Throughout the modern civil rights movement, the similarity of the social ideals of Martin Luther King and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) led them to work on the same side of racial issues.
In 1917 a group of Quakers formed the AFSC to give conscientious objectors a non-military public service alternative during World War I. The organization began its anti-racism work in the 1920s and, in 1933, began sponsoring a yearly summer institute on race relations at Swarthmore College that lasted until 1941. In 1944 the AFSC created a Race Relations Department, which encouraged business leaders to hire minorities and established visiting lectureships at white universities for African American academics. Within months of the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, AFSC contacted King to learn about the campaign.
In 1959 the AFSC arranged for King and Coretta Scott King to visit India. The AFSC representative in India, James Bristol, accompanied the Kings throughout their visit. Later that year, the AFSC southern program began working in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where the local school board had closed public schools rather than give in to court-ordered desegregation. Together with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Regional Council, the AFSC placed dozens of students with host families in school districts throughout the country. In 1963 the AFSC opened the Free School in Prince Edward County, where integrated faculty taught 1,500 African Americans and 6 white children.
In 1963 King’s colleague, James Lawson, interested the AFSC in a copy of a letter King had written in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. The AFSC gained permission from King to publish and distribute 50,000 copies of “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” That same year, the AFSC nominated King for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor the international Friends organization had received in 1947.
Long-time AFSC staff member Stephen G. Cary noted that working with Martin Luther King and being a part of the civil rights movement “played a big role in the AFSC’s evolving understanding of nonviolence” (Sutters, “From India to Birmingham”). The organization’s experience in the South reinforced its decision to expand AFSC’s mission to work not just against war, but against the roots of violence: “injustice, poverty, and oppression” (Sutters, “From India to Birmingham”). The AFSC continues its social justice work today, operating in 22 countries and 9 regions of the United States.
Introduction, in Papers 5:2–12.
King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, May 1963).
Jack Sutters, “From India to Birmingham: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s connections with AFSC,” American Friends Service Committee, https://www.afsc.org/story/india-birmingham-martin-luther-king-jrs-connections-afsc (accessed April 26, 2017).
Jack Sutters, “AFSC’s Civil Rights Efforts, 1925–1950,” American Friends Service Committee, https://www.afsc.org/story/afscs-civil-rights-efforts-1925-1950 (accessed April 26, 2017).