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Abraham Muste was born in Zierkzee, Holland, on 8th January, 1885. His family moved to the United States in 1891. His father was supporter of the Republican Party and as a young man he shared his conservative views. In 1909 he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Muste became increasingly radical and in the 1912 presidential campaign supported Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate. On the outbreak of the First World War Muste left the Dutch Reformed Church and became a pacifist. In 1919 he played an active role in supporting workers during the Lawrence Textile Strike and later moved to Boston where he found work with the American Civil Liberties Union. In the early 1920s Muste worked as director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, Westchester County. He also joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
Muste was disturbed by the events that were taking place in the Soviet Union. He no longer felt he could support the policies of Joseph Stalin. Muste now decided to join with other like-minded people to form the American Workers Party (AWP). Established in December, 1933, Muste became the leader of the party and other members included Sidney Hook, Louis Budenz, James Rorty, V.F. Calverton, George Schuyler, James Burnham, J. B. S. Hardman and Gerry Allard.
Hook later argued in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The American Workers Party (AWP) was organized as an authentic American party rooted in the American revolutionary tradition, prepared to meet the problems created by the breakdown of the capitalist economy, with a plan for a cooperative commonwealth expressed in a native idiom intelligible to blue collar and white collar workers, miners, sharecroppers, and farmers without the nationalist and chauvinist overtones that had accompanied local movements of protest in the past. It was a movement of intellectuals, most of whom had acquired an experience in the labor movement and an allegiance to the cause of labor long before the advent of the Depression."
Soon after its formation of the AWP, leaders of the Communist League of America (CLA), a group that supported the theories of Leon Trotsky, suggested a merger. Sidney Hook, James Burnham and J. Hardman were on the negotiating committee for the AWP, Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and Arne Swabeck, for the CLA. Hook later recalled: "At our very first meeting, it became clear to us that the Trotskyists could not conceive a situation in which the workers' democratic councils could overrule the Party or indeed one in which there would be plural working class parties. The meeting dissolved in intense disagreement." However, despite this poor beginning, the two groups merged in December 1934.
In 1940 Muste was appointed executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In this position Muste led the campaign against United States involvement in the Second World War. In 1942 Muste encouraged James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to establish the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Early members included George Houser and Anna Murray. Members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by blacks to obtain civil rights in America.
After the war Muste joined with David Dillinger and Dorothy Day to establish the Direct Action magazine in 1945. Dellinger once again upset the political establishment when he criticised the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In early 1947, CORE announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. organized by George Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Joseph Felmet, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.
Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your ******s with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."
The Journey of Reconciliation achieved a great deal of publicity and was the start of a long campaign of direct action by the Congress of Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave George Houser and Bayard Rustin the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy for their attempts to bring an end to segregation in interstate travel.
The Congress of Racial Equality also organised Freedom Rides in the Deep South. In Birmingham, Alabama, one of the buses was fire-bombed and passengers were beaten by a white mob. Norman Thomas described these young people as "secular saints" I. F. Stone has argued: They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. Never has a tinier minority done more for the liberation of a whole people than these few youngsters of C.O.R.E. (Congress for Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)."
By 1961 Congress of Racial Equality had 53 chapters throughout the United States. Two years later, the organization helped organize the famous March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. At the end of the march Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Muste was also very active in the War Resisters League and helped influence civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Whitney Young, to oppose the Vietnam War.
Abraham Muste died on 11th February, 1967.
I am sure that Marshall is either ill-formed on the principles and techniques of nonviolence or ignorant of the process of social change.
Unjust social laws and patterns do not change because supreme courts deliver just decisions. One needs merely to observe the continued practice of Jim Crow in interstate travel, six months after the Supreme Court's decision, to see the necessity of resistance. Social progress comes from struggle; all freedom demands a price.
At times freedom will demand that its followers go into situations where even death is to be faced. Resistance on the buses would, for example, mean humiliation, mistreatment by police, arrest, and some physical violence inflicted on the participants.
But if anyone at this date in history believes that the "white problem," which is one of privilege, can be settled without some violence, he is mistaken and fails to realize the ends to which men can be driven to hold on to what they consider their privileges.
This is why Negroes and whites who participate in direct action must pledge themselves to non-violence in word and deed. For in this way alone can the inevitable violence be reduced to a minimum.
If you are a Negro, sit in a front seat. If you are white, sit in a rear seat.
If the driver asks you to move, tell him calmly and courteously: "As an interstate passenger I have a right to sit anywhere in this bus. This is the law as laid down by the United States Supreme Court".
If the driver summons the police and repeats his order in their presence, tell him exactly what you said when he first asked you to move.
If the police asks you to "come along," without putting you under arrest, tell them you will not go until you are put under arrest.
If the police put you under arrest, go with them peacefully. At the police station, phone the nearest headquarters of the NAACP, or one of your lawyers. They will assist you.
The center of the story is the career of the Reverend Abraham J. Muste, who in the early fall of 1933 invited me and other radical figures to organize a new political party, whose chief spokesman he became.
In his graphic but tendentious History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote that the Revolution entered history under the belly of a Cossack horse. The irresolute act of the horseman, the unwonted failure to cut down the demonstrator, typified the breakdown of morale among the Czar's defenders in the February days of 1917. Perhaps one can say of A. J. Muste that he entered the labor movement under the hoofs of a mounted policeman's horse as he was marching with some striking pickets at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Without formally leaving the Dutch Reformed and then Presbyterian Church, he became a labor organizer and educator of note. He founded and headed for many years the Brookwood Labor College, whose students were recruited from the labor movement to serve it with dedication and intelligence. At the end of the twenties, Muste's interests had become more political and, as the depression deepened, intensely so. He had early experienced the effects of the Machiavellian behavior of the Communist Party, whose officials alternatively flattered and denounced him. Muste was convinced that only a political party thoroughly in the American grain would make any headway in the United States. He had followed my writings closely, was aware of my pragmatic orientation, and proposed that I join the organizing committee of the new party.
Our personal relations were always cordial, and remained so during the long and unexpected odyssey that took him from his original pacifist persuasion to pragmatic liberalism and socialism, to revolutionary Trotskyism (so extreme that it was repudiated by Trotsky himself), then back to the arms of God and an absolute pacifism in whose odor of sanctity he spent his last days. There was no inkling of these developments when the American Workers' Party was launched without fanfare after a few months of intense preparation.
The American Workers Party (AWP) was organized as an authentic American party rooted in the American revolutionary tradition, prepared to meet the problems created by the breakdown of the capitalist economy, with a plan for a cooperative commonwealth expressed in a native idiom intelligible to blue collar and white collar workers, miners, sharecroppers, and farmers without the nationalist and chauvinist overtones that had accompanied local movements of protest in the past. It was a movement of intellectuals, most of whom had acquired an experience in the labor movement and an allegiance to the cause of labor long before the advent of the Depression....
