The U.S. Institute of Peace mourns the death of Betty Bumpers, a schoolteacher, First Lady of Arkansas and adept political campaigner whose work promoted a reduction of tensions and nuclear weaponry during the Cold War, elevated the voices of American women in policymaking, and improved health for children. Bumpers tirelessly pursued her campaigns among American political leaders in Congress and several presidential administrations, and at the grass roots, in living rooms and local schools nationwide. From her home in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bumpers founded a citizens’ campaign, called Peace Links, that grew to national and global prominence. Bumpers served as a member of the U.S. Institute of Peace Board of Directors.
“Betty Bumpers taught us by example that every American citizen has the potential, and in fact the responsibility, to contribute to peace, whether locally or internationally,” said USIP President Nancy Lindborg. “She showed us the power of reaching across divides, whether in Congress or across continents, in the pursuit of making peace possible, and she inspired countless others to join her in finding solutions through collective action.”
Betty Lou Flanagan was born the daughter of a cattle farmer in rural Arkansas and studied at universities in Iowa, Arkansas and Chicago before returning home to become an elementary school art teacher. She married a high school sweetheart, lawyer Dale Bumpers, who later was elected Arkansas’ governor and senator.
Finding that Arkansas in 1971 had one of America’s lowest rates of childhood vaccination against diseases such as measles and diphtheria, Betty Bumpers launched a campaign to encourage parents to have their children immunized. She organized widely, drawing in organizations as disparate as the state’s Health Department, nurses’ and doctors’ associations, the National Guard, and local churches and community volunteers.
Bumpers’ project boosted Arkansas’ immunization rate to one of the nation’s highest. In the late 1970s, Bumpers joined First Lady Rosalynn Carter to promote a similar campaign nationwide—an effort in which Bumpers’ organizing model from Arkansas was adapted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for national use. By 1980, “the CDC reported that disease among public school children was ‘at or near record low levels.’”
The Peace Links Campaign
In 1982, with Cold War tensions high, Bumpers focused on the risks of nuclear proliferation and war. While anti-nuclear political campaigns already existed, many of them using tactics of public protest, Bumpers saw a way to engage people, especially those she called “mainstream women,” who were less inclined to activism. She founded Peace Links as a nonpartisan movement to seek direct connections between American and Soviet women.
Bumpers described the Peace Links movement as “a response both to women’s concerns and to their historical non-involvement in affairs of national security.” Working through local churches, garden clubs and parent-teacher associations, Bumpers built Peace Links into a nationwide organization that eventually claimed 30,000 members. Peace Links sponsored citizen diplomacy, notably through educational and cultural exchange visits by American and Soviet women to each others’ countries.
“Personally, I have a theory—that civilization is not going to make another leap in progress until women of the world have their rights,” Bumpers said in a 2009 interview with USIP.
Bumpers saw a need for America to strengthen its national capacity to influence global affairs through conflict resolution. She allied Peace Links to other grassroots groups then supporting the idea of a national “peace academy” to build the nation’s conflict-resolution capacity. These groups included the National Peace Academy Campaign, led by U.S. Navy veteran Milton Mapes, and the National Peace Foundation, to which Bumpers became an advisor. That grassroots movement underpinned efforts by World War II veterans in Congress to establish the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1984.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Bumpers to serve on USIP’s Board of Directors. In recent years, she continued to assist the Institute as a member of its International Advisory Council. Bumpers’ work is honored at USIP’s headquarters with the Peace Links Classroom, an education facility named for the movement she led and dedicated to the mission she shared, of peace education and training for American citizens and others.