Jim Douglass and his wife Shelly came to Birmingham 27 years ago to watch for a train that never came. They are non-violent activists for peace, married 45 years, devotees of Dorothy Day who live according to the three precepts of the Catholic Worker: hospitality, advocacy, and round table discussion.
Shelly and Jim were living near Seattle, on a piece of property that the Ground Zero Center had purchased next to the Trident Nuclear Submarine base in Puget Sound, immersed in the Tracks Campaign that monitored rail shipments of nuclear fuel from the Pantex plant in Amarillo, TX to the base. “The trains were pure white. There were turrets on the cars, with guns to protect the train from the citizens.” Train monitors alerted advocacy groups along the train’s route. Protestors disrupted the passage of nuclear materials. Eventually, the trains took longer, more complex routes to avoid controversy. “The longer the routes, the more our ranks swelled. No one wanted nuclear material hauled through their town.” The government began shipping material through Birmingham to Charleston. Shelley and Jim moved to Birmingham to head the local watch effort. But the government eventually abandoned train transport altogether, opting for less traceable modes like trucks and planes.
Before the trains, before Ground Zero, before Shelley, Jim was a young Catholic activist in Rome, where he lived from 1962 through 1964 lobbying Pope John XXIII’s Vatican Council to make a statement against total war and in support of conscientious objectors. That’s where he first met Dorothy Day, who came to Rome on a pilgrimage in appreciation of John XXIII encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris.’
Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker precepts made a major impact on Jim, but so did others. “Martin Luther King changed my life.” When the civil rights leader was shot in Memphis in 1968, Jim was teaching at the University of Hawaii. In response, his students formed ‘Hawaii Resistance,’ and he joined. “A month later I was arrested for protesting the call-up after the Pueblo crises. It was my first experience being arrested. That was the end of my academic career. I didn’t understand the dynamics of Martin Luther King’s assassination until I read his final book, advocating massive non-violent action across the globe. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a lone assassin.”
Jim began to question the four major assassinations of the 1960’s – JFK, Malcolm X, RFK, MLK. His research led to JFK and the Unspeakable. “I was interested in the ‘why’ of Kennedy’s assassination. The ‘how; is in there, but the ‘why’ is more important to me. JFK’s favorite poem was ‘A Rendezvous with Death.’ He was consumed by it his entire life. You have this Cold Warrior elected President, but during the Bay of Pigs he begins to turn. He realizes he must trust the enemy or we will annihilate each other.” This runs counter to military and economic interests. “The consequences are enormous. If you can take out the President of the United States without consequences, you’re invincible.”
JFK and the Unspeakable took Jim in a new direction. Now he is working on a companion book that addresses the other three major assassinations. I asked him how 911 fits into all of this. “I don’t know the details of 911, but I read David Ray Griffin. He’s written ten books on 911.”
Which brings us back to Birmingham, where Shelly and Jim have responded to the question of why God brought them here by opening Mary’s House, a refuge in the Ensley neighborhood. They share community meals and have bi-annual retreats where they discuss the big issues of the day. They work for peace by living it.
How will we live tomorrow?
“But we need more discipline. If the army could bestow discipline on the peace movement it would be a great aid to non-violence.”