Creative Minority Report: How the Humanist Movement Changed America

Leah Mickens

The idea for this project and partial funding for its research and writing was provided by Gordon Gamm.— The Editors

At the core of humanism i s an ethical outlook that is based on human interests and needs. Rejecting the religious dogmas and ideologies that have done so much to damage humanity, humanists seek to promote a society in which individual freedom is respected, human welfare is promoted, and social structures are equitably configured to ensure true equal opportunity for all. To quote Free Inquiry founding editor Paul Kurtz, humanists seek “to develop just societies that will maximize both individual happiness and social well-being under conditions of fairness and equity.” But have these humanist ideals had any significant influence? This essay will address this critical question.

A Secular Humanist Declaration was issued in 1980. The document launched Free Inquiry magazine and the Council for Secular and Democratic Humanism (CODESH), now the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Center for Inquiry. The initiative had its critics. Strident voices on the religious Right charged that “secular humanists” were conspiring to fundamentally change the character of American society. A broader spectrum of Christians felt dismayed by humanism because it challenged the status quo and questioned conventional beliefs.

I will argue in this article that, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, a humanist movement—and its underlying ideals—helped to shape many of the major social-reform initiatives that would transform America’s political and cultural landscape during the twentieth century. This humanist movement was somewhat amorphous. Still, in the early decades of the twentieth century, it could be said to comprise three separate but connected threads: the Ethical Culture movement, the Unitarian Church, and a third group that I will call “independent humanists.”

Ethical Culture. The Ethical Culture movement was founded in New York City by Columbia University ethics professor Felix Adler in 1877. The son of a German Reform rabbi, Adler was inspired by Immanuel Kant’s critique of religion while studying at the University of Heidelberg. Adler was particularly struck by Kant’s conclusion that neither the existence nor nonexistence of God or the immortality of the soul could be proven, since both were beyond the scope of empirical experience. In contrast, morality and ethics could be ascertained through the use of reason without referencing a theological system. From this, Adler decided to form a purely ethical, universalist religion that retained the congregational style of traditional Judaism but focused on progressive social reform, the development of personal excellence, and democratic education rather than the worship of a deity. The Ethical Culture movement provided an intellectual and social home for nonreligious Jews who believed in the ethical teachings of Judaism but abhorred traditional synagogues and were barred from participating in mainstream organizations due to institutional anti-Semitism. While the Ethical Culture movement would never be large, its leaders and adherents would play key roles in social-change movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Unitarian Church. The Unitarian Church in America grew out of the democratically governed Congregationalist churches founded by the Puritans in colonial New England. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a strong rationalist element in Congregationalism, ranging from deism and transcendentalism to the outright rejection of the notion of a personal god. This led to a split between Congregationalists who were orthodox Christians and their more-liberal counterparts. This culminated in the latter’s breaking away to form the American Unitarian Association. During the First World War, there were tensions between humanists and theists within Unitarianism; this continued until the end of the Second World War, when the denomination adopted a policy that one could be a theist or an atheist and remain a Unitarian in good standing, a position that the modern Unitarian Universalist Association holds to this day.

The Independent Humanists. The so-called independent humanists were individuals who explicitly identified themselves as humanists, atheists, agnostics, or skeptics but who were not affiliated with any of the organized religious-humanist groups. These independent humanists could be considered the forerunners of today’s secular humanists, who eschew all trappings of organized religion.

These three strands of the humanist movement came together to establish new humanist institutions starting in the early twentieth century. At this time, there was within the movement a widespread belief that humanism would be “a new faith for a new age.” Many early humanist societies had a religious-humanist orientation, including the First Humanist Society of New York, various Ethical Culture societies, and the Humanist Society of Friends. Even independent humanists including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and Julian Huxley believed that some form of quasi-religious humanism was destined to fill the void left behind by traditional organized religion. The first Humanist Manifesto (sometimes called Manifesto I), issued in 1933, had a heavy religious-humanist flavor, and many of its signers were Unitarian ministers.

The first national humanist group in the United States was the Humanist Press Association, established in 1935. It grew out of the Humanist Fellowship (founded 1927), a local association of humanist Unitarian ministers and seminary students at the University of Chicago, many of whom would later sign Humanist Manifesto I. The Humanist Fellowship had published The New Humanist, the first magazine dedicated to humanism in the United States. When The New Humanist folded, the group launched another publication called The Humanist Bulletin and changed its name to the Humanist Press Association, reflecting its growth beyond its beginnings as a local fellowship. The Humanist Bulletin was discontinued in 1941 to make way for The Humanist magazine, which later became the flagship publication of the American Humanist Association (AHA), the organization that superseded the Humanist Press Association and exists to this day.

