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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Leaving the Committee on Economic and Racial Justice for the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen

Kester describes his work with Reinhold Niebuhr and Elizabeth Gilman on the Committee on Economic and Racial Justice during the 1930s. Like Kester, Niebuhr and Gilman were members of the Socialist Party and they worked together on the committee to promote social justice for African Americans and workers. Kester, however, broke with the Committee in order to pursue his work with the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen because he believed that the church should be at the center of such work. As elsewhere, Kester here emphasizes the centrality of his radical Christian beliefs to his views on politics and social justice.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

HOWARD KESTER:
I had this committee . . . wonderful committee, Committee on Economic and Racial Justice. Reinhold Niebuhr was Chairman, and Elizabeth Gilman was Treasurer. And all of them, quite a number of prominent New Yorkers, set me free to do whatever I thought needed doing in the South.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I wanted to ask you about Elizabeth Gilman. What was she like?
HOWARD KESTER:
Elizabeth was a member of the Socialist party and her father when President of Johns Hopkins University said to her "Elizabeth, you are a Socialist, but everything you put your hands to turns to gold."
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What was she putting her hands to at that time?
HOWARD KESTER:
Investments, and she raised the money for my work. She said it was the easiest money she ever raised in her life.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
She was from a wealthy Baltimore family, wasn't she?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well her father was President of the University of California, Berkeley, I believe, and then bacame President of Johns Hopkins, that is where he really made his name, and was universally respected.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was he also a Socialist, or was he upset over Elizabeth?
HOWARD KESTER:
No he didn't become upset, and was not a Socialist. He felt that she was intelligent enough to work out her own destiny, you know, in terms of things that she wanted to do, and kept hands off, but he did tell her about the "gold" because she told me that herself.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well you have had a lot of contact with her since she was raising money for your work.
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, I saw her on numerous occasions. We corresponded and she visited in my home and I hers. She resented my leaving the Committee to go with the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. She resented that because she thought we were doing a much needed work. Norman Thomas did too, and Reinhold Neibuhr did too, they all thought that what we were doing was too important to bother with the church, and that's what it almost amounted to. We did get some important things done though.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You felt at the time that it was a better decision, didn't you?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Why did you . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
Well I felt that the church should become involved in all the problems of the people. My motivation was always religious, from the standpoint of a radical Christian approach, to the whole business of living, everything, and I made this my goal.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you feel that the Committee for Economic and Racial Justice was not sufficiently Christian? I mean you said the others had not bothered with the church enough, that is had not confronted the church with the total problems of life.
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, I felt this confrontation absolutely necessary.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
And you felt that more emphasis should be put on that?
HOWARD KESTER:
It's a very difficult thing to unravel because here was Neibuhr, who believed much as I did and who used to prod me because I wasn't teaching, and he was sort of the Godfather of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, and . . . but still they felt that this work that I was doing with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, for example, and the miners, and oil workers, and farmers up in Minnesota, the auto workers, and so on and so on, were just of such vital importance that I ought not to neglect it, and I didn't neglect it, I just tried to get the churches to give a real bone fide Christian witness and get themselves involved in all of these troubles, you know.