Lawrence McK. Miller. Witness for Humanity: The Biography of Clarence E. Pickett. Pendle Hill Publications, 1999.
Clarence Pickett, who died in 1964, was a giant among the great humanitarians of the 20th century. For many years, Pickett served as the executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). He oversaw the AFSC’s wide-ranging efforts to meet human needs and witness for peace in some of the most turbulent and violent years of recent human history.
Pickett and the AFSC received the ultimate accolade when the AFSC was awared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, most especially for their work in saving millions of lives of post-World War II displaced persons.
This biography by Lawrence Miller, himself a longtime worker with the AFSC and other Quaker organizations, gives a comprehensive portrayal of the life of a man who helps us see just how important able and visionary administrators are for the concetizing of high ideals. He tells of Pickett’s lifelong profound commitment to the Quaker expression of Christian faith and commitment to minister to human needs and to witness for peace in a warring world.
Clarence Pickett, once he was able to leave his parents’ Kansas farm and attend college, moved on a fast track toward leadership. He served as a pastor in Friends’ congregations and spent time as a Bible professor at Earlham College. In 1929, when he was in his mid-40s, Pickett was chosen to head the AFSC. He stayed in that position until his retirement in 1950.
Several of the dramatic events recounted by Miller include Pickett’s involvement with Depression-era miners and mill workers, Pickett’s rather amazing and fruitful friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the desperate and prescient work of Pickett and other Quaker leaders to raise awareness of and bring aid to besieged Jews and other minorities in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
This is an inspiring story—in a century of total war and rapacious ec0nomic forces, to see such a powerful witness for peace and human solidarity. Pickett’s story also fascinates in its combination of idealism and pragmatism.
Unfortunately, though this book was published ten years ago, it received little attention and is very difficult to find. Miller notes in the preface that he had a hard time finding a publisher, finally settling for the Quaker-run Pendle Hill, a publisher mostly of excellent pamphlets on peace and various other important themes, but with minimal distribution capabilities.
One reason for lack of interest on the part of publishers is probably the sense that Clarence Pickett is by now too obscure a figure to warrant the investment in a new biography. It also doesn’t help that the book is not written in a particularly engaging fashion. It doesn’t have much narrative force, ending up mainly as simply a cataloguing of one event in Pickett’s life following another.
However, Miller does tell an important story. Since we are not likely to get another biography of Pickett, we may be thankful that we do have this record. The writing may not be particularly dynamic, but the record is here—and the account Miller gives gets the point across. This book is recommended for all who would seek to understand more about important counter-currents to the 20th century’s tragic embrace of the myth of redemptive violence.
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