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A.J. Muste was a Dutch-born, Calvinist minister and political activist in the United States. He supported the Civil Rights Movement, labor rights, and opposed all forms of war as a pacifist. Muste’s worked for the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America and he was an important figure in the U.S. labor movement.

Youth and Family

Abraham Johannes “A.J.” Muste was born in Zierikzee, a small coastal city in the Southwest of Zeeland, the Netherlands on January 8, 1885, to Martin and Adrianna Muste. His father drove a coach for one of Zeeland’s noble families. The family decided to sail third-class on a ship to the United States in January 1891 with his mother’s four brothers.

The Muste family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. They joined the Dutch Reformed Church of Grand Rapids. The Calvinist church conducted services in Dutch and catered to the many Dutch immigrants in the area. The church prohibited the singing of non-religious music, theater performances, and dancing.

A.J. Muste grew up surrounded by working-class, Dutch expatriates who were "all Republicans and would no more have voted for a Democrat than turned horse thief,” as Nat Hentoff quotes in his biography of Muste. In 1896, the Muste family became U.S. citizens.[1]

Education and Religious Career

A.J. Muste enrolled at Hope College on the coast of Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan after graduating high school. In 1905, he graduated with a Bachelors as the class valedictorian. He also captained the basketball team and played on the baseball team as second baseman. Northwestern Classical Academy located in Orange City, Iowa, hired Muste to teach Greek and Latin for the 1905-1906 school year.

Muste then entered the Dutch Reformed Church’s New Brunswick Theological Seminary located in New Jersey in 1906. He also studied philosophy at Columbia University and New York University, where he befriended John Dewey. He continued his studies at the seminary, but began to question the religious principles presented to him.

In June 1909, Muste graduated from the seminary and married his college sweetheart, Anna Huizenga. They appointed him to Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s Washington Heights area. He took more courses at the Union Theological Seminary nearby. In 1913, Muste received his Bachelor of Divinity degree and graduated magna cum laude.

Muste voted for Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate in the 1912 U.S. Presidential election. He worked at Ft. Washington until 1914 when he moved to Newtonville, Massachusetts to become pastor to the Central Congressional Church as an independent minister in February 1915.[2]


A.J. Muste, The Pacifist

In 1916, A.J. Muste officially became a pacifist by joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation.[3] Some of his parishioners stopped attending his congregation in mid-1916 after he participated in a peaceful demonstration against the entrance of the U.S. into the oncoming European war. He experienced more push back after the U.S. formally declared war in April 1917 against the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires. He resigned in December 1917.

Although A.J. Muste participated in controversial progressive activism, he never abandoned his pacifist principles.

Muste first volunteered with the new Civil Liberties Bureau, providing legal defense for pacifists and political resisters in Boston. He relocated to Providence, Rhode Island in 1918 and became a Quaker minister. He attended meetings in Providence Meeting House’s basement every Saturday with radical, pacifists, and other politically minded individuals.[4]

Lawrence Textile Strike of 1919

A.J. Muste emerged as a leader in the labor movement during the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike in Massachusetts that lasted for 16 weeks.[5] The mill workers feared a loss of income when their 54 hour weeks at 20 cents per hour were being cut to 48 hours and they wanted to ensure they received the same pay. Many workers recently immigrated to the U.S. and spoke little English, so when they began striking in February 1919, Muste and two others took an interest.

Muste offered his support and they made him the Ad Hoc Strike Committee’s Executive Secretary to speak for the 30,000 workers from over 20 different countries. Even Muste faced abuse from police and suffered an assault before they jailed him for a week, but the strike continued on.

Muste urged the strikers to employ pacifist and nonviolent tactics, even in the face of machine guns held by police. Hentoff quotes A.J. Muste advising them to "smile as we pass the machine guns and the police."[6] The lack of violence bolstered their cause. After 16 weeks, the strike ended and both sides agreed to the shorter work week and a 12% increase in hourly wages.[7]

Labor Movement

A.J. Muste solidified his role as a labor movement advocate during his time with the Amalgamated Textile Workers and the League for Independent Political Action.

A.J. Muste was elected the secretary of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America soon after the strike ended. He served for two years and resigned in 1921. He then became Brookwood Labor College’s first faculty chairman in Katonah, New York. He worked there from 1921 until 1933. In 1929, Muste founded the Conference of Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) in opposition to the policies of President of the American Federation of Labor, William Green. [8]

Muste then joined the League for Independent Political Action’s Executive Committee. John Dewey headed the organization of socialists and liberals looking to establish a labor-based, political third party. He resigned in protest in December 1930 over Dewey’s request that Nebraska Senator George W. Norris to leave the Republican party and head their third party.[9]

U.S. Politics and Pacifism

The CPLA transformed itself into a new political organization under Muste’s guidance named the American Workers Party in 1933. In 1934, it formed the Workers Party of the United States by merging with the Trotskyist Communist League of America. The same year, Muste led the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike to victory.[10]

Muste retired from the Workers Party in 1936 and returned to work as a pastor and pacifist. Between 1937 and 1940, he worked as the Presbyterian Labor Temple’s director in New York City. He also taught at Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary. [11] He then served as the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s executive director between 1940 and 1953, where he mentored Bayard Rustin, who later advised Martin Luther King, Jr.[12]

Death and The A.J. Muste Foundation

A.J. Muste died on February 11, 1967, in New York City.[13] The A.J. Muste Foundation, or the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, is located in New York City at the “Peace Pentagon,” now in Chinatown. It houses the offices of many different activist organizations, including the Socialist Party and the War Resisters League.[14]

References

Bibliography

Bloom, J. (1984). Abraham Johannes (“A.J.”) Muste. In G. M. Fink (Ed.), Biographical Dictionary of American Labor (pp. 428–429). Westport, CT, United States: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Hentoff, N. (1982). Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste. A. J. Muste Memorial Institute.


Footnotes

  1. Hentoff, 1982
  2. Hentoff, 1982
  3. Bloom, 1984
  4. Hentoff, 1982
  5. Bloom, 1984
  6. Hentoff, 1982
  7. Hentoff, 1982
  8. Bloom, 1984
  9. Hentoff, 1982
  10. Bloom, 1984
  11. Robinson, J. A. O. (1982). Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A.J. Muste. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  12. Bloom, 1984
  13. Hentoff, 1982
  14. Staff. (2016, May 9). Peace Pentagon Activist Offices Relocate to Chinatown Following $20.75M Sale. Bowery Boogie.[1]

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