On the eve of the merger between the two organizations (the Trotskyists changed their tune completely at subsequent meetings and hypocritically professed agreement with us), I published an article entitled "Workers' Democracy," which argued for a "commonsense democratic way out of the impasse of capitalism" and maintained that the ideals enshrined in the American revolutionary tradition, "equality of opportunity," "the equal rights of all citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," "peace and security for the masses" could best be realized under socialism. Despite this emphasis on democracy, it suffered from the old illusion that the fundamental conflict was between socialism and capitalism rather than between democracy and totalitarianism, but its emphasis on democracy, and the social and economic requirements for its fulfillment, were unmistakable. The article provoked a strong response from Will Herberg, the chief ideologist, after Bertram Wolfe, of the Lovestone Communist Opposition.
Herberg openly expressed the position that the outcome of workers' democracy could not be permitted to take its course if the consequences of that course, in the eyes of the Communist Party or its leadership, did not further the health of the revolution. It now became apparent why, to all Leninists, the spontaneous outcry of the Kronstadt sailors and their supporters, "The Soviets without the dictatorship of the Communist Party," was counterrevolutionary!
Although Muste claimed, after the merger with the CLA, to have been converted to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist doctrine, I was never persuaded that he truly understood it or was motivated by it. He was first and foremost a moralist, not because he was a preacher or because of his religious training, but because he viewed human actions simply as right or wrong, regardless of context. To his credit he shrugged off expressions like "historically determined" or "organizationally necessary," but to be indifferent to what was possible or probable was something else again. He rarely thought through a position but would adopt one on moral grounds that were rarely affected by the facts in the case. He had been an ardent pacifist. When he became a revolutionary Marxist, he publicly abandoned his pacifism and, among us, his belief in Christianity. He could not have been very well versed in either one or the other, despite his religious training, for when he finally vomited up his hastily swallowed Marxism, he returned to his early beliefs with the passion of someone newly converted. It is very rare that, as individuals develop and abandon one position for another in a continuing series of progressions, they return to an earlier view. But it sometimes occurs. In Muste's case, his early abandonment of pacifism and Christianity could not have been very reflective.
It is hard to explain why Muste, whose finger never stopped wagging in moral denunciation of the Stalinists for placing the fancied interests of their organization above everything else, consented to a merger of the American Workers' Party and the Trotskyist Communist League of America. He was not so completely an innocent as to believe that the Trotskyists had shed their Leninist tradition. Nor is it altogether clear why he opposed so stubbornly, after the two organizations had merged into the Socialist Workers' Party, the proposed entry of the latter into the Socialist Party, then moving rapidly to the left. The reason he himself gives is unpersuasive. He claims that, as a condition of merger with the Communist League of America, he exacted a promise from its leaders that they would not emulate the policy of the French Trotskyist group in entering the French Socialist Party. There was no such promise! As the chief figure representing the American Workers' Party in its negotiations, I can affirm that the subject never came up. Nor did it arise in the extended and heated debates among the AWP membership whether to approve the merger. Muste's stated opposition at the time to the entry of the merged organizations into the Socialist Party was that such an action would represent a betrayal of revolutionary principles. Since those principles were embodied in the principles Trotsky had drawn up for the Fourth International, Muste, so to speak, was claiming to be more Trotskyist than the Trotskyists. He berated the Trotskyists for being bad Marxists and bad Leninists.
Looking back, Muste's behavior was extremely puzzling. It reflected a personal ambition of which he was probably unconscious. Muste never really concealed his sense that he had a vocation for leadership, but after many long conversations I felt that his real vocation, for which he thirsted in the depths of his being, was for martyrdom. This came to the surface a few years later when, having returned to his early pacifist faith, he bitterly opposed American resistance to Hitler and the Japanese warlords. He conspicuously violated registration laws, sold his home and possessions, delivered eloquent addresses at several public farewell dinners by friends and admirers, and waited in vain for the minions of the state to cart him off to jail. He was thwarted by a sensible bureaucrat, for once, who decided to ignore him. The language in which he denounced "this dirty trick" was positively un-Christian. A.J. never recovered from this indignity, until the days of the Vietnam War when he came into his own.
The American Revolution was fought for a very simple reason - to establish the principle of liberty in our land. That revolution - that phase of it - was essentially successful. The principle was established but the principle did not include all Americans.
For many people it did not mean liberty. It did not, for example, apply to women in the early days of America. Women did not have the rights which were guaranteed to other Americans. They did not have even the right of suffrage, and they had to struggle to achieve that right. They struggled under the banner of the suffragettes and significantly, my friends, they used techniques which are quite similar to those which for the past several years have dominated the civil-rights movement.
This principle established in the eighteenth century in the first stage of the American Revolution did not include workers. Working men and women of our country got half the freedoms which had been proclaimed. They had no voice concerning their wages or hours or establishing their working conditions. That was not freedom. They then had to struggle for their freedom, for their own inclusion in the American compact of liberty. They fought hard with the same weapons - the demonstration, the march, the picket line, the boycott. They established the principle of their inclusion; they won the right to collective bargaining and the right for union recognition.
For many years like a great slumbering giant, Negroes accepted the status quo. For a long time, we thought so little of ourselves that we accepted segregation and discrimination, with all of its degradation.
The fight for freedom is combined with the fight for equality, and we must realize that this is the fight for America - not just black America but all America. In the words of the great rabbi who wrote, 2,000 years ago, "Hither, if I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"
They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).
A few people, including Mrs. Roosevelt, Norman Thomas and A. Muste, did support amnesty for us. These particular personalities had been staunch defenders of civil liberties throughout the years. But even here something bothered me. If any people were justified in not coming to our defense, it was just these three whom I have named. Had we not heaped personal and political abuse upon them (alternating with periods of praise)? I asked myself how we would have responded had the situation been reversed, and my answer was not a comforting one. I came to feel that these individuals must have a moral superiority over us, that there must be something decidedly wrong with the attitude of communism toward democracy.
A.J. Muste: The 20th Century’s Most Famous U.S. Pacifist
In 1939, when war clouds over Europe became darker by the hour, Time magazine called Abraham Johannes Muste “the Number One U.S. Pacifist.” The designation was certainly appropriate and he wore the label proudly. From World War I until his death in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, Muste stood out in the struggle against war and social injustice in the United States. His leadership roles in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, War Resisters League, and Committee for Non-Violent Action, and his numerous writings filling the pages of the pacifist press, bear ample witness to the Quaker Peace Testimony. Reinforcing this view are many tributes detailing his remarkable career at the time of his death. David McReynolds of the War Resisters League observed that Muste’s Inner Light “was so central to him that his life cannot be understood without realizing that he was, even at his most political moments, acting out his religious convictions.” Longtime labor radical and writer Sidney Lens commented that “for Muste the term ‘religion’ and the term ‘revolution’ were totally synonymous.” And one of his closest allies in the peace movement, John Nevin Sayre, noted with affection that religion was Muste’s “motivating force . . . right up to the end of his life.”
