When A.J. Muste died at the age of 82 February 11, 1967 the most of the young Civil Rights activists in the South, student protestors on campuses nationwide, and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators crowding the streets had no idea who he was. But the frail old man spent the last two years of his life standing a lonely silent vigil in front of the White House holding a flickering candle almost every day in all kinds of weather and in his spare time building a coalition of anti-war groups, the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, that was organizing massive marches against the war in Washington, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. He had been an icon of the American Left, pacifism, Socialism, labor movement, and civil rights for over 50 years.
A long, unlikely journey had taken him from an impoverished childhood in the Netherlands, to one of the most theologically and political liberal arts colleges in the U.S., to playing a key role in dozens of dramatic causes and movements that represented resistance to oppression and injustice.
he Dutch port of Zierikzee, Muste's family home, by Max Clarenbach.
Abraham Johannes Muste was born January 8, 1885, in Zierikzee, a small port city of located in the Southwestern province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. His father, was a coachman who for a family of Zeeland’s hereditary nobility. But times were tough in Holland and opportunities for the working class limited so the family sailed for America where his wife already had relations in third class accommodations in 1891.
The mother became seriously ill on the cramped and rugged voyage and was detained at Ellis Island for deportation as unfit. She was kept in the dispensary for a month but finally made a full recovery and was released to join her family.
The family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a magnate for Dutch immigrants. The mother’s four brothers were already there and working in various small businesses. Father got work and the family joined the local Dutch Reform congregation a dour and strict bastion of Calvinism that was the anchoring center of both the community and the family. Even by the standards of American Protestantism at the time when modern Fundamentalism was in its infancy, it was one of the most conservative even reactionary denominations and congregations in the country.
The mostly working class Dutch were treated as cheap labor fodder for local industry including furniture manufacture, wagon making, and foundries using the taconite ore delivered from the Minnesota Iron Range via Lake Michigan. But unlike other ethnic immigrant workers, the Dutch were mostly docile, loyal to their employers, and firm believers in the Protestant work ethic. In politics they were staunch Republicans who despised Democrats and radicals of any kind.
When young A. J. turned 11 years old in 1896 he and the rest of his family became naturalized American citizens.
The Hope College campus as it looked around the time Muste attended. The still highly conservative Calvinist college does not brag much about it illustrious radical graduate.
The family prospered moderately, enough to send their bright son—the star pupil of the church Sunday School to the strict Calvinist bastion of Hope College in near-by Holland, Michigan. A.J. graduated early at the age of 20 in 1905 as class valedictorian after taking a year to save money teaching Latin and Greek at another mostly Dutch institution, Northwestern Classical Academy in Orange City, Iowa, he headed east to Dutch Reform’s most prestigious institution for the training of ministers, New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
That city, if not the institution he attended, was Muste’s first exposure to life outside of the confining cocoon if the Dutch community. For the first time he was exposed to people of different backgrounds and faiths. It was an eye-opening experience. Even more so were the additional classes he took in New York City in philosophy at New York University and Columbia University. There he attended lectures by William James whose work on the varieties of religious experience was revelatory and met John Dewey, who became a friend and important mentor.
He was beginning to doubt the assured inerrancy of his Calvinist upbringing, but not his underlying Christian faith. Under the influence of the Social Gospel movement, however, he began to see the teachings of Christ to be a call to service and support for the poor. None-the-less Muste thought that he must remain true to his call to the ministry. Upon his graduation from New Brunswick he married his old Hope College sweetheart and took up the offer of the prestigious pulpit of Ft. Washington Collegiate Church in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, perhaps the most liberal congregation in the very conservative Dutch Reform denomination.
While enjoying his dream of being a pastor, Muste continued his studies at the neighboring Union Theological Seminary, one of the most liberal theological schools in the country and the center of the Social Gospel movement. Not only did Muste’s theology become more liberal, but his exposure to broad reading of radical books and commentary deeply affected him. So did his friendship with a young Presbyterian, Norman Thomas. Together they moved to Socialism. Thomas graduated in 1911 and moved to a Presbyterian pulpit in Harlem serving mostly Italian immigrants. Both of the young ministers worked and voted for Eugene V. Debs in the election of 1912. Muste graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity magna cum laude in 1913.
Rev. A.J. Muste as a young minister.
But his old faith was shattered. No longer able to affirm the strict Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith, Muste resigned from the Ft. Washington pulpit in 1914 and left Dutch Reform behind him. In 1915 he accepted a call as an independent Congregationalist to the Central Congregational Church of Newtonville, Massachusetts.
