Radical History Review 88 (2004) 112-138
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The Limits of Egalitarianism:
Radical Pacifism, Civil Rights, and the Journey of Reconciliation
In April 1947, a group of young men posed for a photograph outside of civil rights attorney Spottswood Robinson's office in Richmond, Virginia. Dressed in suits and ties, their arms held overcoats and overnight bags while their faces carried an air of eager anticipation. They seemed, from the camera's perspective, ready to embark on an exciting adventure. Certainly, in a nation still divided by race, this visibly interracial group of black and white men would have caused people to stop and take notice. But it was the less visible motivations behind this trip that most notably set these men apart. All of the group's key organizers and most of its members came from the emerging radical pacifist movement. Opposed to violence in all forms, many had spent much of World War II behind prison walls as conscientious objectors and resisters to war. Committed to social justice, they saw the struggle for peace and the fight for racial equality as inextricably linked. Ardent egalitarians, they tried to live according to what they called the brotherhood principle of equality and mutual respect. As pacifists and as militant activists, they believed that nonviolent action offered the best hope for achieving fundamental social change. Now, in the wake of the Second World War, these men were prepared to embark on a new political journey and to become, as they inscribed in the scrapbook that chronicled their traveling adventures, "courageous" makers of history. 1 [End Page 113]
Over the next two weeks, these men would take extraordinary risks to put their ideals to the test. They called their trip the Journey of Reconciliation, a project jointly organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Traveling in small interracial teams, the men of the Journey intentionally defied Jim Crow seating arrangements on public buses and trains. Black next to white, they sat wherever they chose, provoking threats, verbal harassment, physical brutality, and arrests. But in the spirit of Gandhian nonviolence, they refused to respond in kind and instead embraced their hardships with relish. The Journey's leaders celebrated the project as a crucial step in the struggle for black civil rights. Just as importantly, they hoped that the power of their witness would spark a nonviolent movement for social and political change. 2
The 1947 Journey of Reconciliation is best known today as the precursor to the more famous Freedom Rides of 1961 that dramatically challenged the institutions of racism in the American South. But while the project's organizers and team members certainly hoped that their efforts would serve as a catalyst and inspiration for future actions, they could not have predicted at the time what the legacy of their actions would be. To the radical pacifists who spearheaded the trip, the Journey signified something else: the first national project of a nascent nonviolent movement, the logical outcome of over a decade of militant resistance to Jim Crow, and a visible reflection of the pacifist commitment to interracial justice and egalitarian social relations.
The presence of so many pacifists outside civil rights attorney Spottswood Robinson's office illustrates a key piece of this project and a primary focus of this article: the very concrete ways in which the Journey linked the causes of peace and racial justice in the years that immediately followed World War II. Historians readily recognize the important connections between the pacifist and civil rights movements of this time. Many scholars highlight the radical pacifist involvement with CORE, where activists readily deployed the innovative tactics of nonviolent resistance, as a major contribution to the black freedom struggle. Beyond tactical inspiration, pacifists' work, in what sociologist Aldon Morris dubs "movement halfway houses," provided important organizational and financial resources to the escalating civil rights protests of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Yet the relations between these two different movements did not prove as harmonious as this may sound...