the police tried to drag Yeshua away. Lillian continued:

I grasped his wrist again, saying symbolically that where he went I also went. They had to confer again as this presented them with a dilemma—what to do now? The three of us continued to stand holding our signs for people to see. Then officials regrouped and backed a pick-up truck in front of us. They opened the cab door indicating Yeshua could get in voluntarily. When he didn’t, the police picked up Yeshua and George. . . . But I still had hold of Yeshua’s wrist.

The confrontation continued until two policewomen hoisted Lillian into the truck, saying over and over, "Sorry. Sorry."

So what would Lillian do when the summons came to appear before federal court for protesting against the newest Gulf War? Of the 107 protesters, a few had agreed to their $250 fines immediately. Twelve had their day in court on December 4, 2003, with Lillian taking part in a vigil outside. Of the twelve, five refused to pay, and then were given their chance to address the court. They were sentenced to a week in jail beginning December 17, 2003.

There were some who thought that, with Lillian turning 89, her summons would never come. What judge would want to look this almost-nonagenerian grandmother in the eye and sentence her to hard time? But Lillian expected a summons and in good Quaker fashion, she planned to call together a clearness committee to help her formulate her response. Should she ignore the summons, refuse to appear in court? If sentenced, should she refuse to appear at the jail? Should she fast? If she went to jail, should she refuse to wear the required orange jumpsuit?

One thing was certain, she told her family as they sat in daughter Anita’s New York apartment the day after Christmas: she would not pay the fine. None of them seemed surprised.

Gregory A. Barnes

Gregory A. Barnes is a writer and a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. This article is drawn from his forthcoming joint biography of George and Lillian Willoughby.