While there the horrific industrial scale bloodshed of the Great War in Europe haunted him. He rapidly completed an already begun journey to committed pacifism. He joined the new Fellowship of Reconciliation shortly after its founding in 1916 and was soon demonstrating against America becoming involved in the conflict. As the drum beats of war intensified Muste participated in a major anti-war march in the summer of 1916 and began to be a featured speaker at public rallies. Some of the members of his Newtonville congregation began to resign in protest. While other stood by their minister, America’s entrance into the War in April 16 was accompanied by surge of jingoistic patriotism and churches were pressured by the Wilson administration to restrain or silence pacifist preachers. Muste took a two month leave of absence that summer to discern his future. By December he knew that he had to leave and dedicate himself full time to opposing the war.
He volunteered at the Boston chapter of the newly formed Civil Liberties Bureau, the legal-aid organization which defended both political and pacifist war resisters. Both he and the Bureau were overwhelmed as the Wilson administration drove aggressively and extensively against “draft dodgers,” those who supported them, and anti-war dissent.
Latter in 1918 he and his wife moved to Providence, Rhode Island, a hot bed of dissent where he as accredited as a Quaker minister and served the Providence Meeting House. The Quakers were the primary movers of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, so the move was easy for Muste. He turned the Meeting House into a center for dissent maintaining a virtual radical library in the basement. Sunday sessions of the Meeting became a safe haven for pacifists, radicals, and arty bohemians to and safely expound their views.
When the war ended, war time repression did not end it intensified during the Red Scare in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and a wave of major strikes across the country. On behalf of his continuing associations with the newly re-named American Civil Liberties Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Muste was a busy activist and prolific contributor to the radical press. The turbulent times also called Muste to a new field of action—labor.
This newspaper article marks the beginning of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike which was Muste's baptism by fire in the labor movement.
In the massive textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, site of the long and legendary IWW led Bread and Roses strike of 1912, the AFL United Textile Workers (UTU) and Central Labor Union, negotiated a shortened work week from 54 hours to 48 hours. The unions negotiated by agreeing to a concession of a corresponding cut in wages, which were already below the cost of living. In response the workers, including many veterans of the 1912 conflict, spontaneously walked off the job on February 3, 1919. Without the support of their union and with the local IWW presence reduced to a tiny branch and the whole union under heavy persecution due to the Red Scare, the workers called on three ministers, the Boston Comradeship, for assistance and to be the public spokesmen for the multi-ethnic strikers—Muste, Cedric Long, and Harold Rotzel.
These men were described in the press and in many historical accounts as the leaders of the strike, which is not quite accurate. From their experience in 1912 the strike committee was effective in coordinating picketing, setting up strike kitchens, and running democratic meetings. But the ministers, especially Muste, presented an articulate face to the press, much needed since the strikers spoke a cacophony of different language. Muste also brought his Fellowship of Reconciliation background to urge non-violence and train strikers to avoid clashes with company thugs, police, and the National Guard which was mobilized in response to early battles at the mill gates.
In fact mill owners, Governor Calvin Coolidge, and local officials were eager to deploy deadly force to break the strike and teach the workers an intimidating lesson they would not soon forget. On February 21 a group of about 3000 strikers meeting in an open area near a garbage dump, were attacked by two squads of police who beat and arrested strikers and injured several unaffiliated bystanders. Courts upheld the charges brought against the unarmed strikers. Muste began serious training in non-violence to prevent even more deadly confrontations. In may the City received an anonymous donation of a machine gun which was deployed ostentatiously loaded with live ammunition, and set up to rake the mass picket lines. Muste trained the strikers to pass by ignoring taunts and even to turn smiles on the gunners. While the use of mass deadly force was averted, there were still regular attacks on picketers using truncheons, rifle butts and even bayonets.
Muste himself, now singled out by the authorities as a key trouble maker, was seized on a picket line and beaten insensible. In jail he was denied medical treatment for his serious injuries and held for a week before his disturbing the peace charges were dropped.
Public sentiment began to swing toward the strikers, but both sides were near exhaustion as the strike wore on into late spring.
The UTU, which had completely abandoned the workers when they rejected their deal, now re-entered the picture initiating secret negotiations with mill owners without the strikers’ knowledge or consent. The union secured a 48-hour work week a 15% wage increase, more than the 12.5% increase the strike demanded. The mill owners accepted the terms since they were in needed to resume production but refused to negotiate directly with the strikers.
The workers were exhausted and starving. Strike relief funds raised earlier from Boston liberals were long gone. Reluctantly, they were prepared to end the strike. Muste was about to make an announcement to the press when Coolidge called him in an announced the UTU secret deal as fait accompli. Muste then insisted that the strikers would remain out unless there was a non-discrimination pledge added. The bluff worked, the equally desperate owners agreed to the additional demand. An end to the strike was announced on May 20 and the strikers returned to work.
