A.J. Muste (1885-1967) was an American political activist, labor organizer, pastor and writer. Known as the “American Gandhi”, he was the foremost pacifist in the United States in the 20th century. He believed in an active and creative nonviolence that focused on justice. While his tactics varied, he came to base this on mass non-violent movements. Muste was active in the labor movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He created or participated in several other organizations, as well: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, the Committee for Non-Violent Action, SANE, and Clergy and Laity Concerned. An early opponent of the Vietnam War, he was the founding chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. He was also a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin, both of whom were introduced to nonviolent philosophy and strategy by him.
Muste wrote prolifically on nonviolence. Among his books were Nonviolence in an Aggressive World, Not by Might and The Essays of A. J. Muste. He also co-founded Liberation, a magazine for pacifists, and he co-wrote Speak Truth to Power and Peace in Vietnam, American Friends Service Committee pamphlets. As well, he wrote the Pendle Hill pamphlets The World Task of Pacifism, War Is the Enemy, Of Holy Disobedience and Saints for This Age.
Muste became a Quaker in 1918. He had been horrified by the First World War, prompting him to seek a new spiritual home. He was also influenced by reading the works of George Fox, John Woolman and Rufus Jones. Previously a pastor in in the Dutch Reformed Church and then in the Congregationalist Church, he was enrolled as a Friends minister at the Providence (NEYM) Meeting. In 1927 he transferred his membership to Croton Valley (NYYM) Meeting. He spoke frequently at Pendle Hill and at Yearly Meetings, sometimes criticizing Friends for their isolation from the world and their withdrawal from the Peace Testimony. Muste was usually active as a Quaker in a leadership role in peace and justice organizations, rather than in Friends Meetings. For example, he served as the first chairman of the American Friends Service Committee and was the Director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple. His membership in Croton Valley Meeting was discontinued in 1960, though it is unclear whether he was notified. Muste, however, always identified himself a Friend. His sense of the Inner Light was so important to him that he always acted upon it, especially in his political work.
I have always admired A.J. and participated in many Mobe marches during the Vietnam War. His blend of the mystical and the practical was very moving to me (and very Quaker).
“There is no way to peace; peace is the way”.
“If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all”. (Spoken at a Quaker Meeting).
“In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist”.
(Above is a photo of Muste with fellow activists at a CNVA protest at the Atomic Energy Commission in August 1963).