It should come as no surprise that today — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — is a very big day for the African American Museum in Philadelphia. The long weekend is scheduled with events and lower-priced admission.
It’s also an occasion to launch “Waging Peace: 100 Years of Action,” an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the American Friends Service Committee.
The AFSC began in 1917, just as the United States entered World War I. Fourteen Quakers in Philadelphia conscientiously objected to the war, developing programs to enable people to serve their country without going into combat.
Since then, it has became a major social service organization. In 1933, it launched the first Institute for Race Relations at Swarthmore College; in 1936, it distributed birth control to impoverished people in West Virginia. It opened a health clinic fitting prosthetic limbs to injured Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
It has worked in coal mines in Virginia, impoverished villages in Zimbabwe, developed agricultural systems in Bosnia, and LGBTQ support programs in Portland, Oregon.
“There are no shortage of stories and artifacts,” said curator Elizabeth Tinker, hired by the AFSC to put together the exhibition. “I ran into letters from Eleanor Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez — who worked for the organization — and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m touching it!'”
The challenge Tinker faced was whittling down a century of good works into a one-room exhibition. She decided to organize the show along the five key areas of concern for the AFSC.
“The five areas are ending discrimination; addressing prisons; immigration rights; ending poverty; peace building,” said Tinker. “We added a sixth area — call to action. We wanted people to be engaged beyond this exhibition.”
You don’t often see an exhibition about a Quaker-based organization in an African-American museum, but many of AFSC concerns dovetail with African-American issues, in particular civil rights and prison reform.
“I think it was initially a struggle for us — ‘What’s the right place?’ — because there are so many topics,” said Tinker.
She pointed to an original printing of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In 1963, King sent his now-famous letter to a handful of organizations for dissemination, the AFSC being one of them. It printed a quarter-million copies immediately and more copies in subsequent years.
“We also nominated him for a Nobel Prize,” said Tinker. “All the work we had done made it a good fit.”
The exhibition shows the work hasn’t changed much in a century. For example, pictures showing extreme poverty in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s are next to current images of poverty in Zimbabwe where the AFSC does a lot of work.
One photograph shows Japanese-Americans from Los Angeles packed onto a train to an internment camp during World War II; next to it is an almost identical picture of Syrian refugees on a train to Germany, taken last year.
The exhibition will remain in the African American Museum until April, when it starts to move across the country as a traveling exhibition.