American Friends Service Committee

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

American Friends Service Committee

Since its beginnings in the seventeenth century, the Society of Friends has repudiated all wars and refused to participate in them, believing that violence suppresses love, truth and freedom, and at the same time breeds fear, hatred and prejudice. Friends founded the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as the corporate expression of the Quaker faith to carry on the traditional peace witness in a constructive and diversified manner. The AFSC, now one of the oldest and largest peace organizations in the world, ministers to the victims of war and injustice on every continent of the world while at the same time searching for new ways to remove the causes of war. By its very nature, the Service Committee has lent a unique definition to organized nonviolence and has often served as the backbone of the ongoing struggle for peace and social justice in the U.S. Three weeks after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, fourteen members of the Religious Society of Friends met to discuss what specific acts Quakers might take to alleviate the agony of war-torn Europe. Rufus Jones echoed the Friends’ traditional sentiments when he wrote, “The alternative to war is not inactivity and cowardice. It is the irresistible and constructive power of goodwill.” With Jones, Henry Cadbury and James A. Babbitt at its nucleus, the AFSC was formed to provide “a service of love in wartime.” Within six months, 116 men and women were trained and sent to France to do civilian relief work. AFSC greatly expanded its relief work after the war and created a social order committee with study groups on labor conditions and the causes of poverty, the democratization of industry, the distribution of wealth, and the traditional Quaker concepts of simplicity. This increased social concern, arising from the Friends’ experiences in the war years, was formalized in the reorganization of AFSC into a permanent organization in 1924 with four sections: foreign service, home service, interracial work, and peace work.

Under Clarence Pickett, who served as Executive Secretary from 1929 until 1950, AFSC extended its activities throughout the world. In the U.S., AFSC fed the starving children of striking Appalacian miners and organized craft cooperatives and homestead farms among sharecroppers and victims of the Depression. The Committee’s work with Mennonites and Brethren stimulated unity and social concern among the peace churches and thus set an example of constructive pacifism. In keeping with its non-partisan philosophy, AFSC sent relief aid to both Loyalists and Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War and worked among refugees and prisoners during the second World War. In 1947, AFSC and its British counterpart were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after sending $7,000,000 worth of relief aid to battle-scarred Europe and Japan.

Although AFSC has earned worldwide respect for its relief work, it is not primarily a relief organization. AFSC workers wee their primary purpose to be reconciling conflict situations, seeking out areas of tension and misunderstanding in order to bridge the confusions between people and nations. AFSC maintains an active peace program which is directed towards bringing about the day when relief programs will be unnecessary.

In the 1930s, the Service Committee stimulated discussion and action on international issues through its Institutes of International Relations, workcamps, peace caravans, publications and other projects. Beginning in 1926, and continuing over the next 15 years, college students were sent out in pairs in peace caravans, driving from town to town, particularly in the rural Midwest, distributing peace literature and talking to clubs and churches in an effort to build a popular base for the peace movement. In 1936, AFSC participated actively in the Emergency Peace Campaign in the attempt to forestall World War II.

During the war, AFSC administered some 20 CPS camps and 30 smaller units which included 3400 conscientious objectors. On the West Coast, AFSC helped resettle Japanese-Americans who were put into relocation centers, giving them aid and comfort and helping them handle personal and business problems. After the war, the Service Committee spoke out strongly for unilateral disarmament and extended many of its educational programs, such as seminars, workcamps, and conferences, internationally to promote free discussion and intensive study of world problems. AFSC was also at work on Indian reservations, in Mexican-American communities, on programs of housing integration and rural community development.

In 1949 the Service Committee published The U.S. and the Soviet Union foreign policy analysis which dealt realistically and objectively with the Cold War. Subsequent reports, such as Speak Truth to Power in 1955, laid out the positive requirements for peace — fundamental attacks on world poverty, an end to colonialism, the development of world organization, and disarmament — and protested the reliance on organized mass violence which blocked their development.

During the Vietnam war, AFSC peace workers demonstrated publicly against American involvement, counseled men about the draft, and joined in direct action projects against the war throughout the country. They helped begin peace study courses, provided research into the military-industrial-educational complex, and initiated programs around the Middle East, U.S. involvement in Third World countries, disarmament and peace conversion, and the encroachment on individual freedom in the U.S.

Friends’ social and political involvement has not been limited to the American Friends Service Committee. The Friends’ Committee on National Legislation was founded in 1943, under the direction of E. Raymond Wilson, as a Washington lobby to deal with national actions of the federal government affecting issues of peace and social justice. The Friends Peace Committee, formed in 1933, provides peace education for various Friends Yearly Meetings and serves as a center to actively promote Quaker peace concerns. A Quaker Action Group (AQAG) and the Movement for a New Society (MNS) are also distinct from AFSC but include many Quakers.

AQAG, founded in 1966 by Lawrence Scott and others, achieved a certain degree of fame for initiating such transnational nonviolent action projects as the attempt to carry medical supplies by boat into parts of Vietnam and an effort to demilitarize the Puerto Rican island of Culebra where the U.S. Navy carried out target practice. Out of these experiences, the need grew to develop a more comprehensive perspective and framework of action, and to create an organizational structure to promote nonviolent revolution different from the national committees characteristic of the peace movement. With the efforts of Susan Gowan, George Lakey, Bill Moyers, and Dick Taylor, the Movement for a New Society grew out of AQAG in 1971 and set up projects and living centers to encourage a simple lifestyle, to create a source of sustained fellowship and moral support, and to provide a bulwark against repression. MNS encouraged political and economic analysis, community involvement, collective work, and a broader conception of nonviolence which unites political action with responsible and joyful living.

Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski, reprinted with permission, from The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States.  Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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