George Houser, the son of a Methodist minister, became a pacifist while studying at the Theological Seminary in Chicago. Houser was influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his theories on how to use nonviolent resistance to achieve social change.
Houser joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the War Resisters League and in November, 1940, he was arrested for resisting the draft. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a year imprisonment in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut.
On his release from prison Houser became youth secretary of Fellowship of Reconciliation. Houser worked closely with Abraham Muste, the leader of the organisation, during the Second World War. Houser also helped Muste and Philip Randolph to organize the planned March on Washington in June, 1941 against racial discrimination in the armed forces. The demonstration was called off when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 on 25th June, 1941, barring discrimination in defence industries and federal bureaus (the Fair Employment Act).
In 1942 Houser, and two other members of FOR, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, established the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Members of CORE had been deeply influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that he used successfully against British rule in India. The students became convinced that the same methods could be employed by African Americans to obtain civil rights in America.
Houser explained the tactics of CORE in 1945: "A person trying to practice non-violence will refuse to retaliate violently. He merely absorbs the physical punishment. This sounds crazy to the average person, who has been taught to protect himself by retaliating when attacked, even if he does take a beating in the process. Why, then, is non-retaliation essential to the non-violent approach? From the negative standpoint, if non-violence is forsaken by the minority group it means the police can be called to arrest them. From the positive point of view, non-retaliatory action may make possible the winning of the support of the public, of the police, and of the opposition."
In early 1947, the Congress on Racial Equality announced plans to send eight white and eight black men into the Deep South to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in interstate travel unconstitutional. organized by Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Although Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was against this kind of direct action, he volunteered the service of its southern attorneys during the campaign. Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP's legal department, was strongly against the Journey of Reconciliation and warned that a "disobedience movement on the part of Negroes and their white allies, if employed in the South, would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved."
The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Igal Roodenko, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Joseph Felmet, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.
James Peck was arrested with Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson in Durham. After being released he was arrested once again in Asheville and charged with breaking local Jim Crow laws. In Chapel Hill Peck and four other members of the team was dragged off the bus and physically assaulted before being taken into custody by the local police.
Members of the Journey of Reconciliation team were arrested several times. In North Carolina, two of the African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Andrew Johnson, were found guilty of violating the state's Jim Crow bus statute and were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang. However, Judge Henry Whitfield made it clear he found that behaviour of the white men even more objectionable. He told Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet: "It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down her bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days, and I give you ninety."
The Journey of Reconciliation achieved a great deal of publicity and was the start of a long campaign of direct action by the Congress on Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave Houser and Bayard Rustin the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy for their attempts to bring an end to segregation in interstate travel.
George Houser later wrote: "We in the non-violent movement of the 1940s certainly thought that we were initiating something of importance in American life. Of course, we weren't able to put it in perspective then. But we were filled with vim and vigor, and we hoped that a mass movement could develop, even if we did not think that we were going to produce it. In retrospect, I would say we were precursors. The things we did in the 1940s were the same things that ushered the civil rights revolution."
Houser ceased to be active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and he turned his attention to the struggle against colonialism in Africa. In 1952 he established Americans for South African Resistance (AFSAR), an organization that supported the African National Congress in its campaign against apartheid in South Africa. The following year he established the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). He served as Executive Director of the ACOA from 1955-1981 and of The Africa Fund from 1966-1981.
George Houser is the author of No One Can Stop the Rain: Glimpses of Africa’s Liberation Struggle (1989) and the co-author of I Will Go Singing: Walter Sisulu Speaks of his Life and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (2000).