Abraham Muste was born in Zierkzee, Holland, on 8th January, 1885. His family moved to the United States in 1891. His father was supporter of the Republican Party and as a young man he shared his conservative views. In 1909 he was ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
Muste became increasingly radical and in the 1912 presidential campaign supported Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate. On the outbreak of the First World War Muste left the Dutch Reformed Church and became a pacifist. In 1919 he played an active role in supporting workers during the Lawrence Textile Strike and later moved to Boston where he found work with the American Civil Liberties Union. In the early 1920s Muste worked as director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, Westchester County. He also joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).
Muste was disturbed by the events that were taking place in the Soviet Union. He no longer felt he could support the policies of Joseph Stalin. Muste now decided to join with other like-minded people to form the American Workers Party (AWP). Established in December, 1933, Muste became the leader of the party and other members included Sidney Hook, Louis Budenz, James Rorty, V.F. Calverton, George Schuyler, James Burnham, J. B. S. Hardman and Gerry Allard.
Hook later argued in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The American Workers Party (AWP) was organized as an authentic American party rooted in the American revolutionary tradition, prepared to meet the problems created by the breakdown of the capitalist economy, with a plan for a cooperative commonwealth expressed in a native idiom intelligible to blue collar and white collar workers, miners, sharecroppers, and farmers without the nationalist and chauvinist overtones that had accompanied local movements of protest in the past. It was a movement of intellectuals, most of whom had acquired an experience in the labor movement and an allegiance to the cause of labor long before the advent of the Depression."
Soon after its formation of the AWP, leaders of the Communist League of America (CLA), a group that supported the theories of Leon Trotsky, suggested a merger. Sidney Hook, James Burnham and J. B. S. Hardman were on the negotiating committee for the AWP, Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and Arne Swabeck, for the CLA. Hook later recalled: "At our very first meeting, it became clear to us that the Trotskyists could not conceive a situation in which the workers' democratic councils could overrule the Party or indeed one in which there would be plural working class parties. The meeting dissolved in intense disagreement." However, despite this poor beginning, the two groups merged in December 1934.
In 1940 Muste was appointed executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). In this position Muste led the campaign against United States involvement in the Second World War. In 1942 Muste encouraged James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to establish the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Early members included George Houser and Anna Murray. Members were mainly pacifists who had been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and 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 blacks to obtain civil rights in America.
After the war Muste joined with David Dillinger and Dorothy Day to establish the Direct Action magazine in 1945. Dellinger once again upset the political establishment when he criticised the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In early 1947, CORE 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 George Houser and Bayard Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation was to be a two week pilgrimage through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Journey of Reconciliation began on 9th April, 1947. The team included George Houser, Bayard Rustin, James Peck, Igal Roodenko, Joseph Felmet, Nathan Wright, Conrad Lynn, Wallace Nelson, Andrew Johnson, Eugene Stanley, Dennis Banks, William Worthy, Louis Adams, Worth Randle and Homer Jack.
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 of Racial Equality. In February 1948 the Council Against Intolerance in America gave George 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.
The Congress of Racial Equality also organised Freedom Rides in the Deep South. In Birmingham, Alabama, one of the buses was fire-bombed and passengers were beaten by a white mob. Norman Thomas described these young people as "secular saints" I. F. Stone has argued: They and a few white sympathizers as youthful and devoted as themselves have begun a social revolution in the South with their sit-ins and their Freedom Rides. Never has a tinier minority done more for the liberation of a whole people than these few youngsters of C.O.R.E. (Congress for Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)."
By 1961 Congress of Racial Equality had 53 chapters throughout the United States. Two years later, the organization helped organize the famous March on Washington. On 28th August, 1963, more than 200,000 people marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. At the end of the march Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Abraham Muste died on 11th February, 1967.