Supporting struggles for justice
By Joyce Miller and Mary Norris
For nearly 40 years, Barbara Moffett was the director of AFSC’s National Community Relations Division, shaping much of the organization’s work on civil and human rights and economic justice until she died in 1994.
We had the good fortune to work with her as AFSC staff members in that time.
Under Barbara’s leadership, the division supported local leaders and people in poor and marginalized communities throughout the U.S., serving as a resource in the movement for civil rights as well as in struggles for the rights of Native Americans, immigrants, prisoners, farm workers, LGBT people, and the list goes on. These struggles often overlapped, and the need for economic justice pervaded many of them.
Barbara was key in developing AFSC’s approach to all of this work. During her tenure, AFSC defined itself as an organization that didn’t lead movements against oppression but rather quietly supported individuals and communities in their struggles. She ensured that AFSC’s advocacy work grew from the needs and experiences expressed by community members—helping to strengthen AFSC’s reputation for respecting local people and their efforts, embodying integrity and consistency, and often affecting broad public policy.
A former newspaper reporter, Barbara was skilled at building relationships with a range of coalitions, organizations, and individuals, which were critical to AFSC’s contributions to movements and communities.
In 1963, Barbara was instrumental in one of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement. Andrew Young, a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, asked Barbara if AFSC would print a letter written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was in jail in Alabama. A group of white clergymen had openly criticized his controversial tactics, and, in response, Dr.
King had written a letter that outlined why nonviolent direct action was often the only way to open hearts to change.
At Barbara’s urging, AFSC’s board agreed to print 10,000 copies of “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which became a seminal document in the Civil Rights Movement and galvanized the religious community to action.
With Barbara’s guidance, AFSC also supported labor leader Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers; deepened its work with Native tribes and people in the U.S.; and provided resources to the Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Dr. King to gain economic justice.
There are hundreds of other examples of Barbara’s influence on AFSC’s social and economic justice work in the U.S. as well as on the internal workings and governance of the organization.
In talking with some of our former colleagues about Barbara, one former AFSC staff member told us, “Above all, Barbara knew her staff and her colleagues, knew our strengths and foibles, and let us know her. She knew she had privilege and power and did not shrink from that knowledge. Instead she learned how to use it to forward justice and support the struggles of many individuals and groups as they organized for change. “Barbara was a wise, funny, strategic-thinking, warm, strong woman. The world needs more like her.”