Polly Mann is still taking on war and racism at age 96

By Randy Furst Star Tribune
FEBRUARY 25, 2016 — 12:26AM

 WAMM co-founder Polly Mann: "I feel more like 40."

WAMM co-founder Polly Mann: "I feel more like 40."

Appearances can be deceiving when you meet Polly Mann.

“She dresses up like a Southern lady,” said Mary Beaudoin, the editor of the newsletter for Women Against Military Madness (WAMM). “She is very elegant.”

But underneath, Mann, who grew up in Hot Spring, Ark., is a firebrand, and, at age 96, she may be the state’s oldest and most unrepentant antiwar rabble rouser.

The military industrial complex invariably gets skewered in her WAMM newsletter columns, published seven times a year.

“The proposed 2016 Pentagon budget is a whopping $585.3 billion,” she writes in her latest screed, which later goes on to say, “A 2012 report showed that of the 137 lobbyists hired by the top contractors, 57 are former members of Congress, 39 are former congressional staff. …”

She attends WAMM board meetings and occasionally can be spotted at demonstrations. “I wouldn’t say she is the matriarch — she’s more of the inspirational leader,” Beaudoin said.

Mann, who cofounded WAMM, dismisses her role as antiwar icon: “I don’t have to be that. It’s embarrassing.”

For someone whose columns sometimes tackle racism, you wouldn’t guess she grew up in a racist household in Arkansas.

Her grandfather was a doctor, she said, and had two waiting rooms, one for white patients and one for black patients. At home, her grandmother required that blacks enter only through the back door.

Mann’s antiwar views developed as she worked in the office of an Army camp in Arkansas during World War II and watched families weeping as the men in their lives took troop trains to harbors where they shipped off to war.

“I began to ask myself,” she says, “Why do we have to have war?”

She said her views were cemented by a Quaker tract, “Speak Truth to Power,” that blamed war on greed, self-righteousness and love of power.

She married a lawyer in the military, Walter Mann, and after the war, they moved to Windom, Minn., her husband’s hometown, where he joined a small law practice. He was later named a state judge.

Polly Mann worked on the failed presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, marched in anti-Vietnam War protests, and was hired as a Twin Cities organizer for a campaign against the Nestlé Corp.

She met Marianne Hamilton and together with 10 other women, they founded WAMM in 1982. Today, the organization has an annual budget of $125,000 and three employees, one full time.

Mann’s husband died in 2004, and these days, she lives in an apartment in Uptown, her computer in a bedroom office and documents stacked beside it for her next column.

“I’m very proud of her,” said Constance Mann John, one of her daughters. John recalled driving with her mother to Washington, D.C., for an antiwar demonstration where together they were hit with tear gas.

That was 45 years ago. This week Polly Mann shrugged off her advancing age.

“I feel more like 40,” she said.

Randy Furst 612-201-5522

Twitter: @randyfurst