Allan Austin on Quaker Interracial Activism, Part 2

Karen Johnson

Today concludes my mini-series on Allan Austin's book Quaker Brotherhood: Interracial Activism and the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1950, a fascinating look at the ways Quakers facilitated interracial activism in the first half of the twentieth century.  You can check out the first half the interview here, and my post comparing Quaker and Catholic interracial activists here.  Austin's work adds to our knowledge of religion in the long civil rights movement further and lays the groundwork for future research on Quakers, race, and civil rights.

KJ: Quakers consistently added non-Quakers to the staff of the AFSC.  Did they have a theological justification for this?  Or was the decision more tactical?

AA: One of the ongoing issues for the AFSC from its start, the addition of non-Friends to the AFSC staff was done, as best I can tell, out of very practical concerns.  As you note, as the AFSC became more deeply involved in what they came to see as more complicated problems (than they had perhaps at first imagined), leaders came to understand that amateurs could not always carry out such work effectively.  Given the relatively small number of Quakers, it’s not all that surprising that they had to find people outside the Religious Society of Friends to meet their perceived needs. I didn’t come across any real evidence of theology driving this decision, but one supposes that a belief in the Inner Light—shared by all individuals—may have made Friends more open than others to working with people who, while officially not members of the Religious Society of Friends, shared their basic principles and goals.

KJ: Tell me more about the paternalism embedded in the AFSC's activism. I'm thinking about the AFSC's attempts to assimilate Japanese Americans, paternalism at the Indianapolis settlement house meant to help black migrants adjust to city life, and the limitations on the positions African Americans could hold in the organization.  To what extent was the activists' project a racial uplift one?

AA: Quakers undoubtedly at times fell short of their grand ambitions, and this is probably not all that surprising.  The AFSC and Friendly activists made important contributions to improving race relations, and their successes should not be sold short, but Friends were, after all, human beings.  As such—despite their praiseworthy objectives—some at times found it difficult to escape the prejudices of the broader secular society in which they had been born and raised.  I hope that Quaker Brotherhood makes this point clearly: history isn’t populated by heroes and villains, purely praiseworthy and noble champions of justice facing down thoroughly black-hearted rogues intent only on hurting others.  Understanding all religious activists in this way paints a more accurate picture of the ways in which even the best of intentions can lead to less-than-perfect results.

The first example you cite is particularly instructive. As the government worked to resettle imprisoned Japanese Americans from concentration camps, it turned to Quakers to facilitate this unpopular wartime work.  The government bureaucrats running the camps—many of them self-professed liberals, I should note—saw the resettlement of Japanese Americans in the Midwest and East as a way to forcibly assimilate Japanese Americans, which they paternalistically saw as a positive good.  As Friends got involved in resettlement work, they divided over the best path for Japanese Americans.  Some agreed with the government, hoping that resettlement would help Japanese Americans become part of the mainstream and thus escape their second-class citizenship.  Others, however, expressed unhappiness with and even opposition to such policies, seeing this paternalism as racist, and instead urged resettled Japanese Americans do as they saw best once beyond the control of the government.  Friends, it not so surprisingly turns out, didn’t all agree, and these disagreements had not been solved by war’s end.

In a similar way, the AFSC struggled from almost the very start to integrate African Americans into its work.  While certainly wishing for better interracial relations, Quaker activists failed to see their own shortcomings at times.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson, hired to run the American Interracial Peace Committee in the late 1920s, understood this all too well, being called in for any number of “race” issues brought to the AFSC, even if such problems did not fall within her job description.  Her race alone made her a prime candidate, in the AFSC’s eyes, to deal with race problems.  This problem didn’t go away, either, as Quakers failed to see their own latent racism, grounded in beliefs and outlooks that limited their ability at times to engage African Americans as equals.

To address the second question a bit here, as I think makes sense, such shortcomings ought to remind us to guard against what we might think of as a Quaker—or even Christian or religious?—exceptionalism.  Friends deserve tremendous praise for taking unpopular stands and working for interracial equality throughout their history, but that does not make them flawless heroes or even all that different from their contemporaries, who struggled with similar issues.  From our perspective today, their best efforts might make us wince at times, but given the context of the times and the severity of the problems faced, it seems only fair to try to understand—even while critiquing—such limits on interracial activism.

KJ: Why stop in 1950?

AA: I get this question a lot, and it suggests a truth that I guess I have to live with: this book is hardly the final word on Quaker interracial activism in the 20th century.  When I started the book, I imagined a history that would cover the 20th century, but the richness of the archival holdings quickly disabused me of that idea. The story in the first half of the century was just too big and, I hope, too important to just skim by in a harried attempt to get to the postwar Civil Rights Movement.  I hope that Quaker Brotherhood sets the stage for future studies of Quakers and race in the 20th century.  We know so much more about Friendly abolitionism than we do more recent (or even post-Civil War) interracial activism, and if my book encourages future work or raises questions that push scholars of Quakers into the 20th century in new, sustained ways, I’ll be pretty happy.


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