A.J. Muste’s spiritual journey began with his birth on January 8, 1885, in the Dutch shipping port of Zierikzee. In 1891 his family left Holland and settled with relatives and friends in the Dutch Reformed community of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His childhood years were deeply influenced, according to biographer Jo Ann Robinson, “by the ‘religious and pious’ home which his parents kept, where he was ‘soaked in the Bible and the language of the Bible,’ and by the teaching of his native church that ‘you live in the sight of God and there is no respecter of persons in Him, and pretension is a low and despicable thing.'” In 1905 Muste graduated from Hope College and in 1909, after attending seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. That same year he was installed as the first minister of the Fourth Avenue Washington Collegiate Church in New York City. He also married his former Hope classmate, Anna Huizenga. They would have three children.
For a brief period Muste clung to the rigid tenets of his Calvinistic faith. But witnessing the ill effects of industrialization and urbanization in the largest U.S. city caused him to reconsider his role as preacher. His liberation from the theological restraints of Calvinism thus came with the onset of World War I. According to Robinson, his growing concern over “how to apply Christian precepts to political corruption and class conflict in America became compounded in the new struggle over how to come to terms with massive suffering and dying caused by the Great War.” Looking inward, he now felt, as he wrote in his “Sketches for an Autobiography,” that “I had to face—not academically but existentially, as it were—the question of whether I could reconcile what I had been preaching out of the Gospel and passages like I Corinthians: 13, from the Epistles, with participation in war.” Deeply troubled by world events, Muste began searching for answers in the teachings of Quakerism. He was inspired by the first Quakers during the revolutionary turmoil of 17th- and 18th-century England. He asked himself: How do moral persons evaluate the courses of action they intend to pursue, and how will they know if they are right?
Gradually, Muste drew closer to Quakerism, and when he was voted out of his pulpit in Newtonville, Massachusetts, due to his preaching against the war, he became a Friend in March of 1918. What prompted this conversion was the influence of Quaker scholar and activist Rufus Jones. In his Studies in Mystical Religion (1909), Jones noted that mystical experiences have led to “great reforms and champion movements of great moment to humanity.” During the Great War Jones served as the first chairman of American Friends Service Committee and helped establish a U.S. branch of Fellowship of Reconciliation. Jones’ ability to apply his beliefs to action prompted the recently deposed preacher to consider what he might do to aid the cause of humanity. Consequently, Muste and his wife moved in with Quakers in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was enrolled as a minister in the Religious Society of Friends. There Muste started counseling conscientious objectors at nearby Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. He also defended opponents of war who were accused of failing to comply with sedition laws, and, according to his “Sketches,” began talking about “establishing urban and rural cooperatives from which they could carry on the struggle against war and for economic justice and racial equality.” Throughout 1918 he traveled about New England, addressing the issues of war and social injustice at the annual session of New England Yearly Meeting in Vassalboro, Maine, and at Providence (R.I.) Meeting.
Shortly after the war, Friends from all over the world met in London to reexamine and explore the application of the Peace Testimony. A consensus was reached that it was insufficient to single out individual evil as the sole cause for war. Racism, poverty, oppression, imperialism, and nationalism now had to be met head on. This perfectly suited the temperament of the recently converted Friend. In large measure, Muste’s involvement in Quaker life and institutions was found in peace work and antiwar organizations rather than strictly in local and yearly meetings.
In 1919 he began carrying out his new commitment to the Peace Testimony as a strike leader during the bitterly contested textile walkout in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He jokingly remarked that “Becoming a pacifist and Quaker in wartime was bad enough, but to go around in a blue shirt and parade on picket lines—this is too much!” Two years later he assumed the directorship of Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. There he helped train a number of labor activists who would promote the industrial union campaigns of the late 1930s. A factional split among the faculty, due to his growing militancy, led to his departure in 1933.
His involvement with the labor movement did not end, however. The deepening of the Great Depression caused Muste to rethink his commitment to nonviolence. His turn to the left would result in a brief association with the Trotskyite American Workers Party. From 1933 to 1935, he passively adopted the more radical tenets of Marxism, only to be reawakened by the power of pacifism. In 1936, after returning from a summer trip to Europe, highlighted by a visit to the Catholic Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, Muste traded in his Marxist ideology for nonviolence. He had been overcome by a feeling of not belonging among secular revolutionaries.
Now secure in his pacifist witness, he became executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the start of World War II. The Fellowship was widely known as an important religious peace organization by this time. The eminent Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once called FOR “a kind of Quaker conventicle inside of the traditional church.” Throughout the war years, Muste constantly supported the rights of conscientious objectors and called for U.S. aid to those victims who were persecuted in Europe. He vigorously protested the internment of Japanese Americans. As FOR executive secretary he worked closely with those administering the Civilian Public Service Camps for conscientious objectors.
Proudly wearing the label “the Number One U.S. Pacifist,” Muste began promoting more daring actions in the name of peace and justice at the conclusion of the war. The advent of atomic warfare and Cold War fears drove Muste into utilizing the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. Direct action became his mantra. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he involved himself in a number of activities with War Resisters League and Committee for Non-Violent Action. Throughout these years he often faced jail and prosecution for refusing to pay income taxes (he constantly followed the dictates of the 18th century Quaker John Woolman, who insisted that “The spirit of truth required of me as an individual to suffer patiently the distress of goods, rather than pay actively”), leading peace and civil rights protest marches, and trespassing on federal property. He played a pivotal role in helping to establish the Society for Social Responsibility in Science and the Church Peace Mission. In terms of providing visibility for the peace and antinuclear movement, he participated in three significant transnational walks for peace sponsored by CVNA: San Francisco to Moscow (1960-61) Quebec to Guantanamo (1961) and New Delhi to Peking (1963-1964).
Clearly, Muste’s inner spiritual promptings governed his life decisions. Jo Ann Robinson points out that Muste’s own mysticism was moved by out-of-the-ordinary experiences of the kind of “sudden invading consciousness from beyond.” Such mystical experience empowered him to “stand the world better.” It thus took him to places where, symbolically risking death, he would highlight the spirit of the “individual refusal to ‘go along.'” For example, during a 1955 national civil defense drill, he, along with 26 others, was arrested while sitting on a park bench in City Hall Park in New York City, holding a sign that read, “End War—The Only Defense Against Atomic Weapons.” At age 74 he spent eight days in jail in 1959 when he climbed a four-and-one-half-foot fence into a missile construction site outside Omaha, Nebraska. As Muste himself noted in his popular 1940 book, Nonviolence in an Aggressive World, “There is an inextricable relationship between means and ends the way one approaches one’s goals determines the final shape which those goals take.” For Muste, the relationship between means and ends was simply his now widely quoted statement: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the Way.”
