Kathy Kelly has challenged the use of U.S military power on numerous occasions; she has sought to uplift the dignity and humanity of the victims of that power. According to Milan Rai - a British peace advocate who was arrested in 2005 for refusing to stop reading the names of Iraqi civilians killed during the Second Gulf War - she is, “…someone who has made nonviolence into a passionate confrontation, an active living force.”
Kelly grew up on the Southside of Chicago; she was the third of six children. Her parents met in London during the Blitz – the sustained aerialbombardment of Britain by Nazi Germany during the early part of World War II between September 1940 and May 1941 . Her Dad was a G.I. who had left the Christian brothers and was serving in London. Her mother studied nursing and, as a student, cared for children with disabilities. Prior to that, she was an indentured servant in Ireland and subsequently in England. Ultimately they moved to the United States and settled in Chicago. Her mother had three children in the space of one year.
Kelly grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. Her family struggled economically; she lived in relatively cramped quarters with her siblings and ended up sleeping on the living couch. It was an epic period in the nation’s history – a time of social upheaval marked by the turmoil generated by involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam and the strongly polarizing influence of the civil rights movement. It was a time in which the evidence of racism, sexism, militarism and classicism was quite evident.
She attended St. Paul-Kennedy high school and found inspirational teachers there. It was a shared-time experimental school in which she went to the local public school for part of the day. Kelly experienced firsthand the virulent effects of racism that often put Chicago in the national news. Commenting on her own experience at school, Kelly said that it “broke the code of fatalism that was part of my upbringing.” She was particularly impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. and Daniel Berrigan, whose exceedingly controversial anti-war activities were well known at the time and whose life we have examined earlier in this book. There was a particular comment that Berrigan made that remained with Kelly – he said that, “One of the reasons we don’t have peace is that the peacemakers aren’t prepared to make the same sacrifice demanded of the soldiers.” It was during this period in her life that she decided to work actively towards peace.
During the Vietnam War, Kelly was mostly involved from an intellectual perspective – she wrote articles against the war but took no direct action. During her graduate studies at Chicago Theological Seminary, she made the decision to get directly involved in issues of peace and social justice. In the spring of 1977, she moved to an uptown neighborhood of Chicago to work with the Francis Assisi Catholic Worker House. The St. Francis Assisi House of Hospitality is still extant.
Within these houses, such as this one, Catholic Workers live simply within the community, serve the poor, and resist war and social injustice. The Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, began in 1933,. Its reason for being is based on the principle that every human being has dignity and is deserving of respect and support. This movement continues to thrive with over two hundred active communities.
It was there that she met Roy Bourgeois. He was imprisoned for six months for flinging blood on a poster of his friend, Rutilio Grande, who was assassinated by a member of a death squad in Central America. His story moved Kelly to become involved in more direct action against injustice. At the Catholic Worker House, she also met Karl Meyer, who she was later to marry. He convinced her to join him in an action to protest draft registration; this led to her first arrest and the beginning of her long career of non-violent direct action against injustice. They were married for twelve years.
Kelly ultimately received a Masters degree in religious education and taught at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. In 1985, she received a professional development grant that took her to Nicaragua. There she met with Miguel D’Escoto, the Foreign Minister who was also part of the Marynoll religious order. He organized a plan to fast for peace in, “defense of life and against contra violence. The Contras were a group of fighters that was financed by the United States and whose goal was to subvert, undermine and eventually overthrow the democratically-elected government led by the Sandinistas, who had an active socialist political agenda. President Ronald Reagan’s administration was eventually implicated in the covert and illegal funding of the Contras, using monies obtained through the illicit sale of military hardware to the government of Iran – the so-called “Iran-Contra” scandal. Kelly was deeply impressed and inspired by D’Escoto’s commitment to peace. As a consequence she quit her position in 1986 at St. Ignatius following her return. In her letter of resignation she said, “I am quitting my job to devote full time to opposing contra aid.”
Kelly became totally dedicated to not only speaking out about that which she felt was detrimental to the causes of peace and social justice but also acting on her beliefs. She became involved in non-violent opposition to U.S. aid to the Contras, nuclear weapons, Israeli government policies regarding the Palestinians, militarism, sanctions against Iraq and its disastrous impact on Iraqi children, U.S. policies in Central America and the Second Gulf War.
In April of 2003, Kelly was instrumental in forming the Voices in the Wilderness group based in Baghdad for the purpose of providing witness to the devastation wrought by U.S. policy in Iraq. Kelly has devoted much of her energy towards exposing the disastrous impact the First and Second Gulf Wars have had on the people of Iraq.
Anticipating the likelihood of the Second Gulf War, Kelly took up residence in Baghdad during the first phase of the American military invasion in March 20, 2003 during so-called “Shock and Awe,” - the expression coined by Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense at that time. The individual lives that she reported on are testimonials to the horror of warfare that is so often aimed at civilian populations.
As a gauge of Kelly’s own feelings regarding the attack, she stated that, “Yes, we are angry, very angry, and yet we feel deep responsibility to further the nonviolent antiwar efforts that burgeon in cities and towns throughout the world. We can direct our anger toward clear confrontation, controlling it so that we won’t explode in reactionary rage, but rather draw the sympathies of people toward the plight of innocent people here who never wanted to attack the U.S., who wonder, even as the bombs terrify them, why they can’t live as brothers and sisters with people in America.” This statement illustrates the difficult task of remaining non-violent and clear-headed under horrendous circumstances.
On Aril 15, 2003, Kelly reported the following, “Nurses are digging graves in front of the Al Mansour Hospital. Plumes of smoke are rising from the campus of Baghdad University. Other disasters loom, as the Red Cross warns that Baghdad’s medical system is in complete collapse.” Kelly visited the gravely injured and dying who were flooding Iraq’s understaffed and poorly equipped hospitals.
In her testimony before Judge Crocker on October 26, 2003, she attempted to explain her involvement in Iraq during the Shock and Awe campaign. She went on to clarify the role of the Tomorrow House that she had set up in Baghdad. These explanations fell on deaf ears; she was sentenced to spend a month in Federal prison. She subsequently returned to Iraq in August of 2003 to serve as a witness to the horrific consequences of that war.
In April 2004, Kelly was sent to the Pekin Illinois Federal Maximum Security Prison for nine months. She was accused of violations of law pertaining to the delivering of medicines and relief supplies to Iraq. She was previously imprisoned in 2003, as previously mentioned, and in 1989 for a protest against the US Army’s military combat training school in Fort Benning, Georgia.
With equal vigor, Kelly has been active and relentless in defense of the plight of the Palestinians as well. She has been an ardent opponent of war and social injustice wherever it may appear. She has shown remarkable courage, persistence and a relentless tenacity in pursuing what she has felt is right in the face of grievous injustice. On three separate occasions, she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Kathy Kelly has been and continues to be an effective voice for the powerless throughout the world.