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A. J. Muste
A. J. Muste, 1931
Abraham Johannes Muste
January 8, 1885
|Died||February 11, 1967 (aged 82)|
New York City, United States
|Main interests||Pacifism, labor, social justice organizing|
Abraham Johannes Muste (// MUS-tee; January 8, 1885 – February 11, 1967) was a Dutch-born American clergyman and political activist. Muste is best remembered for his work in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement.
He was born January 8, 1885, in the small port city of Zierikzee, Zeeland, in the southwestern Netherlands. Muste's father, Martin Muste, was a coachman who drove for a family that was part of Zeeland's hereditary nobility. With his economic prospects limited in the Netherlands, Martin Muste decided to follow four brothers of his wife, Adriana, and emigrate to America. They made the trans-Atlantic trip as third-class passengers in January 1891.
Muste's mother became ill aboard ship and remained hospitalized for a month at Ellis Island after the family's arrival. Upon her recovery, the family headed west for Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Adriana's four brothers worked at in a variety of small business pursuits.
The family attended services at the Grand Rapids Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist congregation in which religious services were conducted in Dutch. Its very existence was testimony to the number of Dutch immigrants in the area. Dancing was prohibited as sin by the church. Also, the singing of secular music and the viewing of dramatic performances were forbidden.
Members of the denomination tended to be of the working class, like most other Dutch people in the area, who were regarded as a source of cheap labor in the years before World War I by the longer-established English-speaking population. Muste later recalled of his fellow Dutch Reformed Church members that they were "all Republicans and would no more have voted for a Democrat than turned horse thief."
He attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan, just west of Grand Rapids, on the coast of Lake Michigan. He graduated in 1905 with a bachelor's degree at the age of 20. At Hope College, Muste was class valedictorian, captain of the school's basketball team, and played second base for the baseball squad.
In the fall of 1906, Muste went east to the Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church, now the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. There, Muste took courses in philosophy at New York University and Columbia University, attended lectures by William James, and met John Dewey, who became a personal friend. While he remained in training to become a minister of the Reformed Church, Muste seems to have begun to question the church's fundamental principles at that time.
He graduated from that institution in June 1909 and was married shortly thereafter to his sweetheart from his Hope College days, Anna Huizenga. Upon his graduation, Muste was appointed pastor of the Ft. Washington Collegiate Church in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. During his spare time, Muste availed himself of his parish's proximity to the theologically-liberal Union Theological Seminary to take additional courses there. Muste ultimately received a Bachelor of Divinity there and graduating from Union magna cum laude.
Muste was influenced by the prevalent theology of the social gospel and began to read the written ideas of various radical thinkers of the day. He went so far as to vote for Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs for US president in 1912. Muste would later claim that he never again voted for a Republican or Democrat for a major national or state office.
Muste remained as pastor of the Fort Washington Collegiate Church on Washington Heights until 1914, when he left the Reformed Church, as he no longer ascribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the set of fundamental principles of the denomination.
A committed pacifist, Muste joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation shortly after its foundation in 1916. Muste participated in a peace demonstration late in the summer of 1916, with US entry into the First World War looming and some parishioners began to withdraw from Muste's congregation. Pressure began to build further over Muste's pacifist views in April 1917, when the United States formally declared war on the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. After taking two months of vacation leave in the summer of 1917, Muste decided that the time had come to leave. In December 1917, he formally resigned his pastorate position.
Later in 1918, Muste moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was enrolled as a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) minister. Muste received the use of a home and money for expenses in exchange for pastoral services. An array of political publications was kept in a large room in the basement of the Providence Meeting House, and each Saturday, pacifists, radicals, and an eclectic mix of individuals gathered there to discuss issues of concern.
Muste began to become involved in trade union activity in 1919, when he took an active part as a leader of a 16-week-long textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Workers in the mills worked an average of 54 hours a week, at an average rate of just over 20 cents per hour, and were threatened with a loss of income by an uncompensated cut of working hours. A demand grew among the millworkers for 54 hours of pay for the new working week of 48 hours.
The workers, many of whom were new immigrants who spoke English poorly or not at all, were without effective leadership to express their demands, however. When dissident workers walked off the job in February 1919, only to be met by the use of police truncheons against their pickets, Muste and two other radical ministers with whom he had formed a close friendship became involved. Muste spoke to assembled workers, assured them that he would lend whatever help he could in raising money for the relief of strikers and their families, and was soon invited to become executive secretary of the ad hoc strike committee that had been established by the still-unorganized workers. Muste became the spokesman for some 30,000 striking workers from more than 20 countries. Himself pulled from the picket line as a strike leader, isolated, and clubbed by police, he was eventually deposited into a wagon and hauled to jail when he could no longer stand. After a week behind bars, the case against Muste for allegedly disturbing the peace was dismissed. The strike continued without interruption despite the jailing of Muste and more than 100 strikers.
