George Houser: A luta continua!
Some of us chuckled when we first learned of the title of George Houser’s 1989 memoir, No One Can Stop the Rain. Though we appreciated the homage which George was giving to Angolan freedom fighter and poet Agostino Neto, who penned that line while in prison in 1960, we were also aware of an additional truth. Neto, who went on to become independent Angola’s first president, wrote: “Here in prison, rage contained in my breast, I patiently wait for the clouds to gather, blown by the wind of history. No one can stop the rain.” Those of us who had the honor and pleasure of working with the indefatigable elder, who just passed away on August 19, knew this: “No One Could Stop George Houser!”
At age 99, even a year ago it seemed that George would just go on forever. Preparing for the major Pan-African nonviolence gathering that was part of the War Resisters International (WRI) conference held at Cape Town’s City Hall in July 2014, it was unthinkable not to reach out to George in some way. We had an amazing delegation of grassroots representatives from 33 countries across Africa alone, joined by nonviolent activists from every continent, and George practically jumped at the opportunity to send a message. After his children got the technology set up, he extemporaneously delivered an eight-minute greeting which bridged the gap between generations and peoples. It was an extraordinary effort and a beautiful statement. It was, after all, what he’d been doing all his life.
As the son of Methodist missionaries in Asia, Houser undoubtedly had a sense of deep spirituality and internationalism all his life. His overt political involvement came about however when, along with Dave Dellinger and eighteen other students at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, he decided to publicly defy the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act – the World War Two draft. As conscientious objectors, Houser and Dellinger were two of the whites who joined black inmates to struggle against segregation and racism within the federal penitentiary system.
He carried those ideals with him after his year in jail, working on staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and – with fellow FOR staffer James Farmer – founding the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942. After the war, with Houser as CORE’s first executive secretary, the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation was formed: the first North to South Freedom Ride challenging segregation in interstate travel. A close colleague of A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin, Houser was an invaluable early figure in the U.S. civil rights and racial justice movements.
For me, as for anyone who did any work in solidarity with any movement on the African continent – from 1950 till just a short time ago – the name George Houser struck a powerful chord. Houser was the man who knew everyone: the man who had contacts and deep friendships far and wide. No less an iconic figure than Tanzania founding father Julius Nyerere once wrote, “It was George Houser who introduced me to people who supported the African anti-colonial struggle. … All of us who came to the United Nations or the United States during our campaigning for independence received help and encouragement.” But it was my 25-year kinship with Pan African pacifist Bill Sutherland that brought me closer into the circles which George Houser also occupied.
The story goes that Sutherland was on an early 1950s disarmament speaking tour, giving a talk in London, England. There, an editor for the South African magazine Bantu World approached him and told him about plans for the upcoming Defiance Against Unjust Laws Campaign – an African National Congress (ANC) mass initiative against the apartheid regime. Upon Bill’s return home to the States, he got in contact with his old World War Two conscientious objector buddies Houser and Rustin, and sent some of the CORE materials in the post to Johannesburg. The cross-continental connections made at this time laid the groundwork for what was to become Americans for South African Resistance.
Houser began corresponding with the Gandhi’s son Manilal (who was still based in South Africa), and with the ANC leadership – President Albert Luthuli, Secretary Walter Sisulu, and Professor Z. K. Mathews, who ended up teaching at Union Theological and deepening the links between the movements. As Houser noted years later, the work of the Defiance Campaign “was very much like some of the CORE activities – civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws here, defiance against apartheid laws there.”
Americans for South African Resistance, which built support across broad sectors at a time when others groups, like the Council on African Affairs, were being destroyed because of anti-communist hysteria, grew into the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), the largest and most successful U.S. solidarity organization in regards to African affairs. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the ACOA under Houser’s leadership played the central go-between role within the U.S. as African liberation movements fought against racism and colonialism at home while fighting for international recognition and material aid within U.N. structures throughout the world. Whether as a guiding force when academic groups like the African Studies Association was born, as a support mechanism in dealing with quasi-governmental groups like the Council on African Affairs, or as the spear-head of grassroots campaigns educating Americans about the struggles on the continent, the ACOA was at the center of all major African initiatives which affected U.S. life. Houser was the man with the contacts on both sides of the Atlantic, and with the administrative and speaking skills to hold together diverse peoples from all walks of life.
By the 1980s, Houser formally retired as executive director of ACOA, but his influence was still felt as the global anti-apartheid movement grew. He was not a man without faults or above criticism; some always and understandably resented the amount of control and influence of one person. But he used that influence judiciously; always clear that his own pacifist beliefs were not to be imposed on the African movements or the ACOA, and that, as he wrote, “my mission was to support the freedom struggle.” As his life became more locally based, his informal and friendly involvement with the national office of FOR increased, while his commitment to revolutionary change through nonviolent resistance and reconciliation never wavered.
After the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa, Houser’s joyful and life-long relationships with freedom fighters across the geographic and political spectrum blossomed to mature reflections on lives well-spent devoted to social change. Along with ANC elder Walter Sisulu and co-author Herbert Shore, Houser helped the Robben Island Museum publish Sisulu’s autobiography, aptly titled: I Will Go Singing: Walter Sisulu Speaks of his Life and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (2000).
Over the last years, George was known to occasionally apologize for not preparing fully for a given talk or workshop. But he always delivered the most inspiring messages, usually without notes – standing tall and sometimes without a microphone – booming words of encouragement and advice to the new movements springing up in every corner of the planet. In his final message, he spoke of his continued vision “for a peaceful and nonviolent world” and of the excitement of the Pan-African vision of united efforts for liberation. But, speaking from California, he also noted: “As in this country, the struggle for equality and justice and non-discrimination is not at an end, it is not at an end in Africa including South Africa.” His message to those assembled at WRI, like his thoughts upon the 100th anniversary of IFOR, echoed the words of the Mozambican, Angolan, and Guinea-Bissau liberation fronts: A Luta Continua; the Struggle Continues. May we all struggle with the spirit, forthrightness, longevity, and vision of dear, departed comrade George Houser.
Matt Meyer is co-author, with Bill Sutherland, of Guns & Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle & Liberation in Africa. A founding co-chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Meyer is a former public draft registration resister and past chair of the War Resisters League. He continues to serve as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group and as a PJSA board member.
Photos: (1) Houser with Walter and Albertina Sisulu, courtesy of George Houser. (2) Houser in Angola in January 1962, from George Houser personal collection given to African Activist archive.