There Are Humanists in Ferguson: The Humanist Social Justice Tradition December 5, 2014

There Are Humanists in Ferguson: The Humanist Social Justice Tradition

This is a guest post by James Croft. He is a leader in training at the Ethical Society of St. Louis (a Humanist congregation) and writes at Temple of the Future. You can follow him on Twitter: @JFLCroft

In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Humanist movement has received a battery of well-deserved criticism. Sarah Jones writes that while “communities are organizing themselves to effectively fight for change… Atheist communities tend to be absent.” Anthony Pinn insists, “It’s time for humanists to stop being so lazy regarding issues of race violence.” Sikivu Hutchinson laments that “when it comes to anti-racist social justice, even the ‘kinder, gentler’ Humanist community often nods its head in well-intentioned sympathy, issues a press release, then shuffles into oblivion.”

I agree with the critique Jones, Pinn, and Hutchinson are offering. I believe they strike at the core of a fundamental problem with today’s organized atheist movement: a limited focus on a narrow slice of issues at the expense of a broader perspective committed to fighting injustice whatever its form. I’m with Pinn when he argues that “all too often, humanists… are simply content to tackle issues of science education, separation of church and state, and a variety of similarly arranged policy issues,” while taking a pass on anti-racism work. I cheer when I read that “Race and the consequences of our racist society must become a priority within the humanist movement.” It must. I’ve struggled within my own movement — my own congregation — to convey the urgency of acting now to end racial injustice. I could be doing more, the Ethical Society could be doing more, and the Humanist movement could be doing more.

Yet these excellent articles do not tell the whole story: they miss the work that is being and has been done by humanists to combat racial injustice and to further equality and dignity for all. If they give the impression that there are no organized Humanist groups, and no individuals motivated by Humanist values, working to end racial injustice, then they do Humanism a disservice. That narrative is not just wrong — it’s damaging, because it reinforces the popular idea that the only way to achieve lasting change and to find ethical improvement is through traditional religion.

That isn’t true. I know it’s not true because in the months since the killing of Michael Brown I have seen numerous examples of moral courage and commitment to change from people who have no traditional religion, and who are members or friends of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I work. As far as I am aware, we — a non-theistic congregation dedicated to Humanist values — are the only organization that might plausibly be referred to as an “atheist community” in the Ferguson area, and, far from being absent, we have been engaged — as an organization and through the efforts of individual members and friends — at multiple levels, from on-the-street civil disobedience to behind-the-scenes legal support.

Yes, the Society issued a statement on the shooting (the first public statement we’ve made on any issue in quite some time), which is hosted on the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, our region’s biggest newspaper: just for this we were denigrated as “race apologists.” But we did not then “shuffle off into oblivion,” as Sikivu Hutchinson fears we might.

Washington Ethical Society Vigil (Photo: Johnny Silvercloud)

Members of our community have marched, rallying behind our Humanist banner in solidarity with congregations and community groups from around the country. We have donated to Jail Support, ensuring that volunteers offering assistance to protesters were well-fed during one long shift (and you can too). We have held community discussions on racism and white privilege. We are inviting local activists to speak, offering them whatever platform our organization can provide. Ethical Societies far away have held vigils in support, asserting #BlackLivesMatter. Community members and friends were present with other young activists to occupy St. Louis City Hall, dropping banners smuggled through security from the balcony, risking arrest (and worse) to make a powerful statement.

Ember Assington holds up banner in City Hall

Ethical Society members march in downtown St. Louis

I have been engaged myself, as an Ethical Culture Leader-in-Training. Since beginning my work with the Ethical Society in late August — the month Brown was killed — I have dedicated more time to Ferguson than to any other issue. I have marched in Ferguson, rallied in downtown St. Louis, and protested in Clayton, the seat of county government. I have attended countless planning meetings with community organizers and local clergy (the “liberal clergy” referred to in articles like this include me!). I have helped train local activists with Amnesty International and have received trainings myself in conflict de-escalation — now I know what to do if someone is afflicted with pepper spray or tear gas, as many have been while trying to exercise their rights.

