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AFSC's Civil Rights Efforts, 1925-1950

Participants hold an outdoor discussion at the Community Unity Conference
Participants hold an outdoor discussion at the Community Unity Conference in Little Rock in 1966. Photo: / AFSC

Long before the Civil Rights Movement, the AFSC identified interracial tensions as an underlying injustice in U.S. culture, causing immense suffering and potentially leading to violence. That is why the AFSC set to work on this issue as early as 1925 and continues to this day. Intervening decades have proved how right this assessment was, with internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, intentional disenfranchisement of Native Americans resulting in widespread poverty and cultural annihilation, and the heavy-handed treatment of Latino immigrants at the Mexico-U.S. border.

Perhaps the most explosive example of how racial injustice can erupt were the race riots of the 1960s, which forced the country to confront this issue. The AFSC's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is one of the organization's most important pieces of work, but the effort began much earlier in the century. Those earliest efforts are virtually unknown but remarkable for their insight and commitment.

Here are a few examples:

Partly in response to the 1924 Immigration Act, the AFSC's first interracial work brought several Japanese students to the United States to study. In addition, a Japanese Friend was invited to travel in the United States and talk with U.S. Friends in the hope this would foster better relations between Japan and the United States.

Mexican migration to the United States was also creating strained relations. The AFSC identified opportunities in Mexico where young Americans could serve to bring about better understanding between both peoples.

In 1927, the AFSC hired Crystal Bird, a young African American woman, to speak at public forums, before college and high school students, and in churches, informing white Americans about racial issues and how people of her race felt about them.

During this period, the AFSC also made indirect efforts to address racial segregation and the lynchings that were taking place. With leadership from the two yearly meetings (regional Quaker organizations) in Philadelphia, the AFSC sponsored an annual summer Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College from 1933 to 1941. These were the Service Committee's first efforts to learn about the problems of race relations. The AFSC established a work camp program during the middle 1930s, and made efforts to integrate these groups, including success at several work camp sites in the South.

During World War II, the shortage of industrial workers changed the national employment scene. As African Americans migrated to the North for war-related jobs, racial tensions heightened and riots broke out. One of the worst riots occurred in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943. Later that summer the AFSC established a work camp at Willow Run, Michigan, where a rapidly expanded war plant had led to overcrowding and inadequate housing. Feelings ranged from lack of community spirit to deep racial antagonism. The AFSC's integrated work camp made an impression on the larger community, illustrating how cooperation between people of different races could result in accomplishments

During the same period, the AFSC operated another work camp at Flanner House, an African American community and social service center in Indianapolis, Indiana. Work campers helped clean and prepare bricks from a demolished building to be used in a new facility to hold some of Flanner House's activities. A year-round work camp helped expand the center, eventually leading to a major construction project of new homes in the severely depressed area. The AFSC contributed seed money and helped find grant money for the project, which lasted well beyond the end of World War II.

As the war drew to a close, the AFSC set up a Race Relations Department, appointing James Fleming as executive director-the first African American to hold an executive position in the AFSC. He had worked with the Fair Employment Practices Committee for the Middle Atlantic States, which ordered the hiring of African Americans as trolley and subway operators in Philadelphia, precipitating a strike. Under his leadership, the department continued several projects that were underway. Two in particular had long-term implications: (1) A placement service encouraged businesses to hire minorities in jobs from which they were previously excluded. (2) A lectureship program brought African American professors from black colleges to speak at white institutions, and some were eventually invited to fill openings in those institutions.

The AFSC became even more involved in civil rights after World War II due to a changing cultural perspective. After all, if the long and costly war had been fought to free people abroad from oppression, then freedom should be available to all who lived in the United States. A statement by the AFSC at the time concluded: "The actual amount [we have] been able to do to alleviate conditions of people who are penalized for their race or creed or to ease hearts over-charged with resentment, loneliness, or fear, is no more than a drop in a mammoth bucket. No serious attempt, however, to improve the feeling between one race and another is negligible…."

Written by Jack Sutters, September 2001

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