While Muste would have enjoyed simply gathering with Friends at his home, his reputation, despite a quiet and reserved nature, required that he be in the forefront of direct action protests. Believing that peace is more than the absence of war, the 1960s activists, led by Muste, expanded their focus to deal with the issue of racial intolerance in the United States. In one of his popular essays on the role of the emerging civil rights movment, he observed that “a calm survey of the situation will certainly not lead to a verdict that justice and equality for the Negro people have been substantially achieved. On the contrary, there is still a long way to go.” Seeing a direct connection between imperialism overseas and racial injustice at home, Muste provided guidance to Martin Luther King Jr., after the latter’s emergence as the chief spokesman for the nonviolent wing of the civil rights movement. Muste encouraged him to read the works of Woolman, Jones, Gandhi, and Thoreau, and when King’s own growing resistance to the Vietnam War took center stage, Muste stood by him on all counts.
Social and civil unrest at home, marked by civil rights protests and growing opposition to the Vietnam War, demanded even more of Muste’s time and energy. In the mid-1960s, front-page headlines captured Muste’s picture as he led antiwar protestors down Fifth Avenue in New York City. He was instrumental in helping to organize national demonstrations against the war. In April 1966, he visited South Vietnam as part of a delegation from Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam. Nine months later, despite ill health and warnings from his doctor not to go, Muste traveled to North Vietnam where he met with North Vietnamese Premier Ho Chi Minh. Along with two other clergyman, he returned home bearing an invitation from Minh to President Lyndon Johnson requesting that he visit Hanoi in order to discuss an end to the war. That was Muste’s final witness to peace. On February 11, 1967, he died.
It is almost 39 years since then. There have been books and articles written about his peace witness, but a younger generation may not know that his conversion to Quakerism during World War I was a seminal moment in his life. It directly enjoined him in the political and economic struggles of his day. His legacy is secure. And I am sure that he would heartily agree with one particular obituary notice observing his passing. In the antiwar newsletter, The Mobilizer, the following appeared: “In lieu of flowers, friends are requested to get out and work—for peace, for human rights, for a better world.”
American Gandhi: A. J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century
When Abraham Johannes Muste died in 1967, newspapers throughout the world referred to him as the "American Gandhi." Best known for his role in the labor movement of the 1930s and his leadership of the peace movement in the postwar era, Muste was one of the most charismatic figures of the American left in his time. Had he written the story of his life, it would also have been the story of social and political struggles in the United States during the twentieth century.
In American Gandhi, Leilah Danielson establishes Muste's distinctive activism as the work of a prophet and a pragmatist. Muste warned that the revolutionary dogmatism of the Communist Party would prove a dead end, understood the moral significance of racial equality, argued early in the Cold War that American pacifists should not pick a side, and presaged the spiritual alienation of the New Left from the liberal establishment. At the same time, Muste committed to grounding theory in practice and the individual in community. His open, pragmatic approach fostered some of the most creative and remarkable innovations in progressive thought and practice in the twentieth century, including the adaptation of Gandhian nonviolence for American concerns and conditions.
A political biography of Muste's evolving political and religious views, American Gandhi also charts the rise and fall of American progressivism over the course of the twentieth century and offers the possibility of its renewal in the twenty-first.
A. J. Muste: Radical for Peace
A. J. Muste’s Reformed roots ran deep. Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967) was born in the Netherlands, raised in Grand Rapids, and educated at two Reformed Church in America institutions: Hope College and New Brunswick Theological Seminary. He excelled in sports at Hope, and in the year between graduating from Hope and enrolling at New Brunswick taught Latin and Greek at the Northwestern Classical Academy in Orange City, Iowa.
Muste’s remarkable life is being chronicled in a series of documentaries produced and directed by the independent filmmaker David Schock. The first film, Finding True North was released in April, 2019, and was honored with a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. The second film, “The No. 1 U.S. Pacifist,” has just been released. Both films, and more information about the project, may be accessed here. A third film is planned, and the production team is seeking funding on the project website.
Muste was too radical for the RCA, which has never known what to do with him. I attended an RCA seminary in the 1980s and the only thing I can recall learning about him was one story: when asked by a reporter if he seriously thought standing with a candle night after night in front of the White House would change anything, Muste reportedly said, “I don’t stand out here to change the country, I stand out here so they won’t change me.”
The RCA’s uneasy relationship with Muste came to mind when I saw recently that Great Britain has unveiled a new banknote featuring computer pioneer Alan Turing. In his lifetime, Turing faced criminal prosecution because of his sexual orientation from the same country now honoring him. In a similar way, the RCA and its institutions have been slow to recognize the brilliance and insight of Muste.
As the first film documents, Muste was the pastor of the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan until he left the RCA in 1914 out of frustration. (In Manhattan Muste also found much more broad-minded religious instruction at Union Theological Seminary than he had at New Brunswick, which was quite parochial in those days).
Muste opposed every American war from World War I to Vietnam, and worked as a labor organizer. In 1949 a seminarian named Martin Luther King Jr. heard Muste lecture on non-violence. C.O.R.E., the Council on Racial Equality, was formed in 1942 as an offshoot of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which Muste was executive secretary. He was a pacifist but never passive — he demonstrated against nuclear proliferation in Red Square in Moscow and would scandalize American politicians by meeting with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
I was with a small group of RCA pastors last week and we were lamenting the RCA’s historical lack of bright lights. In fact, we were comparing the intellectual heft of the RCA to the Christian Reformed Church and we found the RCA lacking. I imagine all you CRC readers are smiling to yourself right now while RCA readers are looking away in shame. Muste might be the brightest light the RCA has ever produced, but the RCA couldn’t hold him.
Abraham Muste - History
by Leilah Danielson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)
In 1957, Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste sat down to write his autobiography. Had he finished it, the book undoubtedly would have been filled with the friends and acquaintances he made among the various workers, intellectuals, preachers, activists, sinners, and saints whom he had met over the seventy-two years that he spent on Earth. It would have told the story of a Calvinist intellectual preacher who transformed into a revolutionary labor leader, before finally transforming into a radical prophet of Christian pacifism. But he never finished the book. Muste was a busy man, and there was always a world that needed redeeming. When he died ten years later, scores of mourners, from New York to Tanzania to Hanoi, hailed the loss of one of the brightest minds and most tireless spirits that had animated the nonconformist left. Historian Leilah Danielson attempts to complete the work that Muste did not.
