Humanism and History: A Brief Look at our Resolutions and Social Justice Issues

Photo by Mishaal Zahed on Unsplash

The humanist movement has a long, rich history that led to the creation of the American Humanist Association (AHA) 80 years ago this month. Humanism’s secular, ethical, and science based philosophy grew from its roots in the Renaissance period into the eventual drafting of the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933. The revised third manifesto, the one that governs AHA’s current work, came to fruition in 2003.

As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the AHA, it’s important to take a look at the work the organization did at its infancy to map out the organization’s future in the midst of the ever-changing socio-political paradigm. This work should be seen as a living organism that changes, develops, and adapts with time. As Raymond B. Bragg stated in the very first humanism manifesto, “The Manifesto is a product of many minds. It was designed to represent a developing point of view, not a new creed” (emphasis added). To understand how we are moving forward, it’s important to look back at the AHA Board of Directors’ first resolutions—providing an insight into what the organization’s founders were passionate about. While this sheds light on some positive and negative elements of AHA history, we can use it to see how far we have come and how much we need to continue to grow.

One of the AHA’s first social justice-centered resolutions was adopted in 1951. “Resolution-145 Civil Rights 2” was a brisk two sentences long. The resolution stated that “great advances were made during the Second World War in improving conditions of employment and civil rights for minority groups,” followed by, “Government of the United States should continue its efforts to maintain and extend these civil rights and conditions of employment.” The resolution’s simplicity requires us to fill in the gaps by understanding the events of the time. In 1948, the modern civil rights movement hadn’t developed into full force yet, and President Harry Truman signed executive orders 9980 and 9981to desegregate the military.

Speculating on the board’s intent is actually easy to decipher, as they appear to have clarified their position with a follow up resolution, “Resolution-149 Civil Rights,” which states, “American Humanist Association continue[s] its efforts for the improvement of American democracy through the mitigation of racial discrimination and with particular respect to the recommendations of the President’s Committee and the ten objectives set forth by President Harry S. Truman in his special message to Congress on Feb. 1, 1948.” The civil rights movement wouldn’t hit full steam until 1954 with the Brown v. Board. of Education Supreme Court ruling that brought an end to segregation in public schooling.

Humanists wouldn’t publish another resolution on civil rights until March of 1961, stating their support of desegregation in their “Resolution-105 Desegregation.” The resolution states, “America’s public schools and colleges shall be de-segregated with ‘all due deliberate speed’.” The resolution also conveyed the board’s “sympathy with Martin Luther King and hereby express their admiration for the wise and brave leadership which he has shown and their approval of all peaceful demonstrations in support of the rights of citizens.” While this may have been progressive during the early 1960s, we should take in these resolutions with a grain of salt as we reflect on them through a modern lens. As said by the AHA’s former social justice coordinator Sincere Kirabo, “[t]hose who benefit from a status quo built upon and maintained by coercion and violence while advocating for peace that doesn’t upset the status quo is a cruel irony.”

The AHA continued to support social justice policies across an array of issues, such as supporting the organized labor movement in their 1959 resolution on humanism and labor movement, and in a 1979 resolution supporting housing, equal pay, and welfare programs for migrant workers. That said, the board’s positions have ebbed and flowed with the prevailing opinions of the time, and our organization’s ugly past—such as the opposition to the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act in 1951, which banned laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and supported immigration efforts—cannot be swiftly glossed over. We acknowledge even the shameful past positions of the AHA not only to hold ourselves accountable, but also to continue to develop new organizational resolutions that reflect our current values.

Many argue that humanism and social justice are separate entities, and that the increasing “woke culture” is now moving humanism away from its original intent of promoting secularism and science based thinking. As we can see from the resolutions of our past, the AHA has promoted social justice policies and social initiatives since the 1950s. While the AHA was by no means perfect when it came to promoting and advocating for social justice efforts and is still developing its social justice work, those who argue that social justice does not belong among our core values should take a look back at our history.