Meet a Modern Peace Activist

Meet this modern peace activist who shares her motivation for protesting nuclear weapons. She's also Dorothy Day's granddaughter.

Martha Hennessy, 65, is a Catholic activist and granddaughter of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and on the path toward canonization. Hennessy is one of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, a group of Catholic pacifists who broke into the Kings Bay Naval Base in Atlanta, Georgia on April 4, 2018, to protest the nuclear weapons held on the base. Hennessy and her fellow protestors cut through locks while singing and praying, sprayed “Love one another” on the sidewalks of the base, and poured blood over a depiction of Trident nuclear weapons that were held on the base.

As a result of their action, Hennessy was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison on November 13, 2020. She was incarcerated at Danbury Federal Correctional Institute from December 14, 2020 to May 26, 2021. Grotto Network spoke to Hennessy after she had been transferred to a halfway house in Manchester, New Hampshire. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Grotto Network: Thank you for taking the time to talk. How did you find this particular activist path? Was nuclear abolition talked about in your house?

Hennessy: I was always aware of the nuclear question. I read John Hershey’s “Hiroshima” — Granny, Dorothy, handed me that story when I was a kid. When I was 14, my brother was sent to Vietnam as a 20-year-old. I grew up with peacemaking not as a theory, but as a practice. 

And, as for coming to a place of participating in a Plowshares action? God opened the doors for me. I had to decide whether to step up.

I was arrested in 1979 protesting the Seabrook nuclear power plant here in Manchester, New Hampshire of all things. So this is sort of full circle for me.

(At Danbury,) I mouthed off as much as I could about why I was (imprisoned) — I just want people to be aware of the nuclear abolition movement.

GN: You participated in the Plowshares protest and accepted imprisonment in order to raise consciousness about nuclear weapons. Why should we be talking about nuclear weapons more? 

Hennessy: The public is just not aware of the nuclear problem — just can’t think about it, won’t talk about it — as though we have anesthetized ourselves to this whole topic of nuclear weapons.

Does the public know that we now have committed ourselves to $100,000 a minute to upgrade the nuclear arsenal? Does the public know that?

And, you know, with our trial down in Brunswick, Georgia, in federal court, we were not allowed to show pictures of Hiroshima. They wanted our case to be about cut locks, not nuclear weapons.  They treated it like we had broken into a used car lot and wanted no connection between our action and nuclear weapons. 

One of the jurors asked, ‘So are there nuclear weapons? Can you confirm whether there are nuclear weapons on that base or not?’ And the juror’s question went unanswered.

GN: What was your experience of being a prisoner at Danbury? 

Hennessy: Prisoners have no rights. They lose their status as human beings the moment they walk through the doors. You’re dependent. You’re completely dependent. You’re completely under their control, and everything is designed to remind you of that. And it’s designed to punish you, even down to the texture of the blankets, the flavor of the toothpaste. The prison industry has contracts where shoddy goods are sent in and prisoners have to pay for them through the commissary. The whole arrangement is all about, you know, breaking down one’s spirit, breaking down one’s cognition — people’s memories and problem-solving and ability to focus, attention are all affected by the experience of prison. 

Despite all of these hardships, the women’s spirits at Danbury are incredible. The women just did their best to take care of each other and take care of themselves. Keeping one’s sense of humor, sharing with one another — all the things that humanity typically does to hang on to sanity. 

GN: How did you maintain your spirituality — and sanity — as a prisoner? 

Hennessy: I do the daily Mass readings, which is exactly what the Kings Bay members did in preparation for the action. When I was in Danbury, we had Sunday Mass. And I did a daily rosary with some of the women there, about three of us consistently. 

For me, the daily practices of my faith was the anchor for all of it. That was the whole motivation for participating in Plowshares actions. So these systems don’t crush the human spirit altogether. Little beams of hope come squirting out all the time, every day.

We can’t do any of this work without the beloved community. We are all one of another. And you know, the prison experience is designed to break up and isolate. But, you know, it’s impossible to do that, really. 

GN: Has Dorothy Day’s example provided any guide for you in this work?

Hennessy: It’s not just Dorothy, it’s those who came before her as well.

She certainly stepped up to the whole nuclear question as a Catholic. But I’m not following in the footsteps of Dorothy — I’m just trying to be a good disciple to Christ.

GN: Do you feel like the nuclear question was more visible when you were younger? 

Hennessy: It’s less visible now. My kids did not grow up with the sense of urgency that I did. There’s an intentional campaign to erase it from our consciences as well. 

Let me just read you a quote from Father Richard McSorley, a Jesuit priest who started the Catholic worker house in Washington, D.C.:

“The taproot of violence in our society today is our intent to use nuclear weapons. Once we have agreed to that, all other evil is minor in comparison. Until we squarely face the question of our consent to use nuclear weapons, any hope of large scale improvement of public morality is doomed to failure.” 

Our standard of living relies on oppression and denial, and that includes the whole religious sector and the social, economic, political order. Our culture likes to subdivide and compartmentalize us. And we really have to overcome that.

The Black Lives Matter movement is deeply tied up with the poor people’s campaign, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement — it’s all the same struggle. We’re all in it together.

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