Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History

Read an Excerpt from Tracy E. K’Meyer’s “To Live Peaceably Together”

Tracy E. K’Meyer’s To Live Peaceably Together is a thoughtful examination of the struggle for fair housing in the postwar United States, with a unique focus: the efforts undertaken by the Quaker-aligned American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in cultivating wider acceptance of residential integration. In the excerpt below—focusing on work in one of America’s most well-known suburbs, Levittown, Pennsylvania—K’Meyer details some of the spiritual and humanist motivations behind the AFSC, its members’ shifting strategies as they came to better understand structural inequality, and how those strategies were eventually adopted by a variety of other groups.

In August 1957, William and Daisy Myers and their children became the first African American family to buy a home in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Their move and the violence that greeted it became national news, with popular mass media articles covering their story and a sensationalistic half-hour television program bringing it into living rooms around the country. In the months that followed, Philadelphia Housing Opportunities Program staff member Thelma Babbitt pursued two related tasks that received significantly less attention. She immediately set to work finding other Black families to move to Levittown so that the Myerses would not be lone tokens. To do so, she met with middle-class African Americans in their churches, the NAACP, and women’s organizations in Philadelphia and Trenton. Working with a Quaker real estate agent, Babbitt showed families around Levittown to allay their concerns about possible negative reactions and introduce them to the Myerses and to sympathetic whites. After many false starts, she helped Kenneth and Julia Mosby move to Levittown and monitored the community response. Meanwhile, Babbitt responded to a request for help from Friends in nearby Burlington County, New Jersey, who wanted to ensure that minorities could move into real estate developer William Levitt’s new suburb there. She set out to “develop a group of citizens who will work on their own to ‘open up housing opportunities for Negroes’” and found “enthusiasm among a surprising number of people for seeking ways of making some impact” on segregation. In organizing the Burlington County Human Relations Council, she was not interested in the “professional liberals” but in recruiting sympathetic people who “have not been especially active before so they can take some leadership.” Moved by the “new spirit” of the civil rights movement, in the early 1960s the council became an independent entity with its own outreach programs to Black home seekers and a model for organizing “fair housers” in California, Chicago, and elsewhere.

Coming in the wake of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Myerses’ move into Levittown and the confrontation it sparked there drew attention to racism in the North and located the battle against it in the rapidly organizing the expanding suburbs. To join that battle, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) shifted strategy away from lobbying civic officials and major builders. Still guided by Quaker principles of moral persuasion, reconciliation, and the cultivation of the potential of every person, the staff simultaneously worked with individual Black families to help them move to previously closed suburbs and created fair housing councils made up primarily of middle-class whites who would welcome the newcomers into their neighborhoods. The latter task was relatively more successful. The fair housing councils briefly became a popular outlet through which earnest white liberals could respond to the civil rights movement and act on their desire to do something about discrimination in their own corners of the world. Members of these groups ran open housing pledge campaigns, hosted educational forums, maintained lists of available housing, helped Black families negotiate purchases, and defended homes against vandalism and violence. By nurturing the fair housing councils, the AFSC staff sought not only to create a welcoming climate in the suburbs but also to develop independent leadership among the residents there. Internal and external problems, including classist assumptions about who pioneers should be, hostility from local officials and residents, discriminatory federal policies, and ambivalence among middle-class African Americans, limited the councils’ effectiveness and kept the actual amount of integration accomplished low. But their experiences in that effort and the lessons learned from it contributed to the Community Relations Division’s shift toward grassroots organizing to stimulate local people to take action on their own. Because it was one of the few national organizations with staff devoted to nurturing these community-based organizations, the AFSC’s experience with the fair housing councils illuminates how and why they grew, their activities and impact, and the reasons why they stalled in so many places.

The fair housing councils had their roots in the post–World War II proliferation of public and private human relations organizations. During the war, mass mobility, dislocation, and competition for jobs and housing had sparked racial conflicts in the form of hate strikes, violence at the site of integrated defense industry worker housing projects, and riots in major urban centers, most significantly in Los Angeles and Detroit in 1943. This climate inspired a concern about race relations among religious groups, including among some of the AFSC’s longtime partners. In response to the wartime crises, over one hundred secular interracial relations committees also “sprung up” around the country, the majority of which were private, community-based, and dedicated primarily to reducing “any likelihood of similar trouble” close to home. After the war, revelations of Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews demonstrated the horrific result of bigotry, triggering calls for tolerance and attacks on the “race problem.” At the end of the decade, the Journal of Negro Education reported that there were more than one thousand local human relations committees. Some were state or city government agencies empowered by governors and mayors to investigate problems and lobby for legislation. But over six hundred were grassroots citizen efforts or, as Lester Granger of the Urban League called them, “spontaneous gatherings of people.” With a few exceptions, these groups emphasized education and persuasion as they published pamphlets, sponsored mass meetings, presented radio dramas, and circulated literature with the goal of challenging stereotypes about African Americans and changing white racial attitudes and practices.

In the public imagination, the 1950s were a time of conformity and social and political repression. Scholars have characterized the postwar suburbs, where residents organized through their Parent Teacher Associations, coffee klatches, churches, and social networks against both communist threats and Black neighbors, as the birthplace of the modern New Right. But other historians have demonstrated the extent of Cold War–era progressive social activism and organizational life, particularly among women. Indeed, despite the hardening grip of McCarthyite conservatism, the human relations movement persisted in the suburbs throughout the decade. The AFSC staff met and collaborated with people in that movement from the beginning of the organization’s Housing Opportunities Programs. In Chicago, one of James Cassels’s first contacts in 1952 was with the North Shore Citizens Committee, which presented informal and didactic skits about potential African American move-ins. In the Philadelphia area, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom helped launch a human relations committee in Bucks County while the League of Women Voters surveyed housing conditions for Blacks in the mainline suburbs. The AFSC’s organizers in the Northern California Regional Office in San Francisco encountered so many county and city branches of the Council for Civic Unity and the Fair Play Council that they mainly spent their time coordinating the cooperation among these groups. The AFSC naturally found support in Friends Meetings and Quaker organizations, but other religious organizations and individuals, from the Bucks County YMCA to the Santa Clara Council of Churches, Chicago Catholic Interracial Council, American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith chapters in several communities, and the Unitarian Service Committee of Chicago, provided opportunities for faith-based progressive social action. In its fair housing organizing, the AFSC tapped into these existing networks and tried to direct the energy of liberal suburbanites toward welcoming Black families into their neighborhoods.

Tracy E. K’Meyer is professor of history at the University of Louisville.

To Live Peaceably Together is available from our website or your favorite bookseller.