Some great figures from one era where shaped in an earlier time. Such is the case of A.J. Muste who played major roles in the 1930s labor movement and in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the years following World War II. But his earliest activism was developed during the period of World War I. What shaped him then rippled through the decades that followed.
Pastor, pacifist, labor movement activist and anti-war protestor
“There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
During World War I Abraham Johannes Muste was a pastor and a peace activist. Brought with his Dutch parents to the U.S. as a child, he was reared and educated in a strict Calvinist setting. While serving a church in Manhattan he was influenced by the “social gospel” and left his fundamentalist roots. He became pastor of an independent Congregational church in Massachusetts.
As the war raged in Europe in 1916, Muste—by now a committed pacifist—joined the newly-formed Fellowship of Reconciliation. When it became apparent that the U.S. was moving steadily towards entering the war Muste participated in a peace demonstration. His activism led to some members leaving his church. Then as the U.S. formally entered the war, Muste resigned his pastorate to engage in more peace work.
He volunteered with the Boston chapter of the Civil Liberties Bureau. Their main work was to provide legal aid for political and pacifist war resisters. Muste was swept up into the network of social radicals and their intense discussions about peace, politics, and social justice.
Following the end of the war Muste shifted to the labor movement. He became a leader in the famous 1919 Lawrence textile strike that lasted 16 months. Police brutality against the strikers was pervasive. Muste was clubbed by police so severely he couldn’t stand, then was hauled off to jail. After his release he found the police had installed machine guns around the strikers. He preached nonviolence, urging workers to “smile as we pass the machine guns and police.” The strike ended with significant gains for the workers and propelled Muste to national attention. He was elected Secretary of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America.
Through the 1920s and 1930s he continued his labor activism and also was a faculty member at Brookwood Labor College in New York. He got involved in labor politics. But in 1936 he returned to his Christian roots and pacifism. From 1940 to 1953 he was the Secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He taught nonviolence, becoming the mentor of Bayard Rustin who played a major role in shaping the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Muste continued his peace activism to the end of his days. As he turned 80 he was a regular presence in the protests against the war in Vietnam. He held regular candlelight vigils outside the White House, sometimes alone, whatever the weather. He was a bright light for all the movements for peace, civil rights, freedom and justice. Norman Thomas said Muste made a “remarkable effort to show that pacifism was by no means passivism and that there could be such a thing as a non-violent social revolution.”
World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. It obviously didn’t. But A.J. Muste, young peace activist who protested that war, spent the rest of his life seeking the end of all wars.