It is most useful to see Danielson's story as an intellectual history disguised as biography. Muste blended Christian idealism with a pragmatism born out of the experience of an activist. As his thought evolved during his long life, he also developed an almost prophetic vision of a peaceful Christian world. Danielson, importantly, also uses Muste's story as a lens on the (mostly radical) left from early 20th century progressives through the anti-war &ldquoNew Left&rdquo of the 1960's.
After being forced out of his pastorate during the First World War because of his pacifist beliefs, Muste entered the labor movement armed with the belief that it held the revolutionary potential to overthrow capitalism and usher in a era of world peace. In doing so, he tried to forge an independent middle ground between the Communists on the left and the AFL on the right, first at Brookwood Labor College, then within the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, his own radical education/activist organization. The middle ground that Muste tried to hold collapsed by the mid-30's and the Communists took over much of the revolutionary left. By this time, the mainstream labor movement had formed the activist core of the Democratic Party's emerging New Deal coalition.
|A.J. Muste poses for a photograph in 1931|
In joining with the Democrats &ndash the party of Jim Crow and militarism according to Muste &ndash labor had shackled itself to racist capitalism and surrendered to militaristic nationalism. By 1936, Muste left the labor movement behind and with reconnect with his pacifist Christian roots.It is most useful to see Danielson's story as an intellectual history disguised as biography. Muste blended Christian idealism with a pragmatism born out of the experience of an activist. As his thought evolved during his long life, he also developed an almost prophetic vision of a peaceful Christian world. Danielson, importantly, also uses Muste's story as a lens on the (mostly radical) left from early 20 th century progressives through the anti-war &ldquoNew Left&rdquo of the 1960's.
The 1950's proved to be a time of renewed intellectual flowering and activism for Muste. He believed that liberalism, as embodied by the New Deal order, had failed precisely because it had bolstered global capitalism and created the military-industrial complex. The solution for Muste lay in an escape from liberal institutionalism, in direct non-violent actions by cells of individuals in lieu of the masses. It was here that Muste's thought began to prefigure much of the same critique that the New Left would make famous in the 1960's. The onset of the Vietnam War marked the capstone of Muste's global vision, and it would be somewhat of an obsession for the remainder of his life. In his view, the United States was leveraging its massive military superiority in a racist colonial war to oppress the people of North Vietnam. He would spend the last few years of his life trying to build a broad coalition of activists against the war, even traveling to Hanoi and meeting Ho Chi Minh.
The Second World War and, especially, the use of atomic weaponry at the end of it, seem to have ignited the prophetic tradition of Christianity in Muste. While he would never fully abandon the struggle against capitalism, his attention clearly turned toward anti-war/military/nuclear activism. Danielson argues that the emerging Cold War, global de-colonization struggles, and the American civil rights movement all crystallized into a single pacifist struggle against racist, violent nation-states, and the racist, violent American state, in particular.
Given how often Muste served in a leadership role in various organizations, Danielson seems well-grounded in her assertion that his intellect and spirit awed and inspired his friends and acquaintances. Indeed, the high rate of eventual collapse among his projects and the inability of his ideas to make an impact on the establishment make his determination and sunny disposition seem quite remarkable. We know that he had a strong relationship with his parents, siblings, wife, and children. But these relationships take a back seat to the story of Muste's ideas and activism, an aspect of Danielson's reckoning that appears to mirror the realities of Mustes life. This is most evident in his relationship with his wife, Annie, whose homemaking and childrearing labor Muste appears to have taken for granted despite his otherwise radical politics. Annie did not seem to share her husband's zeal for remaking the world, and his constant moving around and activism ultimately took a toll on her health as the family was whisked from place to place.
|In 1937, over a thousand marched past the Works Progress Administration in Washington D.C., demanding the reinstatement of jobs cut earlier that year. The Worker's Alliance (an outgrowth of Muste's activist group) led the charge.|
Danielson traces Muste's participation in a veritable laundry list of leftist organizations: the Amalgamated Textile Workers, ACLU, Brookwood, Fellowship of Reconciliation, SANE, the Peacemakers, and MOBE to only name a few. Likewise, Muste seems to have corresponded with members of the Old Left and New and seemingly everyone in between, from Norman Thomas and Sidney Hook to Tom Hayden and Bayard Rustin. In this sense, Muste's own life in activism provides the reader with a first-hand account of just how fractious the pre-New Deal labor movement was or how the monstrous violence of the atomic age could drive the alienation of the New Left.
Danielson is at her best in the last chapters detailing Muste's increasing horror as he understood the United States emerging role a global force of violence and domination, perhaps even an existential threat to the world itself. The revolutionary potential of labor had been co-opted by a Democratic Party that was just as eager as the Republicans to build a national security state with an endless reach. America had sacrificed its soul, even as it achieved unparalleled economic and military superiority.
|Close-up of the mural commemorating works of A.J. Muste on the War Resisters League Building in New York, New York.|
His penetrating analysis of what Eisenhower would term the &ldquomilitary-industrial complex&rdquo was even more prescient than he knew. As the Cold War gave way to the War on Terror, Americans have confronted the possibility of seemingly endless war. Muste would have seen the killing power of predator drones and the savage torture techniques of CIA interrogators not as accidents or regretful necessities in the long war to make the world safe for democracy, but as the logical, perhaps inevitable culmination of the &ldquoAmerican Century.&rdquo
One of Danielson's last anecdotes is of an elderly Afghanistan/Iraq War protester who was asked in 2010 if she really thought that her demonstration in front of Rockefeller Center would have any impact on American policy. She quoted Muste, who was asked a similar question while demonstrating against Vietnam in front of the White House: &ldquoI don't do this to change the country, I do this so the country won't change me&rdquo (336). Almost fifty years after Muste's death, Americans seem no closer to finding the way to peace.
By David McNair
October 21, 2002
"We cannot have peace if we are only concerned with peace. War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life. If we want to attack war, we have to attack that way of life."&mdashA.J. Muste"There is no way to peace, peace is the way."&mdashA.J. Muste
At the end of his biography of A.J. Muste (Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste, Macmillan, 1963), Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff paints a grim picture of the peace movement. "As for myself, I have enormous doubts as to whether Muste and others like him will ever reach enough people so that the primitiveness of the way men rule and are ruled is finally ended. It may well be too late to prevent the obliteration of mankind&hellip" But then he holds out Muste as a beacon of hope. "Muste, however, will continue to act in the fierce belief that so long as there is life, the forces of death&ndashhowever they are euphemized and disguised by the rulers and nearly all the ruled&ndashmust be resisted." Muste was a beacon of hope to many. Hentoff, in fact, calls himself an imperfect disciple of Muste. Martin Luther King said that "unequivocally the emphasis on non-violent direct action in race relations is due more to A.J. Muste than to anyone else in the country." Others considered him America&rsquos Gandhi. Muste, in fact, was such a key figure in the non-violence protest movement&mdashplaying a central role in anti-war/anti-violence activity during both World Wars, the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and Vietnam&mdashthat it&rsquos hard to believe he was a mere man and not some angel of God sent to earth to be a voice of reason during the violent madness of the 20 th Century. Yet A.J. Muste, unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King, is virtually unknown to the general public. Like most people who are not inclined to take popular positions, who don&rsquot fit neatly into the chapters of middle school history books, Muste&rsquos extraordinary life has naturally been back-shelved by the writers and librarians of modern history. After all, what do you do with a radical Christian/Marxist pacifist who stood up at a Quaker Meeting in 1940 and said, "If I can&rsquot love Hitler, I can&rsquot love at all"?
