Milton Mayer (1908-1986) was an American journalist, author, teacher and activist. He was best-known for his column in the Progressive magazine. He was also a reporter for the Associated Press, the Chicago Evening Post and the Chicago American. His books included They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45; Man v. the State; Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir; and Conscience and the Commonwealth; his articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Friends Journal, Christian Century, the Nation and Life. Mayer taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Louisville and William Penn College. He was a consultant to the Center for Democratic Studies. For his journalism he won the George Polk Memorial Award and the Benjamin Franklin Citation for Journalism.
Mayer was a life-long activist. He sought a moral revolution, rather than a political one. He focused especially on the threat that authority of any kind posed to the individual, calling for resistance to evil-doing the moment it was recognized. During World War Two he considered himself a conscientious objector. In 1963, after being denied a passport because he refused to sign a loyalty oath, he sued the U.S. government in the Supreme Court. He won the case, receiving the passport and striking down the law. In 1968, in response to the Vietnam War, he signed the “Writer and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge and became a war tax resister. He was also a member of the War Resisters League.
Mayer was raised in reform Judaism. In 1945, in Pittsburgh, he attended his first Friends Meeting. (He wrote an article about it called “Sit Down and Shut Up”, noting that he made himself remain seated and listen to the ministry, rather than get up and start orating). Later he became a Friend while living in Germany. He said he liked Friends’ acceptance of African-Americans; openness to everyone in ministry; rejection of sacraments; and work for peace. He was troubled though, by Friends’ materialism and their failure to recognize people’s potential for evil. He also feared that Quakers had become assimilated into society to the extent that they had no problems participating in war or racism. In line with his belief in resistance to authority, he also questioned Quaker organizations, such as Friends Journal and the American Friends Service Committee. He never rejected his Jewish background but rather blended it with Quakerism, calling himself “a Jewish Quaker by profession”. Mayer was active with the American Friends Service Committee. Along with Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, Clarence Pickett and others, he belonged to the committee that wrote the AFSC pamphlet Speak Truth to Power. He is credited with coming up with the title, a phrase which is now widely used. (Some scholars, however, attribute it to Rustin).
Milton Mayer has perhaps been forgotten these days. He should be better-known. Though I do not always agree with what he had to say, he remains a valuable voice among Friends.