Lonnie Nelson, a lifelong social justice activist and leader in police reform, passed away February 12 at the age of 81. In the company of loved ones, including her four children and one of six grandchildren, she died in her sleep after suffering a stroke a few days earlier.
“I would describe Lonnie as a tireless warrior for peace, for justice, and building bridges of coalition to work with other people in other communities,” said Rev. Harriett Walden, founder of Mothers For Police Accountability (MFPA). “Lonnie was a connector. She connected people, and she did that very well.”
Nelson and Walden met at Seattle Central Community College 32 years ago when Walden was working as a liaison for the Black Student Union in the Minority Affairs Office. Nelson came to Walden’s office to discuss BSU and white students co-sponsoring a program to honor the life and work of Paul Robeson. That first encounter was the beginning of a lifetime of friendship and collaboration.
Nelson was present at the first meeting of what would become MFPA, an organization Walden describes as being responsible for making police accountability a household concept. Nelson became an MFPA member and served on the board during 20 years of involvement with the group.
“Lonnie was a person who believed in continuing to advance the principles of unity and working to create a police department that values community and to move beyond the ‘us and them’ mentality,” said Walden.
Nelson was also an advocate for workers’ rights, civil rights and tribal rights. Her father, Burt Gale Nelson, who founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 1937, was an early influence.
During her high school years in the late 1940s, Nelson joined the Young Progressives. She also became involved in civil rights around this time, protesting segregation and organizing for the $1 minimum wage and lowering the voting age to 18.
Nelson joined the Communist Party in 1951, despite aggressive public anti-Communist sentiment. She gathered signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal and would later mobilize peace protests about Cuba and Vietnam, always advocating for world peace.
In 1966, she moved to Seattle’s Central District to expose her family to segregation in the predominately African American neighborhood, and she also organized community support for the Black Panthers. Wherever Nelson went, she found a cause to support and organize around.
“That was what I admired most about Lonnie. Lonnie never got discouraged,” said Walden. “To the very last minute, she was still organizing. Sometimes people stop, or they give up or they say ‘I’m done with this,’ but that wasn’t Lonnie’s way.”
Working in the food packing industry, Nelson was an organizer for Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. As a member of the Communist Party’s Commission on Indian Liberation, she helped the Nisqually win a victory in tribal fishing rights. During the process, she was arrested three times for civil disobedience.
In 1972, Nelson was also part of the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., which was about the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” She was as a news correspondent for the Communist Party newspapers The People’s World and the Daily Worker during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee.
Nelson worked in the infant care center at Providence Hospital and was a published poet.
Nelson helped found the Coalition of Labor Union Women, as well, and was the head of their Public Works Jobs Committee.
To stay healthy while aging, Nelson tried to walk about a mile to her local QFC on Capitol Hill each day.
She established a relationship with Real Change vendors at the QFC, making sure to know their names and engage in conversation. At holidays, she often brought gifts or cards for them.
“A lot of people kind of look away, or wish that these people would be out of sight, out of mind, people who are not quite making it by the world’s standards,” said Walden. “She was always going out of her way to be kind to people.”
At the Sept. 4, 2012, Seattle City Council meeting, around her 80th birthday, the council made a proclamation recognizing and honoring Nelson’s work.
The 17th annual Paul Robeson Peace and Justice Awards Celebration will be held in Nelson’s honor at 2 p.m. on April 12 at Seattle Labor Temple, 2800 First Ave.
The Paul Robeson Peace and Justice Awards, inspired by Nelson and have recognized attorneys, volunteers, students and other people notable in their work for human rights and social justice.