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Book Review: To Live Peaceably Together by Tracy E. K’Meyer (2022)
A history of the American Friends Services Committee's work to challenge residential segregation.
There’s widespread support for greater racial equality in housing, employment, education, policing, and health. Yet although twenty million Americans, black and white, urban and suburban, young and old, took part in Black Lives Matter marches in 2020, subsequent action has been feeble to make those lives matter.
To be successful, reform movements will have to be as diverse as those demonstrations. Although African Americans are the most victimized by racial segregation and may (and should) take the lead in racial justice activism, in a nation where they are only 13 percent of the national population, victories will require participation of the suburban middle class. In Just Action we describe several white groups that played essential, if subordinate roles in the 1950s and ’60s to win important civil rights victories.
Whites today need models for such activism, and that’s why Tracy K’Meyer’s recent book, To Live Peaceably Together, is timely; it describes the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker church’s social justice project, whose almost entirely white membership attempted to undo mid-twentieth century residential segregation.
At that time, the Federal Housing and Veterans Administrations, along with real estate professionals, kept African Americans locked in under-resourced neighborhoods far from suburbs which, though affordable to black working and middle-class families, maintained rigid whites-only policies.
Quakers had formed the AFSC to espouse pacificism during World War I. Over the next few decades it organized food relief and other support for victims of war abroad and racial discrimination at home. Professor K’Meyer recounts how, beginning in 1951 with a belief that God (an “Inner Light”) resides in every person and reconciliation—eliminating hostility of whites to blacks, and vice versa—is always an alternative to confrontation, AFSC leaders deemed segregated housing the greatest obstacle to interracial harmony. They tried to persuade developers to build projects open to all and urge white homeowners and realtors to sell to black house-hunters. They recruited black families to face danger by seeking homes where they would be unwelcome. And they met with federal officials in fruitless attempts to win support for nondiscrimination.
These efforts almost always failed and tested the belief that an Inner Light would open developers, realtors, and white homeowners, as well as public officeholders and bureaucrats, to moral pleas. Even in communities that now pride themselves as “progressive,” Quakers were rebuffed. In 1955 the federal government demolished many housing projects for World War II war plant workers. Berkeley, California, ignored AFSC appeals to build replacement housing for the black residents, as was being done by cities elsewhere, and instead hired a social worker to ensure black tenants’ departure from the city. In Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Quakers persuaded a developer to create a small integrated project but community opposition forced its cancellation.
When whites in Chicago’s Trumbull Park area rioted for more than five years following the 1953 placement of a few black families in a public housing project for whites, AFSC members comforted the pioneers and met with existing residents to beg them, unsuccessfully, to befriend black neighbors. Providing personal support to black movers while hoping to conciliate white neighbors and even rioters was also an AFSC focus elsewhere—Park Forest, Illinois and Levittown, Pennsylvania, for example. Yet Tracy K’Meyer reports that by 1960, “having failed to change many hearts,” the Quakers conceded that desegregation would not emerge from a dawdling person-by-person strategy.
“Real change” from these efforts would, an AFSC staff estimate concluded, take fifty to one hundred years. Black families, unsurprisingly, became disinterested in integration, preferring the relative safety of separate neighborhoods to the violence entailed in breaking out of them. This undermined the AFSC’s pursuit of reconciliation, even if still convinced of its wisdom.
In the 1960s, the group joined a growing activist civil rights movement. Despairing of success from moral appeals, Quakers sent pretend-buyers to realtors to uncover evidence of discrimination, and then participated in picketing agents’ offices. The AFSC became advocates of Gandhian non-violent pressure tactics, distant from more militant civil rights activists, but also distant from the Quakers’ prior faith in the achievement of interpersonal harmony. The committee conducted training sessions in non-violence and supported marches for fair housing sponsored by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement. AFSC leaders were discomfited by demonstrators’ deliberate provocation of whites’ violent hostility, seemingly inconsistent with arousing their Inner Lights, but the Quakers were mostly carried along in an increasingly militant civil rights movement. Some AFSC volunteers participated in sit-ins at real estate offices, but apparently none truly engaged in civil disobedience by subjecting themselves to arrest for refusing to leave.
Without victories, the AFSC’s press for bi-racial comity ebbed. Quaker efforts, along with those of many others, shifted to improving conditions in urban neighborhoods. On occasion this meant assisting tenant rent strikes but mostly involved providing services such as helping displaced victims of urban renewal to find new rentals, pressing for enforcement of building codes, and supporting conversion of rental units to co-op ownership.
Many mostly white organizations - local and national, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and secular—also campaigned for desegregation in the 1950s and into the ’70s. Professor K’Meyer mentions allies like the National Committee Against Discrimination, the Catholic Interracial Council, the American Jewish Committee, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and local groups like San Francisco’s Council for Civic Unity or Chicago’s North Shore Citizens Committee, and more, yet her readers may be tempted to conclude that Quakers were frequently leaders of campaigns, which was only sometimes the case.
One group she doesn’t name, however, is the Communist Party whose members too frequently were the only ones willing to defend African Americans seeking decent places to live. Her book occasionally refers to accusations, perhaps unfounded, that AFSC allies were “subversive,” but that’s all. She tells how, in 1952, activists organized to provide round-the-clock protection for a family that bought a home near Richmond, California and was subject to weeks of violence and harassment. Communist Party member Jessica Mitford, in her memoir A Fine Old Conflict describes the courageous and sometimes leading role she and her comrades played in these events. It is to the shame of American liberals that our passion for racial justice paled in comparison to that of Communist Party members in the 1950s and even ’60s.
An unavoidable shortcoming of To Live Peaceably Together is that a history of the AFSC necessarily gives short-shrift not only to communists but to other allies it mentions. Each is worthy of treatment as competent as Tracy K’Meyer’s of the Quakers’ participation and occasional leadership.
If white suburbanites are now to assume a role in campaigns for zoning reform, affordable housing, nondiscrimination enforcement and other programs to narrow racial inequality, it will be harder if they are unaware of their many predecessors. To Live Peaceably Together competently fills that need in part, but still leaves a bigger story yet to be told to contemporary readers.
A version of this review appears in the Winter 2023 issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.
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