On the night of April 29, 1962, the White
House was the scene of a glittering gathering, described by the
press as possibly establishing a new high in concentrated
American brainpower. The President and Mrs. Kennedy received all
past Nobel Prizewinners from the United States and Canada. That
morning a group of Quakers had walked silently before the White
House to draw the President's attention to the urgency of ending
the nuclear arms race. Among the marchers was a frail
seventy-seven-year-old man, Clarence E. Pickett. The same
evening, in white tie and tails, he and his wife, Lilly, appeared
at the White House gate as invited guests representing the
American Friends Service Committee. The President enjoyed both
the humor and the wider significance of having the White House
"Picketted" from the outside and from within on the
The Incident tells volumes about an extraordinary guest as well as about a perceptive host. And it tells something about a nation that can appreciate such goings-on. Clarence Pickett was no newcomer to the White House. Three previous occupants had invited him, one frequently. Herbert Hoover sought his advice on the plight of distressed coal-mining communities. Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, consulted him on such diverse questions as subsistence homesteads, spiriting harasses Jews out of Nazi Germany, relief of devastated Europe and Asia, finding a teacher for the Crown Prince of Japan. Harry Truman selected him to help devise more humane immigration policies. John F. Kennedy appointed him advisor to the Peace Corps. Mrs. Roosevelt, who allotted to AFSC her earnings from broadcasts, said in 1958, "I always try to do the things Clarence asks because I have great trust in his judgment."
He never traveled in government circles by choice. He was there only in the interest of his clients, the little people of the world. In high places and low he represented the oppressed, the persecuted, the disadvantaged, the underdog of every color, race, religion, and nation. His concern for humanity came naturally. His pious Quaker mother had to purge herself of some initial resentment at his arrival as her ninth child when she was forty-three. She took consolation in the hope that he might become "a devoted, useful member of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth." Thousands influenced by him testify to the ample realization of a mother's dream. Educated at Penn College, Iowa, Hartford Theological Seminary, and Harvard, he served as a Quaker minister in Toronto and Oskaloosa, as national secretary of Young Friends' activities, and as professor of biblical literature at Earlham College. From 1929 until partial retirement in 1950, he was executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.
This small, religiously motivated organization had an annual budget of $55,000 in 1929. Under his leadership and that of his successors, its budget has grown to more than $5,000,000. Despite his and their conscientious abhorrence of corporate bigness, its program is now worldwide. AFSC provided the principal channel-though by no means the only one-whereby Clarence Pickett sought to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth. His means were varied. Even when exceedingly practical, they were never mundane. Mediation of labor-management disputes, subsistence housing and cooperative farming for miners, economic assistance to Negro slum-dwellers and war-displaced Japanese-Americans, more humane police practices in Philadelphia, and relief for Jewish, Arab, and other refugees were just a few of his good works. But he also gave steadily increasing priority to removal of the causes of man's suffering. His only enemies were human hatred and misunderstanding, willingness to wage war, hesitancy to wage peace, inadequate structures for resolving differences among nations.
Counseling with Quaker students during World War I on how they might best serve humanity in crisis helped him and them to a concept of Christian pacifism transcending mere rejection of war participation. A vision emerged of a time when war would not longer be an instrument of national policy, and of promising steps to bring that time nearer. It distressed him that post-World War II society forgot so quickly the lessons of the war, and reverted so often to mindless force in resolving international disputes. But he never lost hope.
His later years left him freer to pursue fundamental goals. Strengthening the United Nations was a cherished aspiration. To this end he developed the Quaker Program at the U.N. A prominent Moslem diplomat told the General Assembly of Clarence's major role in creating the first U.N. Meditation Room, and of its practical benefit to Moslem members who had previously resorted to telephone booths for repeating their prayers.
Always alert to reducing East-West tensions, he and AFSC decided to create a special emergency fund for shipment of urgently needed streptomycin to the Soviet Union. He viewed disarmament as fundamental to reduction of tensions leading to war. He was co-chairman of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
Clarence Pickett's zeal for peace made of him a highly controversial figure, sometimes eliciting vitriolic attacks from the extreme right, ludicrously incongruous charges to all who knew him. Called a radical for his opposition to war, for espousal of the rights of minorities, for his doubts about the House Un-American Activities Committee, for efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, he found that such allegations rarely came from those who had met him face to face. For to know him was to respect him, and often to become infected with his enthusiasms.
Many marveled at his gift for bringing out the best in colleagues and even in casual acquaintances. Doors that were closed to most "unofficials" in Washington, New York, and the great capitals swung open freely to him. Minds also swung open and, more important, so did hearts. Many of the world's great beat a path to his door, a small house on the campus of Haverford College where the Picketts spent their last decade and a half. His visitors were by no means all distinguished. They included precisely the little people on whose behalf the great also come. Even doors of capitals hard to penetrate sometimes opened to his knock and that of AFSC. This was especially true of those behind the so-called Iron Curtain. To his great disappointment, one exception was Peking. But he never gave up hope of improved relations with China.
The war in Vietnam saddened him not only as a dreadful human tragedy but as a breakdown of morality, a reversion on both sides to primitive methods that have always failed in the past. The last message written before he died on March 17, 1965, read: "The struggle in Vietnam is futile. It will not really defeat the appeal of Communism; also it jeopardizes the good name of the United States and sacrifices good American and Asian lives. Statesmanship by America calls for a commanding gesture for negotiation and a facing of the real problem of Vietnam-poverty, insecurity, and defeat. I urge a prompt turn in the direction of peace."
Recipient of scores of honors, awards, honorary degrees, board member of foundations and institutions, friend of world leaders, Clarence Pickett never lost humility. He constantly reminded himself that the truly prophetic voice must be so critical of its own world and times that praise becomes a source of worry, not satisfaction.
His response to the announcement of the award to AFSC and its British counterpart of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize was characteristic. Facing his elated staff for the first time after the news arrived, he suggested a period of silent worship for each to ponder the thought "Beware when all men speak well of you!"
An essay by Harold E. Snyder. Taken from Clarence Pickett—A Memoir, compiled and edited by Walter Kohoc, 1966.
A biography written by Lawrence Mck. Miller and published by Pendle Hill Publications, Witness for Humanity (1999), gives wonderful insight into the character and work of Clarence Pickett.
For additional information about Clarence Pickett see: For More Than Bread an autobiographical account of twenty-two years' work with the American Friends Service Committee. Boston: Little/Brown, 1953.