Interview with Allan Austin 20th Century Quaker Interracial Activism

Karen Johnson

I'm honored to post the first half of an interview with Allan Austin about his book Quaker Brotherhood:Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950.  In his book, Austin traces Quakers' efforts to pursue what they called "the friendly principle of brotherhood," moving our knowledge of the Quakers' work for racial justice into the twentieth century and demonstrating the fascinating ways that race and religion intersected in the long civil rights movement. If this interview intrigues you, you can check out my post from last month in which I compare and contrast Quaker and Catholic interracial activists.

KJ: What were supporters of the AFSC pursuing?Did their goal change over time?

AA: From the start, Quakers in the AFSC wanted to pursue what one activist identified (in 1925) as “the friendly principle of brotherhood,” and this ideal remained a fairly constant, if vaguely defined, goal as the Service Committee sought out ways to engage interracial reform in the United States. But, in part because the principle was fairly amorphous, AFSC programming tended to move in different directions in fits and starts, especially in the first years.

Early activists rushed ahead with programs grounded in a powerful, if simple, idea: interracial interactions would help people of different racial groups better understand each other and, in the process, rehabilitate racist whites. This kind of thinking resulted in the sponsorship of visiting Japanese college students, who could serve as ambassadors or bridges between American and Japanese citizens, as well as efforts to introduce whites to African Americans (via tours of African American life in Philadelphia or the hiring of an African American speaker to hit the road and meet whites).When these projects lost steam after a few years, the Service Committee boldly struck out in another direction, creating the American Interracial Peace Committee, which ambitiously attempted to conquer racism and war simultaneously.

All this (mostly failed) activity—and the onset of the Great Depression, which further crippled an already financially stressed organization—moved the Service Committee to establish the Institute of Race Relations in the 1930s, a relatively inexpensive annual undertaking that allowed activists time and space to think through the philosophy underpinning their programming. Here, as Quakers came into contact with some leading social scientists of the day, Friends were introduced to scholarship that fit well, I think, with their theology. The social scientists’ argument that human nature could be molded (as it was determined not by race but instead by environment) paralleled the Quakers’ faith in reforming individuals, and this in turn encouraged AFSC activists to see systemic problems that needed to be addressed alongside individual prejudice.

World War II then pushed Friends to act again—sometimes reactively as opposed to proactively—but they entered the postwar world well prepared to act upon their new convictions, a reality reflected by their new “oblique” approach to fixing racism by not focusing solely (or even directly) upon it; instead, they would work with communities in various ways to build a more egalitarian world. In this way, Friends in the Service Committee put aside the old idea of “race relations” and began talking of “community relations” instead. Whatever the changes, however, it strikes me that Quakers in the AFSC continued to pursue, in one way or another, the long-held objective of realizing “the friendly principle of brotherhood.”

KJ: How did Quaker theology support interracial activism?

AA: The Quaker belief in the Inner Light is foundational to Friendly activism in general and their interracial activism more specifically.The belief that all individuals possess the Inner Light—or “that of God within”—has historically led Friends to very egalitarian, and even radical, ideas about the world in which they live.Because Friends believe that there is God in every person, it follows that all humans share a fundamental equality.This understanding makes it difficult—at least in theory—for Quakers to continue to accept social hierarchies in the secular world.Such beliefs made Friends open to gender equality fairly early on; racial equality proved a bit more problematic, but at least some Quakers moved early on this issue, too. At its best,Quaker activism, grounded in the Inner Light, has pushed—often quite hard—to build a more just and egalitarian world.
KJ: How did Quaker theology hinder interracial activism? 

AA: This is an important question, given my answer to your previous query.Belief in the Inner Light can produce important progressive reform, but a religion formed around the Inner Light has some built-in problems, too.With each member listening to “that of God within,” how do the individuals who comprise a meeting find agreement on collective action? This finding of agreement—often referred to as finding the sense of the meeting—is complicated, transcending simpler (and secular) ideas of building consensus or majority rule.Once the sense of meeting is found, the results can be powerful, but often, it seems to me in thinking about Friendly racial activism, belief in the Inner Light encouraged action on the part of individual Friends, but the need to achieve a broad sense of the meeting also led to inaction on the part of corporate bodies of worship. This reality proved very frustrating to some Quakers, especially for those wanting quick action.

KJ: How does Quakers' emphasis on peace connect with their interracial activism? It seems that their focus on non-violence expanded the scope of their activism beyond a black/white binary. 

AA: The Peace Testimony, grounded again in the belief that all people are the children of God, leads Friends to seek to overcome evil with good, conflict with non-violence.At the heart of the Religious Society of Friends from its beginning, this testimony has driven much Quaker activism, and it interacted with desires for racial reforms in different ways. As your question notes, on the more positive side of the ledger, the Peace Testimony pushed Quakers to a broader, more ambitious program at times, for example with the American Interracial Peace Committee. I think it’s telling that the Service Committee’s first effort at anti-racism, the Interracial Section of the late 1920s, worked with Japanese students as well as African Americans.They did so, in part, because they understood racism as a global issue that, if “solved,” would play a key role in avoiding future international conflicts.

On the other hand, AFSC leaders, especially in the early years of the organization, often had trouble sorting out race and peace work when thinking about the organization of the Service Committee.  How could they draw sharp bureaucratic distinctions between projects that often quite naturally overlapped?  In this way, the ideals of the Quakers complicated their organizational framework and at times could work to impede the Service Committee’s effectiveness.

Thus, while the Friendly dedication to peace certainly helped to expand AFSC activism as it defined a broad and very complex issue, it also became a complicating factor at times as Friends tried to sort out their service in terms of organization.


Popular Posts