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Abraham Muste

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One of my heroes is Abraham Muste.

He 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, New York. He also joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and in 1940 was appointed executive secretary of the organization. In this position Muste led the campaign against United States involvement in the Second World War.

As executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste helped James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to establish the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. Early members included George Houser, James Farmer, Anna Murray and Bayard Rustin. 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.

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.

Although Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was against this kind of direct action, he volunteered the service of its southern attorneys during the campaign. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the Journey of Reconciliation and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."

The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Joseph Felmet, 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 niggers 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 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.

James Farmer became National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1953 and he helped organize student sit-ins during 1961. Within six months these sit-ins had ended restaurant and lunch-counter segregation in twenty-six southern cities. Student sit-ins were also successful against segregation in public parks, swimming pools, theaters, churches, libraries, museums and beaches.

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. By 1961 CORE 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.

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.

Muste established 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.


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