After World War II, a number of independent humanist groups were established in Western Europe, India, and Africa. At the same time, Harold Blackham of the British Ethical Union had a vision of uniting humanists throughout the world in an international organization modeled on the United Nations (UN). Indeed, three prominent humanists had held key posts in the nascent UN:

  • Julian Huxley, whom the AHA would name Humanist of the Year in 1962, headed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
  • Brock Chisholm, whom the AHA would name Humanist of the Year in 1959, directed the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • John Boyd Orr led the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Huxley in particular hoped that the UN would encourage the nations of the world to transcend parochial concerns and create a unified, humanistic world community. He was disappointed when the international body became just another venue for the great powers to pursue their respective national interests. With the help of other European humanists, Blackham and Huxley organized a series of conferences that led to the establishment of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in 1952, an entity they hoped would become a strong advocate for the global humanist values that they found lacking at the UN.

Humanism and Twentieth-Century Social-Justice Movements

Another point of convergence was the social-justice movements that swept industrialized societies in the mid-twentieth century. While the establishment of humanist societies at the local, national, and international levels helped to create some semblance of a unified humanist movement, their participants tended to be less concerned about spreading humanism qua humanism than they were focused on particular issues on which they felt action could change society for the better. Despite, or perhaps because of, the humanist movement’s small size and amorphous character, it was possible for members involved in a given social-justice movement to draw on their fellow humanists to help provide person-power for another cause. We will now examine humanist participation in three important twentieth-century social movements: the abortion law repeal/decriminalization movement, the voluntary euthanasia movement, and the early movement for African-American civil rights.

The abortion law reform/decriminalization movement. Since the founding of the United States, abortion had generally been legal until the “time of quickening,” when fetal movement could be detected. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did physicians associated with the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) begin fighting to criminalize abortion. The purpose of the AMA was to professionalize and regulate the medical profession; this led to concern about the proliferation of “irregular” doctors, especially female midwives, performing abortions without proper medical training. Abortion became the target of the so-called “doctors’ campaign,” which was also animated by concern that middle- and upper-class Protestant women of British and Northern European heritage were having fewer children than poor Catholic, Jewish, and African-American women. Fearing that America’s “racial stock” would be diminished by the large numbers of poor, non-WASP babies, the doctors’ campaign sought further restrictions on abortion access to ensure that “the right kind of women” reproduced. This campaign was extremely successful; within twenty years, more than forty bills had been passed by state legislatures criminalizing abortion in some way.

Despite these restrictions, as reported by legal historian Laurence H. Tribe, women of all classes and races continued to have abortions at more or less the same rates that they had prior to criminalization. Rich women always had access to safe abortions, as it was relatively simple for them to find sympathetic doctors willing to perform the operation. If no doctors could be found on a local level, then rich women could have an abortion in another country and claim to be on vacation. In other cases, doctors could claim that an abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother even when no such danger existed. However, by the 1950s, improvements in medical care meant that fewer women were dying in childbirth. As a result, fewer abortions could be justified on grounds of a threat to the life of the mother, narrowing the single loophole then available to many women for obtaining a legal abortion. At the same time, medicine was becoming more institutionalized and bureaucratized, causing more scrutiny to be placed on the “legitimate abortions” that were being performed. Thus “review boards” were established to determine whether abortions were medically necessary, rather than leaving the decision to the judgment of individual doctors. Doctors began to demand that existing abortion laws be clarified in order to reduce the risk of lawsuits; at the same time, they demanded to be liberated from control by review boards.

In response to the medical profession’s demand for greater leeway in performing abortions, the Association for the Study of Abortion (ASA) was established by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, then the president of Planned Parenthood (and a signer of Humanist Manifesto II ), to educate professionals—mostly doctors and lawyers—on the need to reform abortion laws. ASA was then a small organization with a single branch in New York City; even so, it had a national reach. The group was instrumental in conferring an air of legitimacy on the abortion-reform movement. It eventually came to support the “repeal position” (the position that all laws restricting abortion needed to be repealed) and would come to play a crucial role in the Roe v. Wade case (decided 1973) by providing experts who would argue for abortion-law repeal. In addition, the ASA conducted research whose results would be cited as an important influence on the court’s decision.