It was one of the very few victories for labor in a year when most major strikes were crushed across the country including the Boston Police Strike, Steel Workers Strike, Chicago Packing House Workers Strike, actions in the coal fields of West Virginia, and IWW strikes in the Arizona copper mines and logging camps of the Pacific Northwest. Muste was hailed as a labor hero and thrust into the national spotlight for the first time.
Disgusted with the UTU even during the strike Muste took time to travel to New York to participate in a convention of radical textile industry trade unionists—most of them Jewish, to plan the creation of a new, militant union. The result was the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (ATWA). Based on his triumph in Lawrence, Muste was elected Secretary of the fledgling union shepherding it through the growing pains of its first two years.
That required moving to New York City. When he left that job in 1921 Muste became the first Chairman of the faculty at Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, where he remained from 1921 to 1933. He had become an acknowledged leader of the labor movement which he continued to influence by his writing.
Muste broke with his old friend and mentor John Dewey over trying to recruit Senator George Norris of Nebraska to head up a new labor oriented political party.
He also turned his attention to politics as the old Socialist Party split with many radical joining competing Communist parties and local organization badly damaged by the suppression of the Red Scare era including the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs for his outspoken opposition to the war. Muste wanted to find a working class independent political party as real alternative to the binary Capitalist parties—the Democrats and Republicans. He collaborated with his old friend and mentor John Dewey in the League for Independent Political Action (LIPA), which was groping toward establishing a Labor party. But he withdrew his support in 1930 when Dewey tried to recruit liberal Republican Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska to head up the new party. Muste avowed that any labor party must arise organically from the working class, not be imposed from the top down by a supposed savior. It was a bitter parting of the ways between the old friends.
But his enthusiasm for a labor party brought him closer to the Trotskyists who had been driven from the Communist Party and for whom creation of a Labor Party was a critical step toward revolution. In 1933 he organized a new organization, the American Workers Party (AWP) largely from supporters in the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) which he had founded back in 1929 to find an alternative to the conservative leadership of William Green and the AFL. Since both groups were dominated by Muste, the Communist press took to calling the AWP Musteite. They did not mean that as a compliment.
In 1934 members of an AFL Federated Labor Union (FLU)—William Green’s temporary hybrid industrial union structure meant to be broken up into craft unions once recognition was achieved—walked out on Auto-Lite in Toledo, Ohio. It was part of a broader effort in the auto industry but the FLU structure was cumbersome and ineffective. Toledo was also a stronghold of the AWP where they had organized a strong Lucas County Unemployed League (LCUL) mostly to prevent the unemployed from being recruited as strike breakers. Getting little effective support from either the AFL or the local Central Labor Council, strikers invited the AWP to assist them. National Executive Secretary Louis F. Budenz arrived in Toledo and was consulting with strikers in April. Increasingly the AWP took a leadership role in the strike.
They ringed the plant with thousands of their Unemployed organization to prevent access by scabs and delivery of supplies or shipment of products. Auto-Lite obtained an injunction against the mass picketing which the AWP announced publicly that they would defy the order. Unemployed League leaders Ted Selander and Sam Pollock and other pickets were arrested on May 11 and dozens more were arrested daily as Selander and Pollock were prosecuted in a well-publicized and lengthy trial.
Meanwhile the company recruited 1,500 strike breakers and hired private gun thugs to protect them. They also stockpiled $11,000 worth of tear and vomit gas and stored them in the plant. On May 21 the AWP leaders responded with 1000 on the picket line and re-enforced that to more than 4000 the next day 6000 on May 23. It was Muste’s mass-nonviolence in effective action.
Deputies and gun thugs began firing live ammunition from the roof of the plant and the air was thick with the sickening gas attacks. Strikers and pickets responded by pelting the plant with rocks and bricks, breaking most of the windows and setting fire to cars in the parking lot. Fighting continued for hours and two attempts to rush the plant were repelled.
The next day hundreds of Ohio National Guard troops arrived, most of them frightened teenagers. That evening more than 6000 gathered at the plant in defiance of a fresh injunction as President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched Charles Phelps Taft II, the son of William Howard Taft, as an emergency mediator and William Green sent AFL organizer to try to regain control of the strikers. Fighting and gas attacks resumed. The Guard launched an unsuccessful bayonet attack and then unleashed a volley on the crowd killing strike supporters Frank Hubay and Steve Cyigon and wounding at least 15. Ten Guardsmen were wounded by rocks. Fighting spread over a six block area surrounding the plant.
Early on the morning of the 25 Auto-Lite agreed not to try and reopen the plant during the strike in an effort to stem the violence. It did not work. Later in the day company President Clement Miniger was arrested on charges reckless nuisance for allowing his security guards to bomb the neighborhood with tear gas.
