Ninety Nine years is only the last accomplishment of George Houser’s amazing life:

  • WW II conscientious objector, 1940
  • Co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, 1942
  • Bus rider with Bayard Rustin into the segregated south, 1948
  • South African anti-apartheid organizer, 1952

The New York Times has an obituary.  How can we absorb his conscientious humanity?

“Deeply influenced by the work of Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi, Mr. Houser joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1938, while a student there.

In 1940, he and a group of classmates, including David Dellinger, who went on to become a member of the Chicago Seven, refused to register for the draft as mandated by the Selective Training and Service Act. The act had been signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that year.

“As theological students, we had an automatic exemption,” Mr. Houser explained in a 2002 interview with The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y. “But we wanted to protest peacetime conscription.”

Mr. Houser, Mr. Dellinger and six fellow students were sentenced to prison in November 1940. Their story was the subject of a 2000 PBS documentary, “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It.”

After serving a year in the federal prison at Danbury, Conn., Mr. Houser joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation as its youth secretary. He later moved to Chicago, where he completed his divinity degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary and received ordination.

In 1942, after Mr. Houser and his friend [James] Farmer were denied service at a Chicago restaurant, they, [Bayard] Rustin and others established what became CORE. Mr. Houser served as the group’s first executive secretary.

Bayard Rustin and George Houser, undated, sitting in at Cleveland restaurant

Bayard Rustin and George Houser, undated, sitting in at Cleveland restaurant

CORE soon became a national organization, enrolling tens of thousands of members in dozens of chapters within its first few years. Endorsing nonviolent protest, it convened sit-ins in public accommodations around the country.

In 1946, ruling in a landmark case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that segregation on interstate transit was unconstitutional.

The next year, to test the ruling, Mr. Houser and Mr. Rustin, CORE’s first field secretary, organized the Journey of Reconciliation. They convened a team of 16 men — eight black and eight white — to ride interstate buses through the South.

[Cross posted at The Last Dog Watch]