Abraham Johannes Muste was born in Holland on January 8, 1885. At the age of six, he was brought to the U.S. and raised by a Republican family in the strict Calvinist traditions of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1909, he was ordained a minister in that church. Increasingly disillusioned with the teachings of the Reformed Church, however, Muste became the pastor of a Congregational Church. But when war broke out in Europe, he became a full-blown pacifist, inspired by the Christian mysticism of the Quakers. Shortly afterward, Muste was forced out of the Congregational Church for his views and started working with the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union in Boston. In 1919, he was called on to support strikers in the textile industry, and, by the early 1920s, the former Dutch Reformed minister had become a key figure in the trade union movement. As further evidence of the contradictory allegiances that would characterize his philosophy on non-violence and activism for the rest of his life, Muste became openly revolutionary and played a leading role in forming the American Workers Party in 1933, during the Depression. He eventually abandoned his Christian pacifism and became an avowed Marxist-Leninist. He was a key figure in organizing the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and helped form the Trotskyist Workers Party of America.
However, in 1936, uncomfortable with the violence inherent in revolutionary activity, he traveled to Norway to meet with Leon Trotsky. When he returned to the U.S., he was once again a Christian pacifist. Most friends and colleagues say Muste never reconciled his Christian and Marxist tendencies. But the two parts of him informed each other and contributed to one of the most dynamic philosophies of non-violent action in the 20 th Century, one that sought to combine the heavenly desire for peace on earth with the earthly desire for social justice.
In his later years, Muste refused to slow down and, during the Cold War, led the Committee for Nonviolent Action. Its members sailed ships into nuclear test zones in the Pacific, hopped barbed-wire fences at nuclear installations, and tried to block the launching of American nuclear submarines in rowboats. During the Vietnam War, Muste led a group of pacifists to Saigon to demonstrate for peace and was arrested and deported. Later, he met with the violent revolutionary Ho Chi Minh to discuss peace efforts. On February 11, 1967, Muste died suddenly in New York City at the age of 82.
Now that Congress has handed over its constitutional power to wage war on Iraq to the President of the United States, the "logical outcome of a certain way of life" that Muste spoke of seems to have been affirmed. Only twenty-three Senators opposed a resolution giving the President the unchecked authority to launch an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. As we begin the new century, our leaders seem intent on continuing a way of life that will almost certainly lead to the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people, just as that way of life led to the deaths of so many in the last century. It is not a happy time for pacifists and peace activists, whose voices go unheard in the national media and whose convictions have been deemed naïve, unpatriotic, and even cowardly by the conservatively pragmatic, un-sensuous minds that seem to dominate the airwaves and characterize the age we live in.
The strength in Muste&rsquos approach to non-violence rested in his religious faith and his belief in individual freedom and social justice. In fact, that strength seemed to be a direct result of the contradictory forces (Christian/Marxist) within himself as he tried to reconcile them and as he began to recognize that struggle as the work of peace itself. "Christians can never be fatalists," he once said. And when a reporter asked Muste during a protest if he really thought he was going to change the policies of this country by standing alone at night in front of the White House with a candle, he replied, "Oh, I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me." Muste recognized that in order to change the world, you have to change people. To achieve peace, you have to inspire people to look deeper into the root causes of a conflict, to come to terms with contradictory feelings of love and hate, and to recognize that the desire for peace wasn&rsquot about being a dove. It was about being a spiritual warrior. "I was not impressed with the sentimental, easy-going pacifism of the earlier part of the century," Muste told Hentoff in his biography. "People then felt that if they sat and talked pleasantly of peace and love, they would solve the problems of the world&hellipbut simply advocating &lsquolove&rsquo won&rsquot do it&hellip reconciliation is not synonymous with smoothing things over in the conventional sense. Reconciliation, in every relationship, requires bringing the deep causes of the conflict to the surface and that may be very painful. It is when the deep differences have been faced and the pain of that experienced, that healing and reconciliation may take place."
Of course, there were those who admired Muste&rsquos ideals but who considered his relentless pacifism defenseless against human evil. "Perhaps if people like you were permitted to survive under Communism, " said a philosophy professor in a letter to Muste. "&hellipinstead of being among the first who were liquidated, I might accept the risks of its brutal triumph to the risks of opposing it."
When Hentoff wrote "it may well be too late to prevent the obliteration of mankind" in his 1963 biography of Muste, he was talking about nuclear war. Almost forty years later, however, we are still here. Unfortunately, men seem to rule and be ruled just as primitively, and there is more violence and conflict in the world than we can keep track of. What would Muste say about the peace movement today? What would he do to fight the American government&rsquos move toward restricting the right to assemble and protest? (See Neal Shaffer&rsquos essay, "Protest Too Little") What would he do to curtail our government&rsquos move toward war?
Odds are that he&rsquod be engaged in some Sisyphean effort to awaken our sleeping minds to the injustice of it all. Odds are that he&rsquod be upset by the way we&rsquove allowed the terrorists to steal the show. Because, in the end, Muste&rsquos life was less about working out particular issues and conflicts and more about the task of encouraging humanity itself to evolve in a peaceful direction.
To find out more about A.J. Muste or to help continue his legacy, visit the A.J. Muste Memorial Foundation at www.ajmuste.org
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.
A. J. Muste Papers
The A.J. Muste Papers consist of correspondence, autobiographical material, book reviews, speeches, articles, pamphlets, and newsclippings, as well as sound recordings by and about A.J. Muste. The correspondence (1958-1967) is divided into private correspondence and business papers and forms the bulk of the collection. Numerous individuals and organizations are represented in the correspondence, which includes information about George Keenan, Linus Pauling, Anatol Rapoport, A. Philip Randolph, Morton Sobell, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the World Peace Brigade, Pendle Hill, the Hudson Institute, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The records of Liberation magazine and information about the San Francisco to Moscow Walk, the Omaha Action, the Polaris Action and tax resistance are also in the collection.
The bulk of this collection was microfilmed under N.E.H. Grant No. RC 27706-77-739. The material on reels 36 to 39 were filmed by Scholarly Resources, Inc.