Three more radical members of ASA—Lawrence Lader, Ruth Proskauer Smith, and Lonnie Myers—would eventually leave the group and establish the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL, later the National Abortion Rights Action League, now NARAL Pro-Choice America) to pursue a more confrontational approach. All three had ties to the humanist movement. Lader was a self-described freethinker who fiercely championed church-state separation and criticized the Catholic Church’s political meddling, especially on the issues of access to abortion and contraception. He received the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 1989 Freethought Pioneer Award for his quixotic but failed campaign to strip the Catholic Church of its tax-exempt status. Proskauer Smith was raised as an Ethical Culturist. Myers’s work in the abortion-law repeal movement was motivated by her feminist and freethought sensibilities, and she would later win the AHA’s Humanist Distinguished Service Award in 1999 for her work in the reproductive-rights movement and in the field of sexology.

Many abortion-law repeal activists came into the movement through their involvement in population-control initiatives broadly popular among humanists. Principal organizations included Zero Population Growth (ZPG, now called Population Connection) and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization (AVS, now EngenderHealth). ZPG’s stated goal was to address the global overpopulation problem, not to decriminalize abortion per se, and the membership was split between those most interested in family-planning issues and those more focused on environmentalism. Some environmentalists in ZPG feared that the organization would earn a reputation as an abortion-legalization group rather than one focused on the environmental impact of unchecked population. Despite these concerns, abortion remained a key issue for ZPG for several reasons. The most obvious reason was that a large percentage of ZPG’s membership considered abortion reform an issue that required the group’s attention. Since Planned Parenthood and other major family-planning agencies then viewed abortion-law repeal as “mission drift,” there were few large, established organizations advocating specifically for abortion reform. Local ZPG chapters became centers of abortion-reform activism; in some areas, they constituted the only groups working on the issue. In Chicago, for example, there were ten ZPG chapters, mostly based on college campuses. ZPG’s University of Illinois at Chicago chapter worked in tandem with the campus women’s-liberation group to operate a service that loaned students money to obtain abortions.

The humanist doctor-activists who spearheaded the establishment of ASA and NARAL were also heavily involved in ZPG and AVS. Lawrence Lader served on the executive committee of AVS as well as on the board of ZPG. Lonny Myers and other population activists helped start Illinois Citizens for the Medical Control of Abortion in 1966, a state-level abortion-law repeal advocacy group. Alan Guttmacher was a member of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization. Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) founder Anne Nicol Gaylor was active in the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter of ZPG precisely because it was the only organization advocating for abortion-law repeal. In the early 1970s, Gaylor referred women seeking abortions to doctors and hospitals that might be sympathetic to their plights; she referred forty such women to clinics in Mexico where she knew abortions could be obtained under sanitary conditions and at relatively low cost. Gaylor also created an abortion-referral hot­line that she ran single-handedly, using her home phone number.

Humanist activists’ considerable interest in both population control and abortion-law repeal is reflected by the frequency with which these subjects were covered in humanist publications of the time. A 1969 report from the AHA noted the existence of a working group for increasing public awareness about abortion, contraception, and voluntary sterilization, as well as a Post Abortion Care Clinic. An undated Humanist House newsletter from roughly the same time period includes a message from Stewart Pahl, chairman of the AHA Committee on Population, exhorting members to become involved in groups such as ZPG, Planned Parenthood, and AVS. Pahl noted that ZPG and AVS were pleased and thankful for volunteers from AHA, indicating that humanist involvement and support for these groups was considerable.

Activists in the abortion-law repeal movement were few in number but highly determined. They tended to be individuals with the political, professional, or social influence to convince “ordinary people” to join them in a fringe movement focused on an issue seldom discussed in polite society. While some activists had ties to established interest groups such as the AMA or Planned Parenthood, their abortion-law repeal activities were not endorsed by these organizations; essentially, the activists were operating as independent agents. Key to the success of the abortion-law repeal movement was the presence of bipartisan support for reform or repeal of abortion laws and the fact that many religious groups worked in tandem with secular activists to provide referral services for women seeking abortions. While most religionists of the period frowned on frank discussion about abortion, contraception, and sex, many agreed that the status quo of criminalizing abortion was untenable. For example, even so conservative a denomination as the Southern Baptist Convention was officially pro-choice as late as 1980. Prior to that time, Southern Baptists and other Protestant evangelicals had tended to view antiabortion activism as a matter of interest only to Catholics. The growing reaction against Roe v. Wade (1973) led evangelical denominations to take up the antiabortion cause; this coincided with a dramatic purge of liberal clergy and academics from Southern Baptist institutions during the 1980s, making that denomination a new leader in antiabortion activism.

