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Clarence Pickett

Photo: Archives / AFSC

Creating a vital force for peace and justice

By Greg Elliott

Before becoming AFSC’s executive secretary in 1929, Clarence Pickett was an Earlham College professor and pastor whose views on racism, capitalism, and the Christian Gospel were considered too radical by many Friends of the time. When Earlham hesitated on whether to keep him on staff, Clarence answered the call to become the next executive head of AFSC.

AFSC was in a time of transition in 1929. After its work during World War I and in the years that followed, the Service Committee considered laying down its activities until a new military conflict presented itself. Instead, AFSC opted for a total reorganization, and its new board chairperson, Henry Cadbury, chose Clarence to succeed outgoing Executive Secretary Wilbur Thomas.

Although Clarence had worked with AFSC over the years, when he began his 22 years as executive secretary—the longest tenure of any executive (or general) secretary—he had no administrative experience. He was chosen because of his deep religious and moral convictions on racial injustice, capitalist exploitation, and warfare, and his extensive work with young adults at both the Five Years Meeting and at Earlham College.

Under his leadership, AFSC grew in ways that would have seemed unimaginable to the previous generation. The organization went from being a small, mostly Quaker, mostly volunteer organization to one of the leading voices on peace and social justice around the world. During his tenure, AFSC worked in more than 20 countries, providing direct aid, organizing refugee resettlement, and addressing the effects of war, while domestically focusing on labor rights, housing, discrimination, and a myriad of other programs, including generations of work camps that were transformative experiences for many participants. Clarence also sought to influence world leaders toward peace and justice and counted Eleanor Roosevelt as a close personal friend.

Through all this, he remained humble. Somewhat famously, after AFSC and its British counterpart were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947, Clarence faced his excited staff and asked for some silent worship to reflect on the phrase, “Beware when all men speak well of you!”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited all the Nobel Prize winners from the U.S. and Canada, past and present, to the White House for a gala affair. On the morning of the event, a group of Quakers marched in front of the White House, demanding an end to the nuclear arms race. Among them was Clarence. Later that evening, when Clarence joined other invited guests at the White House event, the significance of his protest was not lost on the president. It was this level of integrity and willingness to “speak truth to power” that guided Clarence’s actions throughout his life.

Clarence positioned AFSC to be a vital force for peace and justice through embracing youth leadership and development, collaboration with partner organizations, valuing collective wisdom, addressing the root causes of war, and living out the radical roots of Quakerism. It was his vision, conviction, and leadership that laid the foundation for the AFSC that we know today

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