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A Centenarian In Northampton, Mass., Reflects On A Life Of Anti-War Activism

Frances Crowe, the longtime peace activist and anti-nuclear campaigner, recently celebrated a milestone. She turned 100 years of age in mid-March.

Although physical ailments have slowed her down and left her largely wheelchair-bound, Crowe shows no sign of quitting her activism.

My first visit to Crowe’s home in Northampton, Massachusetts, to interview her was postponed by a medical incident she thinks was brought on by a combination of working too hard and taking too much medication for her restless leg syndrome.

When I checked in again with her a few days later, she was feeling much better, although she said she never imagined she’d live this long.

“My mother died at 70,” Crowe said. “And so when I was 70, I started giving away things that I had, like just a little bit of jewelry, some pearls, a gold bracelet someone had given me. My daughter said, 'I’m glad to have these, but why aren’t you wearing them?' And I literally thought I was going to die soon. So we’re adjusting our thinking differently these years.”

Crowe said she thinks “good genes” help explain her longevity, but she thinks there are a few more factors.

“Growing up in the Middle West in a small town that had no industrial pollution,” she said. “Eating good food. Having a purpose, you know, an amount of work I feel I want to do.”

Crowe said her purpose has been to stop war, and abolish nuclear weapons — and it’s been that way since the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she said.

Those events became the catalyst for a seven-decade-long life of activism, one that was shared by Crowe’s husband, Thomas Crowe. They met while they attended Syracuse University, and he later served as an infantry medic.

“Because he was planning to go into radiology,” Frances Crowe said, “he knew that something was going on with the bomb, and the splitting of the atom he knew had occurred, and that bad stuff was about to happen — which he hoped would not happen. But when it did, we could not celebrate with everybody else who thought that was the end of the war. The war was ending anyway. It was only that we wanted the bomb, and the power it would show.”

Crowe said she felt the use of the atomic bomb was absolutely not necessary.

“We were doing it to show the rest of the world that we intended to be the world dominant power,” she said. “It represented power. And it still does, you know?”

But the Crowes found their position on the war was not universally popular.

“There wasn’t very much going on in resistance to war in those years,” Crowe said. “There were individuals — Quakers — who were refusing to go, and so forth. Well, he went to Rochester to train in radiology. We thought, when we get there, we’ll organize a sane nuclear policy committee, and work together to stop this. Well, all of the people in the department had worked in the Manhattan Project – all of them. So we worked on our garden and on our having a family.”

When the Crowes moved to Northampton in the spring of 1952, they began organizing anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigns.

Tom, who died in 1997, went on to help found Physicians for Social Responsibility, while Frances established the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Friends Service Committee out of her home. She also worked as a draft counselor during the war in Vietnam. She’s been in countless demonstrations and protests, leading to arrests, trials, and even imprisonment.

When I asked her how many times she’d been arrested, Crowe replied, “Apparently, not enough.” Her last arrest was two years ago at age 98, protesting a pipeline through Otis State Forest.

Crowe said activism has changed over the years.

“In the beginning, it was women who maybe didn’t have a job out of the home,” she said, “so we used to meet in the mornings — bring the children, and we would work on projects, on issues, with our children. Now, I think the meetings are in the evening at a church downtown, often, where there’s lots of space and good parking.”

Everyone is working these days, Crowe said, to support themselves and pay their taxes, which she said are so high because of weapons costs.

“I think if we weren’t supporting this big war department – I refuse to call it defense; it’s not defending me — we would have a lot more time, and live in a much saner society, where both parents could be involved in the education, recreation of their children.”

Crowe has advice for younger activists who are working on the kinds of issues she’s been working on for many years. She said it’s important not to work alone.

“If you feel strongly about something, look around for people who would agree with you, and organize yourselves first. And then decide where you will go from there,” she said. “The big national groups — like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom — are really no longer the dominant groups. They have done a lot of good work, and given us a start, and now I think we have to develop a different kind of way of doing things, and that starts locally.”

The American Friends Service Committee branch Crowe founded in 1968, for example, has been replaced by the Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, based in Northampton.

“The answers aren’t at the top,” she said. “But they’re on the bottom, and what we can do right here in our community. I say, 'Use it up, wear it out. If in doubt, do without.' You know, try to live simply so others can simply live.”

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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