That so many religionists who had been pro-choice would abandon that stance so rapidly when abortion became a culture-war wedge issue simply underscores that many of them had been fundamentally ambivalent about abortion all along. In contrast, those with a humanist orientation saw abortion not as a necessary evil but as a positive social good, and they were willing to defend it even though it was politically unpopular.

The voluntary euthanasia movement. While various forms of euthanasia have existed since antiquity, the modern debate about doctor-assisted dying began in the nineteenth century, when the discovery of powerful narcotics such as chloroform and morphine made a painless “good death” broadly accessible for the first time. At the same time, attitudes toward suicide—still considered a crime in most of Europe—were changing as the result of sociological inquiry into the phenomenon, led particularly by the French scholar Emile Durkheim.


Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture movement mentioned earlier, was the first prominent American to endorse the idea of voluntary euthanasia. In 1891, he said that the terminally ill should be allowed to request doctor-assisted dying, but insisted that euthanasia had to be voluntary and might not always be the best choice in every case. In Adler’s mind, human life had no absolute value; therefore, he believed that individuals had the right to do with their lives what they wished, including to end them if they so chose. As an ethics professor at Columbia University, a writer, lecturer, and the leader of the various institutions under the umbrella of the Ethical Culture movement, Adler was in a unique position to disseminate his then-unorthodox views on euthanasia and the value of human life.

Another important nineteenth-century American humanist to endorse euthanasia was Robert Green Ingersoll, the famed agnostic lawyer and orator. Ingersoll advocated suicide in 1894 as a means of alleviating the pain of the terminally ill, noting that any such person should have “the right to end his pain and pass through happy sleep to endless rest.” Ingersoll was influenced by the work of French sociologist and philosopher Auguste Comte, who believed that human society was evolving into an age of science, reason, and progress. To Ingersoll, a key part of that evolution entailed moving away from values based on religious dogma and toward those based on the findings of the natural and social sciences. In the case of euthanasia in particular, Ingersoll thought that the morality of suicide should be reassessed as, potentially, a rational and even loving act, depending on the circumstance, as opposed to an unequivocal sin against God.

While doctors, philosophers, and religious leaders continued to discuss euthanasia and suicide as an intellectual matter, there were few attempts to legalize voluntary euthanasia. This changed in 1931, when Dr. C. Killick Millard, health officer for Leicester, England, gave an address before that country’s Society of Officers of Health in which he called for the legalization of euthanasia. Millard followed up his talk with an article in the prominent English periodical Fortnightly Review, outlining a proposal for a “Voluntary Euthanasia Legalization Bill” that would permit dying individuals of sound mind to apply for doctor-assisted dying via a court-ordered process. A small group of English intellectuals and freethinkers led by George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, Bertrand Russell, and H. G. Wells established the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society in 1935 to advocate for passage of Millard’s euthanasia bill in Parliament. Unfortunately, the bill had more opponents than supporters; in 1937 it was defeated in the House of Lords by a vote of thirty-seven to fourteen. Despite this defeat, the Euthanasia Society remained undaunted. It continued advocating for the rights of the terminally ill to have autonomy over their lives and deaths, though the next bill on the subject would not come up until 1950.

Humanists also took the initiative to agitate for voluntary euthanasia in the United States. The first American euthanasia group was started in 1938 by Charles Francis Potter, a Unitarian minister who would later establish the First Humanist Society of New York. Called the Euthanasia Society of America, it tried to introduce bills in the states of New York and Nebraska closely modeled on the 1936 proposal in Great Britain. When neither bill passed, the Euthanasia Society of America focused its efforts on advocating for “passive euthanasia” (disconnecting life-support machines, withdrawing life-prolonging treatments) and educating the public on end-of-life issues, reasoning that the public was not yet ready to legalize voluntary active euthanasia. In 1967, the Unitarian humanist Donald McKinney established the Euthanasia Educational Fund (EEF) as an educational arm of the Euthanasia Society of America. McKinney had been president of the Euthanasia Society of America but was discouraged by the group’s repeated failure to pass euthanasia legislation. Reasoning that the American public needed more education before it could accept voluntary euthanasia, the Euthanasia Society of America abandoned its lobbying activities
to concentrate on supporting the EEF’s educational mission.