I spoke at the Mass Meeting on Ferguson (an interfaith gathering), where I offered a Humanist perspective. I have done eight-hour, midnight-to-morning shifts as a volunteer with Jail Support, ensuring protesters have an advocate when they are arrested. I have spoken from our “pulpit” and written on my blog urging action. And last week I linked arms with local clergy from multiple traditions to block traffic in an act of peaceful disobedience aimed at disrupting business-as-usual in order to make people consider the protester’s demands — something I did again yesterday morning. I chose to do this despite multiple lawyers insisting that I not participate in actions with any arrest risk, since as an immigrant my student visa (and thus my whole career) would be at risk were I arrested even once.

Speaking out at the Mass Meeting on Ferguson

The fact that Kate Lovelady, Leader of the Society, has empowered me to do this work — allowing me to speak on behalf of the Society despite my being a trainee with responsibilities in our congregation, despite this being an extremely sensitive topic, despite the risks involved to any organization which takes a firm stand — speaks to the commitment of our organization and our community to racial justice. Barring a few minor bumps along the way, I have felt nothing but support from my Humanist community, and I know now that when I speak out on these issues I go with the blessing of hundreds of Humanists.

I say this not in order to make us look good. As I said above, we could be doing more. Some of our efforts have not been graceful. Rather, I stress our engagement because it is representative of a long tradition of Humanist passion for social justice — a tradition that is frequently overlooked even by Humanists themselves. While many of us can reel off the names of a few prominent individual activists who have been Humanists, few know that there is a history of organized social justice work that is explicitly Humanist, motivated by Humanist values and supported by Humanist organizations.

This tradition is particularly strong within Ethical Culture. Our founder, Felix Adler, was a member of the Civil Liberties Bureau, which eventually became the ACLU — so he played a part in the founding of one of this country’s most significant civil rights organizations. Ethical Humanists played a pivotal role in founding the NAACP: Henry Moskowitz, then an Associate Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, was a founding member alongside W. E. B. Du Bois. It was the Ethical Movement that created the Encampment for Citizenship, a prominent interracial summer camp dedicated to training young people in the skills to be effective civic activists, an operation supported by Eleanor Roosevelt and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The AEU Commission on Race and Equality (AEU = American Ethical Union — the umbrella body that unites all of the Ethical Societies in the USA), established in 1963 in response to police violence against people of color in Birmingham, Alabama, partnered with a bi-racial women’s group to establish an integrated playschool, interracial summer camps, college prep workshops for black youth, and an interracial seminar on civil rights. These programs were so successful that they were expanded into four cities (all details from When Ethical Culture Headed into Dixie, by Dr. Marc Bernstein).

Closer to Ferguson, the St. Louis Committee of Racial Equality (CORE), described by two St. Louis historians as a meeting place for radical young activists during the Civil Rights years, was founded in part by Ethical Society members. One such member, Billie Ames Teneau, recalled leaving her house one Sunday morning to find “the charred remains of a burned cross” on her front lawn. After informing her husband to contact the police, she proceeded to take her children to the Ethical Society Sunday School as she had planned — after all, they needed their Humanist education. The police, hearing that the cross may have been placed there due to the Ames’ family’s practice of “sometimes having Negro guests,” advised them to stop. Ames, however, recalls that “no change was made in the persons invited to our home” (from Victory Without Violence, by Mary Kimbrough and Margaret Dagen).

These vignettes are but fragments of a larger story of the Humanist social justice tradition: a story that goes untold because most Humanists themselves know little about it. This story suggests that far from lacking, the presence of organized Humanists in social justice movements in recent history has been outsized. Humanists make up a small fraction of the American population and yet our collective influence has been enormous: few groups can claim a founding role in the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Legal Aid Society, or to have established the first free kindergarten in the United States and the earliest American Settlement House. Our small movement has had a big impact.

Nor is our Humanism incidental to our civil rights work. For the people and groups I’ve mentioned, their activism was a direct expression of their Humanist values: their commitment to the dignity of all people was so strong that they risked social ostracism, legal sanction, and in some cases their safety for the causes they believed in. Just as many activists find deep inspiration from their faith, these activists drew strength from their Humanist beliefs and Humanist communities.

The same has been true in Ferguson. Though I hope and strive for an even greater response from my Ethical Humanist community, we are a single congregation of 375 in a region of two million. Our presence — in protests, in marches, in the media, online, in backrooms, and on the streets — has been outsized. We punch above our weight. We have shown that our values — a commitment to the dignity of all people and to the progressive improvement of welfare for all — can inspire moral courage. I’m proud of my community, and of the Humanist social justice tradition it represents. There are Humanists in Ferguson.

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