Tuesday, July 7, 2009

2929 Broadway

I made a pilgrimage to 2929 Broadway yesterday. I stood on the sidewalk just staring at this nondescript five-storey building that currently houses a Starbuck’s and a hair stylist and sits across the boulevard from Columbia University’s Roone Arledge Auditorium. Back in the 1940’s, however, it was the site for the American headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the leading pacifist organization of the time that did more than any other group to transform the struggle for civil rights into a nonviolent protest movement. Led by A.J. Muste and such prime movers of nonviolent resistance as Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Glenn Smiley, and James Lawson, the FOR not only taught civil rights leaders like King and Abernathy how to employ nonviolence as a strategy, but also how to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. There was nothing passive or retiring about the FOR’s approach; its leaders favored bold, direct, immediate action to secure every person’s full rights. At heart, though, their quest for change was fueled by an overflowing love of humanity, a lesson Dr. King learned so surpassingly that he practiced it without let-up until his own untimely and violent death. A.J. Muste, FOR’s Executive Secretary from 1940-1953, exemplified this notion that nonviolence must become a lifelong practice. Committed, hard working, horrified by injustice, Muste was also humble, plain-spoken and generous. Respectful of everyone, even those whose behavior he despised, he always listened first before expressing his own opinion and invariably did so in a cogent but completely non-threatening manner. He despised all forms of prejudice and oppression, spoke out often against imperialism and international aggression, but assumed that relentless nonviolent action was the only worthy response.

Slowly sipping my grande red eye coffee, I headed south on Broadway, pondering the idealism of people like King and Muste and the others who led the FOR. Some would say their nonviolent efforts were largely in vain as our society is probably even more violent and only a little less unjust than the one the FOR faced in the 1940’s. Still, their commitment to humane change is inspiring, as is their certainty that while violence may seem to do some good in the short run, it invariably leads to more bloodshed over the long haul. Surely, our most recent experiences as a country have vindicated the FOR leaders and demonstrated to us that nonviolence, with only the rarest of exceptions, must prevail, both to stem unnecessary suffering and to begin to make good on the claim that we are a decent society.


  1. Why the pilgrimage? Something about the date? Just in the neighborhood?
    As nobel as these proponents of non-violence may be, I fear that they are the exception. Like dignity (see David Brooks in today's Times), non-violence requires thought and life-long attention.

  2. No reason for the pilgramage other than coming across the reference to the location of the FOR while reading a biography of Bayard Rustin. Also, I'm especially fascinated with A.J. Muste, because he was so remarkable and yet so little known.

    As for the proponents of nonviolence, yes, they are the exception. But I admire them all the more for that, for having the courage to boldly and consistently part from the norm.