Although members of the religious establishment condemned voluntary euthanasia almost universally in the postwar decades, there is evidence that opinions were more mixed among the medical community and the public at large. Dr. Arthur A. Levisohn, a professor of medical jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Medical School, conducted a survey to assess where doctors stood on the issue of euthanasia. Sixty-one percent of the 156 internists and surgeons responding to Levisohn’s questionnaire stated that they believed that doctors did perform euthanasia, either by actively hastening the death of a patient or by withholding lifesaving measures. However, 71 percent of respondents stated that they did not approve of making voluntary euthanasia legal. Levisohn sent out a separate questionnaire to nondoctors; 80 percent of 116 respondents answered in the affirmative when asked if they would welcome doctor-assisted dying if terminally ill. Seventy-six percent said they would favor legalizing voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill adults. Levisohn filtered his results by religious affiliation, noting that 74 percent of the Protestant respondents, about 70 percent of the Jews, 100 percent of the atheists and agnostics, and 20 to 25 percent of the Catholics supported voluntary euthanasia. From this, Levisohn concluded that the primary opposition to legalizing euthanasia was religiously based and that there were no compelling secular reasons for criminalizing the practice.

Meanwhile, in England the British Humanist Society, the National Secular Society, and the National Council for Civil Liberties—all organizations with a humanist and/or secular orientation—endorsed resolutions calling for the passage of voluntary euthanasia laws in 1968. The following year Lord Raglan, a Labor peer, introduced the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill before the British Parliament. Although it passed its first reading, the bill was opposed by a group of conservative Members of Parliament who launched a “Human Rights Society” with the sole intention of preventing the bill from becoming law. The British Medical Association said that even if the bill passed, that group wouldn’t change its anti-euthanasia stance. Ultimately, the bill was defeated during its second reading in the House of Lords by a vote of sixty-one to forty—still an improvement over the vote on the 1936 bill and an indication that English opinion was slowly warming to the idea of voluntary euthanasia.

The euthanasia movement experienced a major breakthrough when English journalist and humanist Derek Humphry helped his wife, Jean, who was suffering from terminal breast and bone cancer, to die in 1975 by giving her a cup of coffee laced with secobarbital and codeine. Prior to his involvement in Jean’s death, Humphry had been a well-regarded reporter, known for his award-winning articles on British race relations, and he used his writing ability to describe how he helped his wife commit suicide in the international best-seller Jean’s Way: A Love Story. The popularity of Jean’s Way made Humphry a spokesman for the right to die/doctor-assisted dying movement, eventually eclipsing his original career as a journalist. After Humphry relocated to Los Angeles, he, his second wife, Ann Wickett, and Gerald Larue (soon to become a contributing editor of Free Inquiry magazine) would establish the Hemlock Society in 1980 to advocate for legalizing voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill adults and to provide information on “self-deliverance” for those wishing to take control of their own deaths. The promotion of active euthanasia, including publishing practical information on how to commit suicide, put the Hemlock Society at odds with more conservative groups such as Concern for Dying (formerly the EEC) and the Society for the Right to Die (formerly the Euthanasia Society of America).

While the Hemlock Society tended to be a low-key organization, the in-your-face “death counseling” performed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian beginning in 1987 forced the issue of voluntary euthanasia into public discourse. Kevorkian, a pathologist by trade, believed that the best way to challenge legal and societal taboos against voluntary euthanasia was for doctors to openly help patients to die as a form of civil disobedience. He invented a “thanatron” (death machine) that patients could switch on themselves to hasten their deaths by delivering a lethal chemical cocktail. Another machine, called a “mercitron,” achieved the same result by delivering toxic gas. Kevorkian claimed to have helped scores of people to end their lives before he was imprisoned for second-degree murder in 1999. Kevorkian’s unorthodox views on death (he had once proposed allowing death-row inmates to be rendered unconscious so scientists could perform live experiments on them) were due in large part to his atheism; he dismissed the hypocrisy of religious critics of voluntary euthanasia, noting that “Despite the solace of hypocritical religiosity and its seductive promise of an after-life of heavenly bliss, most of us will do anything to thwart the inevitable victory of biological death.”

Humphry and Kevorkian were often in conflict. Humphry considered Kevorkian too reckless and too eager for the public eye, while Kevorkian was often jealous of Humphry’s mainstream respectability. Kevorkian approached Humphry in 1988 with the idea of opening a “death clinic” in California, but Humphry rejected the idea, fearful that flagrant lawbreaking would hurt the euthanasia movement’s image and wary of the potential for abuse that unlicensed clinics might bring.

