This week the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), founded in 1917, turns 100 years old. AFSC is a Quaker organization that promotes peace with justice as a practical expression of faith in action. Throughout its history AFSC has worked with people of many backgrounds on all continents to nurture the seeds of change to transform social relations and systems.
In keeping with Quaker values, AFSC respects the worth, dignity, and equality of all, regarding no person as an enemy. Rather, while often opposing specific actions and abuses of power, AFSC members seek to call forth the goodness and truth in each individual. Active nonviolence is an abiding principle as a challenge to injustice and violence and a force for reconciliation. Stressing humility in partnering with different communities, AFSC says, “We accept our understandings of truth as incomplete and have faith that new perceptions of truth will continue to be revealed.”
AFSC was founded in Philadelphia in response to an urgent need for conscientious objectors to find alternatives to military service during World War I. Soon after the war ended, AFSC created a program to feed thousands of children in war-torn Germany and Austria.
At home, AFSC helped Appalachian coal miners to take up furniture making and other trades, and sponsored integrated camps in the South. AFSC spoke out against the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which barred immigration from Japan. They published “Exclusion: Its Cause and Cure,” which outlined the roots of racism and cited contributions that Japanese-Americans had made to the U.S. economy.
In the lead-up to WWII, AFSC helped to release persecuted Jews in Europe and successfully maintained offices in Europe throughout the war. In 1941 AFSC was one of the few civic organizations to publicly oppose the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans. Their members visited the internment camps regularly and helped to secure the release of more than 4000 individuals. In 1947, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to AFSC and the British Friends Service Council, honoring the Quakers’ worldwide efforts to oppose war and heal the divides between peoples.
In the 1950s and ’60s AFSC committed itself wholeheartedly to the civil rights struggle. In 1959 they sponsored the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King on a visit to India, which connected them to people and places associated with Mahatma Gandhi and strengthened their commitment to nonviolent action. A year later they were helping to organize classes for black students shut out of the school system in Prince Edward County, Va., which had been ordered to desegregate. In 1963 AFSC published King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” an urgent appeal to people of faith not to delay any longer their embrace of full civil rights for all Americans.
Prominent African American leader Bayard Rustin, head organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was an AFSC activist for many years, and helped as a liaison between the Quaker community and the civil rights movement.
In the Vietnam War era, AFSC sponsored fact-finding missions to the country, helping to build support for an end to the war. They also set up medical clinics to provide aid to civilians on all sides of the conflict.
AFSC has not shied away from controversial topics, being one of the earliest U.S. organizations calling for Palestinian rights, helping to create the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, the boycott of Coca-Cola over its Africa policies, and an informational clearinghouse for LGBT youth.
In 1986 the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject went to Witness to War, a film produced by AFSC. It told the story of Dr. Charlie Clements, who, after being discharged from the U.S. Air Force for reasons of conscience, went on to work as a physician in the midst of El Salvador’s civil war.
As part of the 100th anniversary celebration, AFSC is hosting a summit articulating a vision for peace and justice by joining movements that are making the connection between militarism, racism, and materialism. It takes place the weekend of April 20-23 at the Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia. More on the Summit here.
In addition, a traveling exhibit, “Waging Peace: 100 Years of Action,” demonstrates the effectiveness of nonviolence to build justice, overcome oppression and prevent violence, using the provocative stories of those who campaigned against injustice and those who have been helped in the struggle during the last century. The exhibit addresses issues we continue to grapple with today: building peace, ending discrimination, prison reform, just economies, and immigrant rights, among others. The final section is a Call to Action, inspiring visitors to engage in justice work beyond the museum. More on Waging Peace here.
On to a second century of activism for peace and justice!