Audiocassette, audiotapes (reel-to-reel), and compact discs (of Muste's funeral service, etc.) were removed to the Audiovisual Collection photos were removed to the Photograph Collection.
Language of Materials
Limitations on Accessing the Collection
Copyright and Rights Information
Most boxes are stored off-site microfilm must be used (3 reels at a time may be borrowed through inter-library loan )
A.J. Muste (1885-1967), born Abraham Johannes Muste in the province of Zeeland, the Netherlands, came to the United States in 1891 when the Muste family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 1909, Muste was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, but later (1917), he became a member of the Society of Friends. During World War I, Muste's refusal to abandon his pacifist position led to his forced resignation from the Central Congregational Church in Newtonville, Massachusetts.
Muste's involvement as a labor organizer began in 1919 when he led strikes in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. He became the director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, remaining there until 1931. Muste served as national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1926 to 1929. He was one of the founders of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) in 1929, and in 1934 he facilitated the merger of the CPLA with the Trotskyists to form the short-lived Workers Party of America. Muste was director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple from 1937-1940. In 1940 he became executive director of the FOR, a position he held until his retirement in 1953, when he was made director emeritus. From 1948-1953, he served as secretary of the Ohio Peacemakers, a radical pacifist group. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the War Resisters League, one of the international chairmen of the World Peace Brigade, and helped organize the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA). Muste later served as chairman of the CNVA. For several years he served as the editor of Liberation magazine.
Throughout his "retirement," Muste devoted his considerable energies to the civil rights and peace movements. In the early 1960s, he had devoted much of his attention to the development of a radical, politically relevant, nonviolent movement. With the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964-1965, Muste played a major role in organizing rallies, vigils and marches to protest the expanding involvement of U.S. military forces. In 1966, Muste went to Saigon with five other pacifists. In the following year he went to Hanoi to meet with leaders there to find an insight into ways to end the war. At the time of his death in February 1967 he was the founding chairman of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
A.J. Muste (1885-1967), was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, but later (1917), he became a member of the Society of Friends. During World War I, Muste's refusal to abandon his pacifist position led to his forced resignation from the Central Congregational Church in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Muste's involvement as a labor organizer began in 1919 when he led strikes in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. He became the director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, remaining there until 1931. He then served as national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1926 to 1929. Muste was director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple from 1937-1940. In 1940 he became executive director of the FOR, a position he held until his retirement in 1953, when he was made director emeritus. From 1948-1953, he served as secretary of the Ohio Peacemakers, a radical pacifist group. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the War Resisters League, one of the international chairmen of the World Peace Brigade, and helped organize the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA). Muste later served as chairman of the CNVA. For several years he served as the editor of Liberation magazine.. In the early 1960s, he had devoted much of his attention to the development of a radical, politically relevant, nonviolent movement. With the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1964-1965, Muste played a major role in organizing rallies, vigils and marches to protest the expanding involvement of U.S. military forces. In 1966, Muste went to Saigon with five other pacifists. In the following year he went to Hanoi to meet with leaders there to find an insight into ways to end the war. At the time of his death in February 1967 he was the founding chairman of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
The A.J. Muste Papers are arranged into four sections according to when the Peace Collection received the material. The first, and largest, section contains biographical and family materials, speeches, writings by and about Muste, and extensive correspondence about many activities and organizations. The material in this section begins in 1905 and extends until Muste's death in 1967.
Supplement #1 came to the Peace Collection in 1968-1969 and consists of six boxes of material. Included in this section are reports , memos and articles written by and about Muste, correspondence (1958-1966), material on some of the various projects with which Muste was involved in the 1960s, and a scrapbook. The overall dates for this section are 1956-1967.
Supplement #2 consists of a small amount of correspondence, writings, and newspaper clippings about Muste's activities in 1966-1967. This section also includes notices, articles, and tributes about Muste's death in 1967. The overall dates for this section are 1938-1967.
Supplement #3 came to the Peace Collection from the New York office of the War Resisters League in 1969 and 1979. The bulk of the material is correspondence from Muste to others (1962-1966) filed by subject, as Muste kept it. There is also some biographical material, writings, and general correspondence. The dates for this section are 1954-1965.
Later Accessions have been removed from the papers of various individuals and the records of various organizations because they relate to A.J. Muste's correspondence, writings or involvements. They were processed in 2010 into two boxes. The 2011 accession from Muste biographer, JoAnn Robinson, was placed in box 2 of these later accessions. A folder has been placed at the end of box 2 for future re-file material, since the rest of the collection is off-site.
As these papers have been microfilmed at different times, researchers need to search in each separate section of the papers for a particular topic.
Muste and King
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among those inspired by A.J. Muste. King was a student in the audience when Muste spoke at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1949, and later recalled the encounter’s significance in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
Writing in the chapter “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King said, “During my stay at Crozer, I was also exposed for the first time to the pacifist position in a lecture by Dr. A.J. Muste. I was deeply moved by Dr. Muste’s talk, but far from convinced of the practicability of his position.” (King went on to explain that his subsequent study of Gandhi revised his view on the viability: “It was in [the] Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.”)
King and Muste — who has been called “the American Gandhi” — remained in contact through the years. They corresponded in the 1950s and 1960s, and King was the featured speaker during a 1959 War Resisters League dinner held to honor Muste. Following Muste’s death, King noted, “the whole world should mourn the death of this peacemaker, for we desperately need his sane and sober spirit in our time.”
Who Was A. J. Muste?
Tell me you’ve heard of him: Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967), labor leader, world-renowned pacifist, and probably Hope’s most famous alumnus.
Born in the Netherlands, Muste immigrated to Grand Rapids with his family in 1891. He graduated from Hope College in 1905: valedictorian, captain of the basketball team, president of his fraternity (the Fraters, of course), and already an acclaimed orator. He studied at New Brunswick Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in the Reformed Church in America in 1909. From there, he served the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York City, but found himself increasing uncomfortable with the doctrines of Calvinism, and moved on to a Congregational Church near Boston.
The year 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, was a dramatic watershed for the young man: despite social pressures around him, he adopted a position of radical pacifism.
Muste had already joined over sixty fellow pacifists to found the American wing of the international Fellowship of Reconciliation. Next, abandoning his pulpit, he turned toward labor organization as a theater where his commitment to issues of peace and justice could find expression.
In 1921, he became educational director of the Brookwood Labor College in New York and laid foundations for the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. Frustrated with the church, he was drawn for a time to Communism, even visiting the noted Marxist Leon Trotsky in 1936. “What could one say to the unemployed and the unorganized who were betrayed and shot down when they protested”? he asked himself. “What did one point out to them? Well, not the Church … you saw that it was the radicals, the Left-wingers, the people who had adopted some form of Marxian philosophy, who were doing something about the situation.”
