A Fourth of July Reflection on Elizabeth McAlister, Peace Activist
On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, seven Catholic peace activists cut fences and entered the King’s Bay Naval Base in Southeast Georgia, to protest the United States nuclear weapons arsenal. King’s Bay is presumed to be home to several Trident Nuclear Submarines. They called their protest a “Plowshares Action,” inspired by the book of Isaiah, from the famous passage, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
The King’s Bay 7, as they have come to be known, were arrested, and held at the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick GA.
Four of the defendants accepted terms of release that allowed them to return to their homes while they awaited trial. Three of the activists, Elizabeth McAlister, who lived for decades here in Baltimore; a Jesuit priest from New York, Fr. Steve Kelly; and an activist from New Haven, CT, Mark Colville, chose to remain in jail.
Fifteen months later, they are still there. Pre-trial hearings were held last November. Another hearing is scheduled before US Judge Lisa Godbey- Wood on August 7th. If the Judge decides to deny the defense motion to dismiss, the case will go to trial.
I spoke with Liz McAlister from jail last January, in an interview that aired here on Midday on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. She had recently celebrated her 79th birthday. This is the second time in her long life of activism that she’s been incarcerated for an extended period. She and the others have been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor trespassing violation. If convicted, they could face up to 25 years in prison.
Part of their defense invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law which protects the exercise of religion. That same act was key to the Hobby Lobby case in 2014, in which the company sought to deny its employees health care coverage for contraception because it violated the company’s religious principles. The King’s Bay 7 claim that because the Catholic Church considers nuclear weapons immoral, the Government must accommodate their religious beliefs.
There have been more than 100 Plowshares actions since the 1980s. This is the first time a court is being asked to consider this particular line of defense.
The founders of our country codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States freedoms and liberties that countless people have lost their lives defending, including the revolutionaries whose sacrifice we celebrate this weekend. Those freedoms and liberties were not extended to all at the outset of our founding. Many of those freedoms continue to be elusive for some people for reasons having perhaps less to do with law and more to do with hate and animus. And while the founders could not imagine a group of people like the King’s Bay 7, they did assert that the goal of a government should be to construct a republic in which citizens could flourish in whatever manner that meant for them as individuals. They understood that the pursuit of happiness means something different to every one of us.
Elizabeth McAlister and her fellow activists have devoted their lives to the assertion that nuclear annihilation is a real and present danger. They are willing to sacrifice their liberty, comfort and their own pursuit of happiness to protest against our country’s participation in that danger. They are taking a stand, a stand not shared by the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, and they are exercising their freedom to discuss and display their convictions in a court of law.
As a practical matter, will these Plowshares actions lead to nuclear disarmament in the U.S. or elsewhere? No.
But will the King’s Bay 7’s dedication to the cause of peace, and their unrelenting reminders of the dangers of war, serve as an inspiration for others who commit to making our country more tolerant, less racist, fairer, more compassionate? Yes, I think they will.
On this Fourth of July, as we celebrate the principals upon which this great nation was formed, and the courage of the founders who risked their lives and liberty to achieve freedom for all of us, let us also acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of people like Elizabeth McAlister for reminding us, from a jail cell in Georgia, what freedom means.