In 1990, Unitarian minister Ralph Mero filed Initiative 119 in Washington State, the first state-level voter referendum to legalize voluntary euthanasia. Mero, also director of the Pacific Northwest Region of the Hemlock Society, filed the initiative at the urging of members of his congregation who felt it was time to put euthanasia to a vote. Initiative 119 was carefully worded to prevent abuse and exploitation of the disabled, and it included stipulations that only mentally competent adults with less than six months to live could qualify for aid in death and that no one could request euthanasia on behalf of a third party. Initiative 119 garnered support from a broad coalition of forces, including the elderly, the AIDS community, doctors, feminists, lawyers, and social workers. But it attracted more powerful and energetic enemies, notably the state’s Catholic bishops, former Surgeon General J. Everett Koop, and numerous right-to-life groups. Often these advocates resorted to spreading misinformation about what the Initiative would and would not allow. For example, the director of the Washington State Catholic Conference declared, “We’re asked to say that suicide is a good thing and that taking someone’s life is a good thing.” In a television ad Koop declared, “For over two thousand years doctors have been in the business of healing, not killing… . Vote against medical homicide.” Strong words for an initiative that had so little to do with suicide or killing that Washington’s Supreme Court had ruled that the words kill or homicide must not be used in its ballot language.

In more recent years, the voluntary euthanasia movement has made slow but steady progress, principally through ballot initiatives and other legislative measures. Oregon passed the nation’s first state-level Death with Dignity Act in 1994, though due to court action it did not take effect until 1997. The State of Washington passed its death with dignity law in 2009; Vermont followed in 2013. California passed a death with dignity bill in the fall of 2015.

Humanists came to dominate the voluntary euthanasia movement, in large part simply because they were consistent in their support for death with dignity. In contrast, many believers were conflicted because of the religious establishment’s extreme reluctance to abandon the so-called “sanctity of human life” perspective. Humanists’ activism has profoundly changed the social consensus on this subject. Consider that when nineteenth-century figures such as Robert Green Ingersoll and Felix Adler voiced their support for voluntary euthanasia, they knew they were speaking out almost wholly alone, flying in the face of centuries of Christian and Jewish teaching that suicide for any reason was a grievous sin. In contrast, in a 2014 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans stated that voluntary euthanasia should be available.

Humanist activism in support of death with dignity has surely changed minds.

The civil liberties protection movement. While the movement to secure equal rights for African Americans is usually seen as having its roots in the black church—a misconception that I debunked in “We’ve Come This Far—In Spite of Faith” (Free Inquiry, June/July 2014)—it was actually dominated by secular and freethinking individuals from a variety of racial backgrounds, especially during the early twentieth century. The post-Reconstruction period (1877–1901) is considered the “nadir of American race relations” because of the dire conditions African Americans faced, especially in the South, at this time: black men who had been granted the right to vote during Reconstruction were now disenfranchised by poll taxes, elaborate literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Lynching and other forms of extrajudiciary violence were rampant, and Jim Crow laws were passed to enshrine white supremacy in the legal system. Any hopes that the Supreme Court might advocate on behalf of African-American rights seemed dashed when, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the high court decreed that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional. In response, millions of African Americans left the South to seek better conditions in the cities of the industrial Northeast and the Midwest. However, the new arrivals found that segregation existed in other parts of the country; in addition, their presence exacerbated preexisting ethnic tensions with native-born whites and European immigrants. Indeed, it would be the eruption of a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, which would be the catalyst for the formation of one of the most important and oldest African-American civil-rights organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

After the 1908 Springfield race riot, Mary White Ovington, a white feminist and antiracist activist from a Unitarian background, invited a multiracial coalition of radicals to a conference commemorating the centenary of Lincoln’s birth and seeking ways to advance the cause of black empowerment. That conference resulted in the formation of the NAACP. Its stated aims were ending legalized segregation and lynching, establishing equal and integrated public education for children of all races, and the restoration of black voting rights. The NAACP platform was a slightly modified version of the agenda of black sociologist and civil-rights activist William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Dubois, who in 1905 helped found the Niagara Movement. This group—founded in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, hence its name—had hoped to effect a “mighty current” of social change. It pursued a somewhat radical agenda of enfranchisement and desegregation, in contrast to the accommodationism of more conciliatory black leaders such as Booker T. Washington. By 1908, the Niagara Movement had failed, largely due to factionalism; the NAACP platform revived much of its agenda. Many white philanthropists considered the NAACP too radical. Even some black leaders, particularly Booker T. Washington, thought it too reckless, especially with its tactic of directly challenging racist laws in court.