Even the conservative Central Labor Union was so outraged that it threatened to call a General Strike. Meanwhile strikers refused to accept a mediation deal worked out by Taft. Troops made hundreds of arrests daily and controlled the streets at night by more bombing the neighborhood with gas. Ted Selander was arrested by the National Guard and held incommunicado. Taft ignored pleas from Muste to intervene to locate and free him.
Violence subsided but did not end while Taft’s mediation efforts floundered and the company dug in on demands that the scabs it had hired, who had never even made it into the plant, be kept on as permanent replacements for the strikers. The courts began processing the hundreds of contempt of court cases for breaking the injunctions and the ACLU’s General Council Arthur Garfield Hays came to town to personally handle the defense. Muste barnstormed the country drumming up support for the strikers and made frequent trips to Toledo.
On May 29 the Central Labor Council voted to continue preparations for a general strike despite the panicked opposition of William Green.
Taft kept negotiators in 24 hour session as 20,000 workers marched through the streets of Toledo peacefully supporting the strikers. Desperate to bring things to a close before a strike the FLU local and Auto-Lite announced a settlement on June 2 calling for 5 % wage hike, and a minimum wage of 35 cents an hour with recognition of the FLU and arbitration of grievances and wage demands. Most controversially it called for a system of re-hiring which prioritized scabs that had crossed the picket line over workers who struck. That provision caused Muste and Budenz to urge rejection of the contract.
Battle weary strikers, however voted in favor on June 3. The Governor recalled the last of the Guard two days later and on June 6 Auto-Lite, kicking and screaming all of the way re-hired the last of the strikers. On June 9, the threatened General Strike date another 20,000 marched in triumphant celebration. The FLU went on to successfully organize other Toledo auto industry plants and in 1935 became United Auto Workers Local 12.
Although as a pacifist Muste was appalled at the violence of the strike, he deeply appreciated the wide-spread solidarity that made it possible. It also gave an enormous boost in prestige to his AWP.
Later that year Muste cemented his ties with the Trotskyists when he merged the AWP with their Communist League of America to form the Workers Party of the United States. He looked forward to a new era of Socialist advancement and Labor progress.
But it did not take long for him to become disillusioned by his alliance with the Trotskyists. As he was drawn into their inner-circle he was appalled by their authoritarianism and particular their bitter rivalry with the Communists Party which repeatedly disrupted working class solidary as each side did everything they could to sabotage the successful organizing efforts of the other placing their narrow party interests over the workers they supposedly represented.
In 1936 he broke with the Workers Party and publicly rejected Marxian communism of all stripes. He reclaimed a Christian socialist identity and his pacifist roots.
Muste served as Director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York City from 1937 to 1940 and lectured a Union Theological School and Yale Divinity School.
In 1940 Muste became Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and pacifism became the center of his activism the rest of his life. It was hard and unpopular to be a pacifist during World War II when he was called on to support and defend draft resistors and it was emotionally draining for someone who was also a committed anti-fascist. But Muste persisted.
During the war years young Baynard Rustin became his friend and protégée. As Rustin rose to behind the scenes leadership in the Civil Rights Movement as a top advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., strategist of non-violent civil disobedience, and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, he said that he never made a difficult decision without talking about it with Muste first.
In the post-war era Muste spent a lot of time opposing the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1951 he organized a group of 49 FOR supporters to file copies of Henry David Thoreau’s essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience instead of their IRS 1040 Forms to protest the use of tax dollars for arms.
Despite his current opposition to Marxism, Muste came to the defense of accused communists during the second red scare of the McCarthy Era which drew charges that he was a Communist himself. He stood up to intrusive investigations the FBI.
In 1956 he cofounded the important left/pacifist journal the The Progressive to which he contributed for the rest of his life. He defied his right wing critics in 1957 by leading a delegation of pacifist and democratic observers to the 16th National Convention of the Communist Party. He issued a report critical of the CPUSA but in support of its right to free public expression and political activity.
Muste and the Catholic Worker's Dorothy Day during their campaign against bomb shelters and Civil Defense preparations.
Muste was on the National Committee of the War Resistors League and accepted their 1958 Peace award. In the late 50’s and early ‘60’s he collaborated with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker’s Movement in opposition to bomb shelters and Civil Defense preparations in New York City for giving a false sense of security from nuclear annihilation.
The Vietnam War re-energized his aging bones later in the decade. In addition to his articles in The Progressive, personal White House vigils, and work assembling the Mobe, Muste was part of a peace delegation of the Committee for Non-Violent Action to Saigon and Hanoi in 1966. He was arrested, roughly handled, and deported from South Vietnam but was personally warmly greeted by Ho Chi Minh in the North.
It was one of his last public witnesses at his memorial service old friend and comrade Norman Thomas said that Muste had made a, “remarkable effort to show that pacifism was by no means passivism and that there could be such a thing as a non-violent social revolution.”
That about sums it up.