Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 31, 1985
'Yell And Scream' For Justice, Says Peace Prize Winner
By Thea Jarvis
When you first meet Betty Williams-Perkins it is easy to forget that she is a Nobel prize winner. Walking along on the Emory campus, where she had been invited to speak at the universitys annual Ministers Week, she talks about her coat, a short fur her sister has sent her against the quixotic cold of a Florida winter.
Shes married to a man with lots of money, Ms. Williams-Perkins stage-whispers in a brusque Irish brogue. Goes to Paris and all that. Whatever would a transplant from Northern Ireland do with a fur jacket in her new home on a Florida beach, she had wondered. Until she had awakened at 4:30 this very morning to head for the Jacksonville airport. It was cold, very cold, and the fur had been just the thing.
The citrus growers are so worried, she continues, her fiery red hair sending off electric charges that animate her tall, friendly frame. They had suffered so with last years crop and now stand to lose it all again.
Her face frowns as she thinks of it. She is -- should we be surprised?-- compassionate and caring.
Betty Williams-Perkins first gave formal vent to her compassion -- she calls it a terrible, terrible anger which she has yet to lose -- after her former schoolmate, Ann McGuire, lost three of her children in an exchange of gunfire between the British troops and the Irish Republican Army.
She woke up in a hospital three weeks (after the shooting) and was told her children were dead, Ms. Williams-Perkins relates, the horror still fresh in her voice. Forty years later (Ann) committed suicide.
Ann McGuire is a symbol of war, plain and simple, to Betty Williams-Perkins.
I saw three children die because a mother was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she remembers. The true sufferers in any war are the women and children.
The obscenity of those childrens deaths moved her to call on the women of Belfast who feel as I do to meet with her in a nearby park for a rally. Thousands turned out, bringing to the streets those who had been caught in the middle of the war, those living in a sickening cycle of useless violence going nowhere, according to Ms. Williams-Perkins. The rally was the first of many peaceful demonstrations to follow.
Out of Betty Williams-Perkins terrible anger was ultimately born the Community of Peace People, founded by herself and Mairead Corrigan. It was, she now says, an idea whose time had come. Both women were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1977, one year after Ann McGuires family had been torn apart on the streets of Belfast.
Im violently anti-violent and Im not a very nice peace person at all, Betty Williams-Perkins insists. She would put you in mind of a favorite aunt with a devilish sense of humor who always told you the truth no matter how much it hurt.
The truth about Northern Ireland was not pretty.
We had the worst unemployment, the worst housing, the worst injustice in Western Europe, she recalls. The bombings, the cruelty, the division was plain for everyone to see.
Incredibly, Everyone went to church on Sunday; nobody missed church. But there was absolutely no Christianity. The Community of Peace People looked at the naked truth about Northern Ireland and invited others to do the same.
We started with simple solutions to extraordinary problems, says Ms. Williams-Perkins. Protestant women went door to door in Catholic areas making peace with their neighbors. Catholic women crossed into Protestant parts of town and drank tea while discussing the scourge of war that lay on their doorstep.
Her father had told her she was taking on an impossible job, because Northern Ireland has a problem for every solution, but Betty Williams-Perkins felt strongly that the line between love and hate is very easily crossed.
In America you drink coffee, she says with a wry smile. The coffee in Northern Ireland is diabolical so we drink tea. Little cups of tea among newly-made friends went a long way towards getting the job done.
Today, the Community of Peace People boasts the first integrated school in Northern Ireland, educating Catholic and Protestant students alike. It sponsors 14 small factories where those of different faiths work side by side, and supports Lifeline, an outreach to the often forgotten victims of violence.
This past November, Ms. Williams-Perkins returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years. She was gratified at what she found.
I saw more peace in Northern Ireland when I was there than I was on the streets of Jacksonville, and this because people are working for it, she claims. I was astounded at the amount of work that went on (at the Community of Peace People) in my absence. The small steps she and others had taken had resulted in substantial strides for peace.
While her native Northern Ireland continues to seek the peace that has eluded it for so long, Ms. Williams-Perkins has directed her attention to other pockets of global pain.
It was Cambodia, she indicates, that sensitized her to the level of violence around the world. There, she helped airlift some 40 children out of a combat area to a nearby field hospital. Though the facility was only 35 miles away, 14 of the children died en route.
The Cambodian experience now motivates her to spread the word that grass roots efforts of everyday, ordinary people can make peace happen.
Theres no such thing as an ordinary person, she replies to those who feel powerless in the face of world hunger, nuclear escalation and persistent confrontation between people and nations. Peace in the world is everybodys business.
Betty Williams-Perkins, who was born of a Catholic mother and a non-Catholic father, was raised a Catholic but is now a practicing Presbyterian. She uses the clout she has gained as a Nobel laureate to share her gospel of peace, visiting trouble spots like Nicaragua where she meets with local and national leaders in an effort to spread friendship and dispel tension. She lectures throughout the United States and finds time to work for reform of the criminal justice system and drug abuse programs.
It terrifies the life out of me to have that (Nobel) label, she admits, adding that she and Mairead Corrrigan prayed for two weeks before accepting the honor. The women agreed that they would use it for God -- that his will would be done.
Ms. Williams-Perkins philosophy is simple: The Lord didnt start the wars or create the weapons, we did. From the slingshot on down, mankind has never created a weapon he didnt use. But, by giving ourselves over to peace, we can, as she did, witness the power of the Holy Spirit at work.
It is with the fervor of a prophet that Betty Williams-Perkins shares her message, addressing women in particular, whom she calls upon to lift the burden of militancy men have borne for too long.
Women are not yelling loudly enough, she counsels, encouraging them to find solutions to world problems from the ground up. Our little spot in Northern Ireland can be an example of how non-violence can work from the grass roots.
The wrongs in the world can be righted if only we speak out and speak up, she is sure. It is up to all of us to yell and scream at the top our lungs against injustice, to look at the truth, see it for what it is, and take up the gauntlet.
When she began her talk to the men and women gathered at the Glenn Memorial Church for the 50th annual Emory Ministers Week, she told them not to expect anything fancy or overly intellectual. Though she holds a doctoral degree in political science and philosophy, she had sat through too many boring lectures herself to perpetrate the same treatment on her friends in the pews before her.
She was as good as she had promised -- warm, sincere and plainspoken, with a lilt of Irish laughter thrown in for good measure. Before leaving the grand white pulpit at Glenn Memorial, she prayed the prayer she had written for the Community of Peace People:
We have a simple message for the world from this movement for peace. We want to love and build a just and peaceful society. We want for our children, as we want for ourselves, our lives at home at work and at play to be lives of joy and peace. We recognize that to build such a life demands of all of us dedication, hard work and courage. We recognize that there are many problems in all societies which are a source of conflict and violence. But we recognize that every bullet fired and every exploding bomb makes the work of peace more difficult. we reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence. We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbors near and far, day in and day out, with Gods help, to create that peaceful society in which the tragedies that this world has known are bad memories and a continuing warning.
Her message delivered, Betty Williams-Perkins thanked her audience and gracefully acknowledged their enthusiastic standing ovation.