If the NAACP’s perceived radicalism scared off racial moderates, it was powerfully attractive to humanists who tended to hold radical beliefs concerning the equality of the races. It is understandable, then, that leading humanists of the time figure prominently among the founders and early supporters of the NAACP. John Dewey, the father of American pragmatism and later a signer of the Humanist Manifesto, was present at the 1908 Springfield convention, as was famed sociologist, suffragette, Unitarian, and occasional Ethical Culture lecturer Jane Addams. Ethical Culture leaders John Lovejoy Elliot, Anna Garlin Spencer, and William Salter signed the postconvention petition to organize the NAACP. Other Ethical Culturists, including Oswald Garrison Villard (grandson of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and Henry Moskowitz, held leadership positions in the early NAACP. Dubois himself, an NAACP cofounder, was an agnostic who often took a critical view of the role of the church in black communities. He admired black churches’ relatively democratic governance while deploring their “childish theology of … Hell and Damnation” and their condemnation of such innocent pastimes as theatergoing, card playing, and dancing. Though DuBois was not directly linked to any early humanist organization, clearly his worldview was aligned with theirs.

Ethical Culturists also played an important role in the establishment of another key civil-rights organization, the Urban League. Originally called the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes, the Urban League was established in 1911 by the black sociologist George Edmund Haynes and Ruth Standish Baldwin, a wealthy Unitarian social activist, to provide job training, housing information, and cultural readjustment assistance to Southern blacks who had relocated to Northern cities. Haynes had studied social ethics under Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler at Columbia University. Interracial cooperation was a key value of the Ethical Culture movement; with the Urban League, Haynes, Baldwin, and their supporters sought to create such cooperation by purposely taking a “middle ground” between the aggressive confrontationalism of the NAACP and the accommodationism favored by Booker T. Washington. In this way, the Urban League was able to garner support from conservatives and radicals alike. The Urban League’s first president was E. R. A. Seligman, president of the New York Ethical Culture Society, who had also been present at the founding of the NAACP. The aforementioned activists, the Unitarian Mary White Ovington, and the Ethical Culturist Oswald Garrison Villard also lent their support to the Urban League, though their main allegiance was to the more radical NAACP.


Several years after the NAACP and the Urban League were organized, two Harlem radicals—freethinker Chandler Owen and humanist Asa Philip Randolph—launched a revolutionary magazine titled The Messenger that attacked racism, lynching, economic injustice, and most controversially America’s entry into World War I. Both men were outspoken about their nonbelief in the pages of The Messenger, saying in the publication’s 1919 Thanksgiving message: “We do not thank God for anything nor do our thanks include gratitude for the things most persons usually give thanks at this period. With us, we are thankful for different things and to a different Deity. Our Deity is the toiling masses of the world and the things for which we thank are their achievements.”

The Messenger lasted until 1928. It would become an important chronicler of the cultural and political trends of the Harlem Renaissance, featuring such important black atheist and humanist writers as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Owen eventually moved to Chicago, while Randolph remained in New York and immersed himself in labor organizing.

In 1925, Randolph established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) to organize the African-American workers who staffed the sleeping cars in trains owned by the Pullman Company. At the time, Pullman was the largest single employer of African-American men in the United States; the jobs the company offered were considered well-paid and even “glamorous.” However, black workers still had to endure harsh working conditions, degradingly low pay, and limited opportunities for career advancement. When Randolph first organized the BSCP, African Americans were barred from joining most white unions, and attempts to negotiate directly with Pullman management had stalled. There was considerable opposition from whites and blacks alike to the BSCP due to generalized fears about communist infiltration of organized labor and misgivings about Randolph’s unapologetic radicalism. Randolph’s fight to have the BSCP recognized as the official union of Pullman’s African-American workforce continued until 1937 and resulted in eight thousand employees receiving a cumulative wage increase of $1,152,000.

In addition to leading the BCSP, Randolph also pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in concert with Walter White of the NAACP and T. Arnold Hill of the Urban League) to integrate the armed forces in 1941, threatening a march on Washington if the status quo was not changed. Although the military would remain segregated for a further seven years, Roosevelt did agree to integrate civilian jobs in the war industry promptly with Executive Order 8002 and created a Fair Employment Practices Committee. Randolph would not stop there; after the end of the war he formed the Committee against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, which urged African Americans to resist the draft until the armed forces were integrated. The campaign worked, and President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, finally ending segregation in the military in 1948. In 1970, the AHA would name Randolph its Humanist of the Year; in 1973, he would become a signer of Humanist Manifesto II.

The organizational foundation established by Dubois, Randolph, and their white allies during the nadir of American race relations laid the groundwork from which the civil- rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would emerge. While the positions advocated by the NAACP and The Messenger in the early twentieth century may be considered commonsense today, they were considered too radical at the time even by many blacks, particularly those in the South who faced violent reprisals for minor breaches of Jim Crow etiquette.