And yet A. J. didn’t have it in him to stay away from Christianity for very long. That same year he wandered into the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris and experienced a reconversion: “Without the slightest premonition of what was going to happen, I was saying to myself: ‘This is where you belong.’” On his return to the United States, Muste headed the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York and then became Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In 1949 a very young Martin Luther King, Jr., then at student at Crozer Seminary, heard Muste lecture on non-violent resistance. It may even be fair to say that King would not have achieved his ambitions had he not had Muste as an example.
In his years of “retirement,” Muste was more vigorous than ever, participating in a string of activities: the anti-nuclear walk to Mead Airforce Base, where the seventy-five-year old climbed over the fence into the grounds the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace, the Quebec-Guantanamo Peace Walk, the Nashville-Washington Walk, and the Sahara Project to oppose nuclear testing in Africa.
In 1966, in the heat of the Vietnam War, he led a group to Saigon, where he was immediately deported, but shortly thereafter flew to Hanoi to meet Ho Chi Minh. Less than a month later Muste died of an aneurysm. The great American linguist, philosopher, and social critic Noam Chomsky called Muste “one of the most significant twentieth-century figures, an unsung hero.”
During the summer of 2017, I had the great privilege of accompanying David Schock on a series of cross-country trips to interview and record the memories of people who knew A. J. or had written about him. It was an unforgettable experience, and the footage is priceless. We heard the stories—often expressed in tears—of working with Muste, observing his deft administration, and wondering at his dedication. What is the cost of a life like Muste’s, a life that so realizes the imitatio Christi?
Surely Muste paid a price: his family’s finances were chronically precarious, he was often away from home, and he endured the suspicion of many with whom he had grown up. One person we interviewed estimated that Muste had probably owned no more than four suits in his entire life, and his shoes often revealed patches in the soles.
Yet Muste was a happy man. I love this story from his co-worker Barbara Deming, who was with him when he was arrested in Vietnam: “None of us had any idea how rough they might be,” she recalled, “and A. J. looked so very frail.” She went on: “I looked across the room at A. J. to see how he was doing. He looked back with a sparkling smile and, with that sudden light in his eyes which so many of his friends will remember, he said, ‘It’s a good life!’”
Though Muste wasn’t an English major, he was a lover of poetry, so it seems fitting to end with some of the lines that most inspired him. These words, from Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great,” were read at his memorial service: “I think continually of those who were truly great. / Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history / Through corridors of life, where the hours are suns, / Endless and singing.”
Visit Digital Holland for a timeline of Muste’s life, and be sure to check out Hope’s A. J. Muste Web page.
A.J. Muste the Protestant SaintAbraham Johannes Muste, AJ to friends, January 8, 1885 Zierkzee, The Netherlands to February 11, 1967 New York City
He introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the theory and practice of non violent civil disobedience.
In 1947 he organized the “Journey of Reconciliation” during which blacks and whites sat together on Greyhound buses traveling through the South. That “Journey” served as the model for the civil rights movement’s “Freedom Rides” in 1961.
He was lead organizer of the first mass protest against the Vietnam War. The march from Central Park to the United Nations on Tax Day, April 15, 1967 was at the time the largest demonstration in U.S. history.
He served as spokesperson for the mostly immigrant workers during the historic Lawrence, MS textile mill strike of 1919.
Following the gains made by the Lawrence workers, he served as the first head of the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union until 1921. In the position, he supported organizing nearly weekly strikes at mills across the U.S.
He trained union organizers as education director of the Brookwood Labor College from 1921 to 1933.
When he died in 1967, obituaries referred to him as the “American Gandhi”.
If you haven’t named who “he” is you are not alone. Few people in churches, or outside them, in the U.S. know about the contributions of Abraham Johannes Muste to the labor and peacemaking movements in the U.S. Yet Muste would be a candidate for sainthood if there were saints in Protestant Christianity. He served the Church as a clergy member in four different U.S. Protestant denominations but his call eventually led him to leadership in the labor and peace movements of his adopted country. Until his death in 1967, Muste remained a radical practitioner of the theology of the “Social Gospel”.
In the first congregation he served, he opposed U.S. entry into the First World War and, against the wishes of many in the congregation, resigned. From the crucible of the WW I era to the end of his life, he helped organize mass actions of civil disobedience in resistance to U.S. warfare and militarism. Muste was the first to declare, “There is no way to peace peace is the way”. Another Muste saying, often attributed to others, he coined as an early protestor of the Vietnam War. During a White House vigil in a rain storm, someone asked him if he really thought he was going to change U.S. policy that way, he responded, “I’m not out here to change U.S. policies. I’m here to make sure they don’t change me.”
Like no other American Christian of the 20 th Century AJ Muste lived out his faith in the nation’s public sphere. In his work and writing, he adhered to the values of the Sermon on the Mount and chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. His radical pacifism grew out of his devotion to living by the roots of the Christian faith. Muste believed that as Christians we are all called to be “Saints for This Age”. While he based this conviction on the lives of the first Christians as reported in The New Testament, his passion for social change was also fired by the horrors of 20 th Century militarism and by the example of radical leftists in the labor movement.
In the 1962 essay titled “Saints for This Age”, Muste wrote “It was on the Left – and here the ‘Communists of the period cannot be excluded – that one found people who were truly ‘religious’ in the sense that they were completely committed, they were betting their lives on the cause they embraced. Often they gave up ordinary comforts, security, life itself, with a burning devotion which few Christians display toward the Christ whom they profess as Lord and incarnation of God.” In the next paragraph, he contrasts the “liberal” Christians who professed the “Social Gospel” with these non-Christian radical leftists.
“The Left had the vision, the dream, of a classless and warless world, as the hackneyed phrase goes…..Here was the fellowship drawn together and drawn forward by the Judeo-Christian prophetic vision of a ‘new earth in which righteousness dwelleth’. The now generally despised Christian liberals had had this vision. The liberal Christians were never, in my opinion, wrong in cherishing the vision. Their mistake, and in a sense, their crime, was not to see that it was revolutionary in character and demanded revolutionary living and action of those who claimed to be its votaries.”
Christian faith, and the first Christians who modeled faith for AJ Muste, was profoundly counter-cultural. “I spoke of the early Christians as having ‘broken loose’. They understood that for all its size, seeming stability and power, the ‘world’, the ‘age’ in which they lived was ephemeral, weak, doomed…..They had therefore turned their backs on it, did not give it their ultimate allegiance, were not intimidated by what it could do to them, and did not seek satisfaction and security within its structure, under its standards. They were loose – not tied to ‘business as usual’.” Muste himself was not “tied to ‘business as usual’” and will serve Christianity and humanity as a “saint” for this and for ages to come.