“UBUNTU: George M. Houser and the Struggle for Peace and Freedom on Two Continents,” by Sheila Collins, Ohio University Press, 2020.
The most important people in the world are often those who work quietly in the background of events, devoting their skill, commitment, and lives to the causes they believe in. They receive no acclaim, but without them, there would be no triumph. George Houser is such a man, and his service has been given whole-heartedly and without reserve to the cause of human freedom and human equality . . .
– Julius K. Nyerere, first president of Tanzania
How does someone take an idea and an ideal and realize it without major government or foundation funding and without creating an institution that might smother the ideal? This is the story of one man who did that. George M. Houser, a white Methodist minister, was one of the most significant, if relatively little known, peace and anti-racist activists of the twentieth century. An early founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he pioneered, as early as the 1940s, the civil disobedience campaigns that became a model for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He later founded the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), which became a major U.S. support base for ending the colonial era and organizing the anti-apartheid movements, initiating the iconic campaigns that helped prepare the ground for the toppling of the South African apartheid regime. Houser’s organizing style provides many useful insights for those working today for racial, economic, and gender justice.
– Sheila D. Collins
By WINIFRED ARMSTRONG
“UBUNTU,” tells a story of who and what propelled the uneven march to independence in Africa in the 1950s-1980s in a way that one better understands African and American choices made and not made and outcomes, which continue to shape current choices.
It describes the wrenching discussions of both George Houser and the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) with nationalist leaders, particularly in Southern African countries—discussions about whether to adopt non-violent direct action as a principal strategy and how violence would be a necessary tactic while fearing the longer-term legitimization of violence—again a consequence still with us.
It references without bluster how the US/USSR cold war became a form of neocolonialism in Africa, shaping choices of many African representatives, whether to choose one, avoid both, or try to pose alternatives.
It reveals how George Houser’s respect for individuals and the way they thought moved him to listen to different people and maintain long-term friendships, even as some became contenders with each other—and how within ACOA his capacity to address process and not just “position” became at times an administrative challenge.
It remarks how George’s instincts and rationale persuaded him to eschew the self-perpetuating propensity of a large organization and build a nimble, small organization that could address the immediate challenges.
It describes how in South Africa—whether intended or not—the drive for justice/ending apartheid/disinvestment became a lever for better jobs for more Africans, even in firms that had not previously considered opportunities or consequences. (I had contact with firms operating in Southern Africa at the time and saw how the efforts of groups like ACOA strengthened those in the firms to push for change.)
The book’s Footnotes in both substance and format motivated this reader to explore more, rather than close off the subject as footnotes so often do.
“Ubuntu” is a Zulu word that expresses a concept, which has its counterpart in languages throughout Africa south of the Sahara. That concept relates to a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. More formally, the African Journal of Social Work defines it as: “A collection of values and practices that Black people of Africa or African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing—an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.” There is a word for this concept in many if not most languages across the African continent.
Economist Winifred Armstrong was a colleague and longtime friend of George Houser’s on African matters during the 1950s and ’60s. She advised Sen. John F. Kennedy 1959-60 on African issues in his capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. Her papers on Africa are archived at the Kennedy, Hoover, and Schomburg Libraries.