Advocating for civil rights and liberties has been part of AFSC’s work since the beginning, even when standing up for basic rights meant taking an unpopular stance or supporting a scapegoated group that was invisible to the American public.
Here’s a look back through the decades at eight crucial moments in U.S. history when AFSC advocated on matters of conscience:
1925: Responded to racism of Japanese Exclusion Clause
While its limits on immigration from certain nations showed clear discrimination against Southern and Eastern Europeans, the Immigration Act of 1924 targeted Asians outright, completely eliminating immigration from Japan (in the vein of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). In response, in 1925 ASFC published “Exclusion: Its Cause and Cure,” outlining the roots of racism and the reality of Japanese-Americans’ contributions to the U.S. economy. AFSC also invited Japanese representatives, including students, to visit the United States and build understanding between the people of the two countries.
1934: Relief for striking workers
In the midst of labor unrest throughout the state, unionized textile workers in Marion, N.C., went on strike to protest substandard company housing, illegal working hours, and appalling working conditions. The ensuing demonstrations killed and injured several workers, divided the community, and left 150 families without food or proper shelter in the winter. AFSC provided relief to sustain the families and the strike while helping to reduce community divisions.
1941: Advocacy for Japanese-Americans held in West Coast internment camps
Shortly following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government began to forcibly relocate and intern more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—citizens and non-citizens—who lived on the West Coast. After visiting some of the internment camps and talking with people there, AFSC established two programs to help get people out of internment camps—one identified Midwestern and East Coast colleges that would welcome college-age evacuees, and the other helped those released from internment camps find jobs and housing.
1955: Published “Speak Truth to Power” in midst of McCarthy era
Amid a culture of fear that enabled the destruction of many people’s credibility, AFSC was no exception—at least one witness named AFSC as a “communist front” organization, and many contacted the FBI about its “subversive” activities. Still, AFSC supported rights of conscience and freedom of movement across international borders. And in 1955, AFSC published “Speak Truth to Power,” issuing a powerful challenge to the notion that lasting security would only be achieved through military might.
1963: Published King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
AFSC supported the Civil Rights Movement by strengthening communities to resist racist repression and lifting up the voices of the people most directly affected by violence and repression. When Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper in his cell, his supporters turned to AFSC to publish the letter in its entirety. It was widely distributed in advance of the March on Washington. (Read more about this moment in a recent Huffington Post story.)
1979: Exposed the activities of domestic “secret police”
In the early 1970s, the American public got its first look at decades of records of surveillance and recordkeeping by local, state, and federal government agencies like the FBI and CIA. In 1979, using over 13,000 pages of records obtained though the Freedom of Information Act, AFSC published a report on the interconnected network of intelligence agencies whose illegal and unconstitutional actions targeted peaceful dissidents, minorities, and the Service Committee itself.
1986: Expanded LGBT programs
Building on its support of the LGBT movement in the 1960s and 70s—when AFSC worked against violence and disempowering policies—in the 1980s AFSC expanded its programs to better serve gays and lesbians in local communities. In 1986, the Seattle and Portland LGBT programs were created, and in the following years AFSC worked to educate its staff and others who work with gay youth.
2010: Protested FBI raids on peace activists
Late in September 2010, the FBI raided the homes of anti-war activists in Chicago and Minneapolis, seizing computers, cell phones, printed materials, and personal belongings under the pretext of investigating terrorism. AFSC joined several faith groups in denouncing the violation of the activists’ constitutional rights and the criminalization of dissent.
What do you remember?
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