While the police anticipated a further escalation of strike violence and went so far as to place machine guns in critical places along Lawrence's principal streets, Muste and the strike committee chose to use nonviolence. Instead of attempting to fight force with force, Muste instead advised the striking textile workers to "smile as we pass the machine guns and the police." Despite the efforts of agents provocateurs to inspire violence, Muste and the strike committee were able to avoid the outbreak of violence, which would have discredited the strikers and their objective and allowed the physical suppression of the labor action.
The strike was eventually settled after 16 weeks, after both sides neared exhaustion and became willing to compromise. The ultimate agreement called for a shortened working week, a 12% hike in hourly and piecework wages, and the recognition of shop grievance committees in all departments.
While the Lawrence textile strike was going on, Muste traveled to New York City to attend a convention of trade union activists in the textile industry. The gathering resulted in the formation of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (ATWU). Based upon his prominence as the head of the Lawrence textile strike and shutdown, Muste was elected secretary of the new union.
Muste would serve as head of the fledgling union for two years until he stepped down from his post, in 1921.
Upon leaving the ATWU, Muste became the first chairman of the faculty at Brookwood Labor College, in Katonah, New York, where he remained from 1921 to 1933. Muste cemented his reputation as a recognized leader of the American labor movement.
In 1929, Muste attempted to organize radical unionists, who opposed the passive policies of American Federation of Labor President William Green, under the banner of the new Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA).
Muste also was a member of the League for Independent Political Action (LIPA), a group of liberals and socialists that was headed by philosopher John Dewey and sought the establishment of a new labor-based third party. Muste resigned his position on the LIPA Executive Committee in December 1930, in protest over Dewey's appeal to US Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska to quit the Republican Party to head the third-party movement. Muste declared that any such movement must start from the bottom up by the action of organized workers if it was to survive and that it was "of the utmost importance to avoid every appearance of seeking messiahs who are to bring down a third party out of the political heavens."
In 1933, Muste's CPLA took the step of establishing itself as the core of a new political organization, the American Workers Party, which was informally referred to as "Musteite" by its contemporaries.
The AWP then merged with the Trotskyist Communist League of America in 1934 to establish the Workers Party of the United States. Muste meanwhile remained a labor activist and led the victorious Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934.
In 1936, Muste resigned from the Workers Party and left socialist politics to return to his roots as a Christian pacifist. Muste went to work as the director of the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York City from 1937 to 1940, where he paid special attention to combating Marxism and to proclaiming Christianity as a revolutionary doctrine. He also lectured at Union Theological Seminar and Yale Divinity School.
From 1940 to 1953, he was the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an influential Protestant pacifist organization, where he did antiwar work, advocated nonviolence within the Protestant ecumenical movement, and helped mentor a number of the future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Bayard Rustin. Rustin, a close advisor of Martin Luther King Jr., later claimed that he, while he was an advisor to King, never made a difficult decision without talking about it first with Muste.
Muste supported the presidential candidacies of Debs and Robert M. La Follette, Sr. and also had close friendships with Dewey and socialist leader Norman Thomas. Muste's support for civil liberties led him to oppose McCarthyism during the Cold War. That led to false accusations of being a communist although his writings after 1936 are deeply critical of communism.
In 1957, Muste headed a delegation of pacifist and democratic observers to the 16th National Convention of the Communist Party. He was also on the national committee of the War Resisters League (WRL) and received its Peace Award in 1958. Always a creative activist, he led public opposition with Dorothy Day to civil defense activities in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s.
At the end of his life, Muste took a leadership role in the movement against the Vietnam War. According to legend, Muste stood outside the White House every night during the Vietnam War, holding a candle regardless of whether it was raining or not. In fact, he worked many days and nights during the last two years of his life to build a coalition of antiwar groups, including the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, which organized massive protests against the war.
In 1966, Muste traveled with members of the Committee for Non-Violent Action to Saigon and Hanoi. He was arrested and deported from South Vietnam but received a warm welcome in North Vietnam from its leader Ho Chi Minh.
Dying on February 11, 1967, at the age of 82, Muste was remembered by one of his contemporaries, Norman Thomas, as making "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."
The A.J. Muste Memorial Institute was located at 339 Lafayette Street, the "Peace Pentagon," in New York City until it was sold in 2016 because of the necessary expensive structural repairs. The Institute provides office space for various activist groups, which now reside at its new location, at 168 Canal Street, in Chinatown. Tenant organizations include the War Resisters League and the Socialist Party USA.
The following selection of Muste's writings may be found in The Essays of A. J. Muste, edited by Nat Hentoff, The Bobbs-Merrill Company (1967).
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