The fourth and final film in the documentary series chronicling the career and impact of peace activist A.J. Muste covers the final four years of his life — an active period all the more remarkable because he was in his late 70s and early 80s.

A.J. (Abraham Johannes) Muste (1885-1967), who was a 1905 Hope College graduate (and class valedictorian), was one of the most well-known and influential peace activists in the United States.  He spoke out against the nation’s involvement in every war from World War I through the Vietnam War.  In his quest for peace he generated controversy for being arrested for participating in protests in the U.S. and meeting with leaders like Ho Chi Minh, yet he also demonstrated in Moscow’s Red Square against nuclear testing.  Muste was also a prominent labor leader across much of his career, with activity including serving as general secretary of the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America and educational director of Brookwood Labor College, and active in the civil rights movement.

The recently completed documentary film series “A.J. Muste: Radical for Peace” follows Muste and his work across the entirety of his life. The series consists of four films produced between 2017 and this past December.  All are available for public viewing at no cost at radicalforpeace.org

The final segment, subtitled “Say not the struggle naught availeth…,” begins with Muste’s 1963 visit to Birmingham, Alabama, when he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement.  It shows him participating in mass protests in Washington, D.C., and New York City in 1965.  It follows him to South Vietnam and Saigon in 1966, and to north Vietnam and his January 1967 meeting with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi.  The Hanoi visit is essentially the conclusion — Muste died just a few weeks later, on Feb. 11, 1967, at age 82.

The film also considers Muste’s character.  It explores how the reputation for trustworthiness he built across decades enabled him to unite activists who didn’t always trust each other.  It shows the affection and respect that the members of the Students for A Democratic Society had for the octogenarian at a time when young people were encouraged not to trust anyone over 30. It reflects on how he spoke with a small Pennsylvania town’s police chief to defuse a confrontation between protesters and counter-protesters. It shows how simply he lived — concerned friends bought a bed for his small New York City apartment when they discovered that he was sleeping on a cot. 

“Say not the struggle naught availeth…” provides a deep dive into one episode in particular:  the 1963-64 “Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Walk for Peace.” Led by Brad Lyttle, a Muste protégé, the walk was designed to encourage cooperation between the countries and racial justice in the U.S. The walkers were arrested in three Georgia cities, once with cattle prods employed. Their crime was demonstrating without a permit, something the city official refused to issue. When they reached Albany, Georgia, they were jailed twice for a total of 52 days.

Given the scope of Muste’s life and career, producer-director Dr. David Schock admits that intense focus on the walk is something of a departure.  He found, though, that it not only united Muste’s interests but demonstrated the character and variety of skills that marked his work with others in pursuing social justice and peace.

“This section of the film might seem disproportionate,” said Schock, an award-winning independent filmmaker who is a former member of the college’s communication and English faculty. “But we are able to have an inside look at the work of A. J.’s young supporters and his successful efforts to have them freed. It didn’t happen overnight and required all his negotiating abilities.”

Schock was invited to undertake the multi-film project by Dr. Kathleen Verduin, a professor of English at Hope who is former chair of the committee that organizes the college’s A.J. Muste Memorial Lecture series. With Schock serving additionally as videographer, editor and researcher, and Verduin as associate producer and researcher, between them they covered thousands of miles, including three trips to the West Coast, three to the East and two to the South.

Along the way they interviewed experts who have written extensively about Muste and those who knew him well and worked with him. Highlights include interviews with scholars Jo Ann Ooiman Robinson and Leilah Claire Danielson, activists David McReynolds, Brad Lyttle, The Reverends Kristin Stoneking, James Lawson, and Andrew J. Young, SDS cofounder Dick Flacks, Gene Keyes, George Lakey, Michele Gloor, Rosalie Riegle, and Sheldon Weeks. Others include The Reverend Art Van Eck, Brenda Walker Beadenkopf, Dorothy Vanderklipp, Heidi Boghosian, and grandson Peter Muste and granddaughter-in-law Shirley and grandson Richard Baker.

“The stories they had to tell us were of his life and a most interesting time as the U.S. peace movement developed,” Schock said. “It was A.J. who helped convince young seminarian Martin Luther King, Jr., that his movement would start and remain nonviolent.”

In creating the series, Schock hopes not only to have provided a lasting and comprehensive account of Muste’s life and work, but to clarify longstanding misperceptions about Muste’s motivation.

“A. J. has been unjustly accused of being a front for the Communist Party. And while it’s true that for a short time in the 1930s he was a Trotskyist, he quickly renounced that — after meeting Trotsky — and asserted that God wanted him to work from within Christianity, not outside it,” Schock said. “He never again left that path of radical adherence to Christ’s example. That didn’t stop him from talking and meeting with all others — including communists — and hearing them out, but he found that a dead branch.”

Verduin’s efforts as the most recent head of the A. J. Muste Lecture Series at Hope and working closely with Schock on this project have led her to a nuanced appreciation of Muste’s life. “He was gifted, capable, a superb strategist, writer and orator,” she said. “The young people who worked for peace from the 1940s through the 1960s found in him a trustworthy advocate. He was stalwart. Along the way David and I have grown to dearly love ‘that skinny old Dutchman.’”

The four films together total nearly six and a half hours.  The first in the series, “A.J. Muste: Radical for Peace/Finding True North,” follows Muste from his childhood through his early 50s. It premiered at Hope in April 2019 and received a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan in September of the same year.  The second film, “A.J. Muste: Radical for Peace/The No. 1 U.S. Pacifist,” released last spring, follows Muste’s career as a Christian pacifist from the late 1930s though the mid-1950s.  The third film, “A.J. Muste: Radical for Peace/Welcoming the New Left,” released this past fall, highlights Muste’s efforts at race reconciliation and demilitarization at an age when he might instead have retired.

Muste is remembered at Hope in a variety of ways. The college’s A.J. Muste Memorial Lecture series, which was established in 1985 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth, annually seeks to explore issues that would have been of interest to Muste, including topics related to labor, civil rights and peace.  Since 1988, Muste has also been honored on campus with the A.J. Muste Alcove, which is a study alcove in the Van Wylen Library.  A commissioned bust of Muste sculpted by Dr. Ryan Dodde, a 1989 Hope graduate who is a plastic surgeon, was added to the alcove in November 2018.