Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1959.Photo: AFSC archives
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, it was greeted with much satisfaction by those associated with the American Friends Service Committee. For one thing, the AFSC had nominated him for the prize, a privilege of all former recipients. For another thing, AFSC had many connections with the great man in the fifties and sixties, and its social action during that time was interwoven with the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King, Jr. urges Quakers join the Montgomery Bus Boycott
The beginning of this story is familiar: Rosa Parks, an African American, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in the summer of 1955. Her arrest resulted in a boycott of the local transportation system by Montgomery's African-American community.
The boycott was thoroughly discussed at the United Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in March 1956-along with the astonishing Gandhian methods used by a young Montgomery clergyman, Martin Luther King, Jr., in leading the boycott. Initially, the yearly meeting was unable to come to consensus about whether it should send a letter to people in Montgomery regarding the difficult racial situation.
However, at the next session, the secretary of the Yearly Meeting Peace Committee reported he had spoken to Martin Luther King, Jr., by telephone about the possibility of sending a delegation of Friends to visit Montgomery. King welcomed the idea. The yearly meeting appointed three Friends to go, one of whom was Clarence E. Pickett, then executive secretary emeritus of the AFSC. This became one of the earliest occasions on which someone affiliated with the AFSC came in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr.
The delegation spent several days in Montgomery learning about the situation and talking to various community leaders. They were impressed by King's leadership and his nonviolent approach.
AFSC arranges for Martin Luther King, Jr. to go to India
Some years later in 1959, after MLK became internationally known from the Montgomery boycott, the AFSC arranged an invitation for him to visit India on a pilgrimage to the people and places associated with Mahatma Gandhi. He and his wife Coretta Scott King traveled in India under the auspices of the Gandhi Memorial Trust and were accompanied by Jim Bristol, an AFSC representative serving in Delhi.
Writing much later about this trip, Jim Bristol said the Kings' visit and the reception they received in India confirmed their nonviolent convictions and practices, rather than forming them, as people later asserted. Furthermore, Jim Bristol believed that Martin and Coretta King accepted the inevitability that he would be killed some day. Following Gandhi's trail must have reinforced rather than diminished this sense of being under sentence. "It was only a matter of time; that, they knew and accepted. Yet this never made them prudent or cautious."
AFSC publishes "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail"
The AFSC's civil rights efforts paralleled much of Martin Luther King's activities and intersected them at several important points. For instance, in 1963, when he was jailed in Birmingham for leading a nonviolent demonstration against segregation, he was criticized in a statement by eight white religious leaders. In response, he wrote "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," published by the AFSC, in which he spoke powerfully of the great freedoms rooted in our religious faith and national principles.
This letter became so popular that the AFSC printed and distributed several hundred thousand copies in advance of the March on Washington, endorsed by AFSC's Board of Directors.
An important shift in Quaker testimony and AFSC's work
Years later, long-time staff and committee member Steve Cary said that Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement played a big role in the AFSC's evolving understanding of nonviolence. Originally seen as a testimony against war, the Quaker stand against violence expanded to include the roots of violence-injustice, poverty, and oppression.
Written by Jack Sutters, former AFSC archivist