A fundamental belief in the equality of all people has led Quakers to campaign actively against racism in many parts of the world.
In 1816 in England, Yorkshire Quaker John Hoyland wrote The Gypsies, an ethnographic study of the Roma people that drew attention to widespread discrimination and called for their better treatment. In the 1880s, Catherine Impey founded Anti-Caste, Britain’s first anti-racist journal, which drew attention to issues of racism in the United States and in countries of the British Empire.
In the US and Britain, Quakers were actively involved in the movement to abolish slavery. Of course, the abolition of slavery did not automatically lead to the elimination of racism, even among Quakers. Writing in the 1840s, Sarah Mapps Douglass, a Quaker abolitionist from a free black family in Philadelphia, argued publicly that many more blacks would attend Quaker meeting if they were not asked to sit on the segregated back bench and treated with coldness. It wasn’t until 1947 that all Quaker schools in the USA admitted black pupils.
Nevertheless, Quakers were active in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1957, when the Governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, Friends wrote to the Arkansas Gazette: "As part of the Christian brotherhood, we feel that Christ's message comes to us today bidding us love our neighbors whatever color they are. He bids us put trust in our fellow men in place of fear, and supplant proud antagonism with humble, helpful friendliness." Through their Rights of Conscience programme, American Friends Service Committee supported black families who faced abuse and eviction for trying to send their children to all-white schools.
Bayard Rustin, a black Friend from Pennsylvania, was a key advisor to Martin Luther King who promoted the practice of nonviolent resistance. In the 1940s he was instrumental in persuading President Truman to eliminate segregation in the armed forces, and also took part in the Journey of Reconciliation to protest discrimination in inter-state travel. In 1963, he coordinated the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – a rally attended by twenty thousand people that culminated in King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
As a result, New York Yearly Meeting created a Development Fund to provide housing, education, job training, community organization, and legal aid to black people in the New York area.
We believe that South Africa is not for one people alone, or for any one more particularly, but that every section of the population has come to this land under the hand of God… We believe that as Christians it is laid upon us to do all in our power to draw together the separated peoples of South Africa to the end that we may become one nation, united in work and worship for the good of our country and the glory of God…
George F Rayner Ellis, Quaker mathematician and cosmologist, co-wrote two books that severely criticised the housing policy of the apartheid government in the Western Cape that left many non-whites homeless and in a desperate situation. The second book so infuriated the regime that it was denounced from the floor of parliament by the Minister for Housing. Much later, it was used as a guide for a renewed national housing policy.
The Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town was founded in the 1980s in response to the forced removals of non-white South Africans from Cape Town to Cape Flats. Its focus was on non-violent responses to the injustices of apartheid. The Centre’s Diversity Programme began in 2005 as a response to the race-related killing of a high school student.