In an era when questioning the wisdom of “separate but equal” was considered subversive, civil rights activists from the humanist movement stood up for the value of every person, regardless of race, creed, or color.


While the humanist movement was never as large as members of the religious Right seemed to think, the religious Right was correct in its assessment that a relatively small group of dedicated and influential humanists bore key responsibility for changing the American political and cultural environment in ways of which they disapproved. A core value of secular humanism is to reevaluate human values in light of new information from the natural and social sciences, rather than assuming that certain “truths” are valid simply because they are found in a “holy” text. This value enabled those in the humanist movement to question received wisdom about abortion, euthanasia, race relations, and other contentious issues, rather than assuming that the status quo was and always would be correct.

The cumulative effects of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, the massive defection of ex-Catholics into the “Nones” category, and the “New Atheist” critique of religion’s undeserved privileges are such that the Catholic Church of the twenty-first century—and all of organized religion, for that matter—has been forced to address nonbelief in a way that it didn’t have to thirty years ago.

This secular humanist challenge to religious privilege will be covered in the next segment of this essay.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Norm R. Jr. 2007. “DuBois, William Edward Burghardt.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Allen, Norm R. Jr. 2007. “Randolph, A. Philip.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.Alley, Robert S. 1980. “Southern Baptists Betray Heritage.” Free Inquiry 6, no. 4 (Fall):10.
  • American Humanist Association. 1969. Report from the President, June 16, 1969. Paul Kurtz Papers. Center for Inquiry Libraries and Archives, Amherst, N.Y.
  • American Humanist Association. Undated. Humanist House Newsletter. Paul Kurtz Papers. Center for Inquiry Libraries and Archives, Amherst, N.Y.
  • Anderson, Jervis. 1973. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • “Anyone for Humanism?” (editorial). 1980. America Magazine, November 1: 260. Paul Kurtz Papers. Center for Inquiry Libraries and Archives, Amherst, N.Y.
  • Bullough, Vern. 2007. “Addams, Jane.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.Cox, Donald W. 1993. Hemlock’s Cup: The Struggle for Death with Dignity. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Debenport, Ellen. 1991. “Helping Death: Voters to Decide.” Tulsa [Oklahoma] World, November 4.
  • Dowbiggin, Ian Robert. 2003. A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Franklin, John Hope. 1969. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Gates Jr., Henry Louis, and Cornell West. 2000. The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century. New York: Free Press.
  • Gaylor, Anne Nicol. 1975. Abortion Is a Blessing. New York, N.Y.: Psychological Dimensions.
  • “In Memoriam.”2010. Free Minds (AHA newsletter) 54, no. 1:11.
  • Humphry, Derek. 1978. Jean’s Way: A Love Story. London: Quartet Books.Humphry, Derek, and Ann Wickett. 1986. The Right to Die: Understanding Euthanasia. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Hutchinson, George. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Ingersoll, Robert Green.1900. “Is Suicide a Sin?” In The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. VII, edited by C. P. Farrell. New York: Dresden Publishing, 375–423.
  • Kurtz, Paul. 1999. “Confronting the ‘Corporate Mystique.’” Free Inquiry 19, no. 3 (Summer).
  • McCarthy, Justin. 2014. “Seven in 10 Americans Back Euthanasia.” Gallup, June 18. Accessed April 17, 2015, at
  • Morain, Lloyd and Mary. 1998. Humanism As the Next Step. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanist Press.
  • Muzzey, David Saville. 1967. Ethics As a Religion. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.
  • Olds, Mason. 1996. “What Is Religious Humanism?” Free Inquiry 16, no. 4 (Fall): 11–14.
  • Radest, Howard B. 1969. Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.
  • Roach, David. 2015. “How Southern Baptists Became Pro-life.” Baptist Press News Service, January 16.
  • Ryan, William. 1980/1981. “The Fundamentalist Right: Its Attack on Secular Humanism.” Free Inquiry 1, no. 1 (Winter).
  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1991. The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Simmons, Paul D., ed. 1999. Freedom of Conscience : A Baptist/Humanist Dialogue. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Tribe, Laurence H.
    1990. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Woodward, Kenneth L., and Eloise Salhoz. 1986. “The Right’s New Bogeyman.” Newsweek, July 6: 48–50. Paul Kurtz Papers. Center for Inquiry Libraries and Archives, Amherst, N.Y.

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.

“… Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, a humanist movement—and its underlying ideals—helped to shape many of the major social-reform initiatives that would transform America’s political and cultural landscape during the twentieth century.”

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.