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Biography by Alex Jack,
Son of Homer A. Jack
As the clouds of war gathered over Europe in 1937, Homer A. Jack, a young Cornell graduate student, found himself teaching at a small college in Athens. He was completing his Ph.D. in biology and visited Europe to finish his thesis on the biological field stations of the world. On a tour of the continent at the end of the following school year, he visited Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy. In Moscow, the authorities confiscated his camera, in Germany and Austria he witnessed overt anti-Semitism, and in Italy he observed ominous signs of spreading fascism. The lessons he learned about totalitarianism far outweighed the knowledge he acquired of the local flora and fauna.
Returning home to upstate New York, Homer threw himself into peace activities to prevent America from being drawn into a second world war. He edited the Rochester No-War News and helped organize a rally that attracted 3000 people. Homer’s grandparents had immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe to avoid poverty and oppression. His parents, Alexander and Cecelia Jacobowitz (later shortened to Jack) had been active socialists and freethinkers. In Rochester they had known and marched with Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the suffragist movement. As an only child, Homer shared his parents’ radicalism, distrust of organized religion, and worship of nature. Tom Paine’s lyrical refrain, “The world is my church and my religion is to do good,” summed up the Jack family’s theological outlook.
At Monroe High School in the early 1930s, Homer met Esther Rhys Williams, the daughter of the local Unitarian minister and lead actress in many school plays. At Cornell, Homer kept in touch with the radiant sociology major at Oberlin College, and in 1939 the young couple were wed. The radical roots of Esther’s family matched the Jacks, extending from descendents of Samuel Adams, the Revolutionary War mastermind, on her mother’s side to the Kremlin where Esther’s uncle, journalist Albert Rhys Williams, was a biographer and confidant of Lenin during the Russian Revolution. Over the years, Esther’s father, Rev. David Rhys Williams, had earned his own reputation as a fiery orator and champion of labor, civil rights, and pacifism. As the drums of war started beating, he was one of the few Rochester clergymen to support Homer’s anti-war activities.
As these political and personal forces converged in his life, Homer abandoned a career in science for the ministry. “I was much more interested in men than mice,” he later quipped. With his father-in-law’s encouragement, he enrolled at Meadville Theological School in Chicago and prepared for the Unitarian pulpit. In between classes and a student pastorate in downstate Illinois, Homer and several classmates managed to shake up the staid seminary by trying to unionize the several Negroes on staff, picketing the British Embassy in support of Gandhi’s “Quit India” campaign, and devoting a chapel service to the plight of a young Chinese-American who refused to be drafted into the army.
In 1942 Homer began attending meetings of the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the University of Chicago whose organizers included George Houser, James Farmer, and Bayard Rustin. Although primarily a pacifist organization, the FOR cell focused on racism in the local community, especially housing discrimination and segregated restaurants and lunch counters. Out of these meetings was born CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality, which introduced Gandhian techniques of nonviolence to the United States. In 1943 Homer helped organize the first civil rights sit-in and participated in the first Freedom Ride in the Border States and South in 1947. In Nashville, Homer and Nathan Wright, a young Negro social worker from Cincinnati, boarded a midnight train traveling to Louisville and sat together in the whites only section. “He’s your prisoner, isn’t he?” the conductor commented, assuming Homer to be a sheriff. “No, he’s not,” Homer replied evenly. “Why, then what’s he doing here?” the trainman inquired incredulously. Homer explained that they were traveling together and had a right to sit wherever they wanted. The conductor said it was impossible. But Homer and Nathan would not move and, to their relief, the journey proceeded without incident.
After graduating from Meadville, Homer accepted the pulpit of the Unitarian Church in Lawrence, Kansas. Despite being the site of abolitionist crusader John Brown’s “Free Kansas” movement, Lawrence was violently anti-Negro and anti-labor. Black people were not allowed to sing in the University of Kansas choir because “their voices are different,” the university football team would not accept black players, and the local hotel refused to serve Negroes, even at a private breakfast for the ministerial council. Homer spoke out against racism and war, especially the strategic bombing of civilians by both sides and other atrocities.
In Miami, meanwhile, Homer’s father was dying of heart disease and Homer went to Florida to be with him in his final days. Alex had worked his way up from poverty and the burden of providing for eight younger siblings to become a successful graphic artist. However, he had felt the sting of injustice and anti-Semitism when he quit a Rochester newspaper for which he drew political cartoons rather than submit to censorship. At his bedside, Homer promised his father that he would always fight against war, racial intolerance, and economic injustice.
Returning to Chicago from Lawrence, Homer accepted the position as executive secretary of the Chicago Council Against Racial and Religious Discrimination and for nearly five years worked tirelessly for racial justice, not only for Negroes but also for Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans (resettling in the Midwest from relocation camps), and other minorities. The civil rights struggle during this period centered around desegregating public housing for thousands of returning black veterans and their families. Warning prophetically that “Chicago was heading for a race riot,” Homer worked tirelessly to prevent the outbreak of violence in the city’s housing projects and the removal of restrictive covenants. In one riot known as the Airport Homes Incident, Homer’s car was overturned and looted by a mob of local whites. During this period, he worked with other progressive leaders, including Mayor Kelly, Elizabeth Wood (secretary of the Chicago Housing Council), Congressman Dawson, Rev. Preston Bradley (pastor of the All Soul’s Unitarian Church, the largest in America), and Thurgood Marshall (legal counsel for the NAACP).
In 1948, Homer accepted a call to the Unitarian Church of Evanston and his family, now including two small children, moved to the North Shore. Staunchly conservative, Evanston was the home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Northwestern University, and, in 1954, the international assembly of the World Council of Churches (which Homer attended as a journalist since Unitarians were barred from membership). In 1952 and 1956 the city voted overwhelmingly for Dwight D. Eisenhower over native son Adlai Stevenson, the Governor of Illinois and a fellow Unitarian, whom Homer worked with on many occasions. During the height of the McCarthy era, the Norman Vincent Peale years, and the Ozzie and Harriet reign on television, the Unitarian Church, under Homer’s auspices, became a cauldron for innovative ideas and social change. From his pulpit, in Chicago area committees, and with the local ministers’ association, Homer waged a steady campaign to desegregate the Evanston and the North Shore (including Northwestern, the local hospital, and the YMCA) and introduce revolutionary ideas of freedom and independence for Africans and Asians. During his tenure church membership rose from 175 to 600, and so many people came that Homer had to hold two services on Sunday mornings until a new sanctuary could be built.
In 1952 Homer made the first of three trips to Africa, visiting South Africa and tracing the roots of Gandhian nonviolence and meeting African freedom fighters. His subsequent books, The Wit and Wisdom of Gandhi and The Gandhi Reader, helped introduce a generation of Americans to the father of nonviolence, including a young Alabama preacher, Martin Luther King. In then French Equatorial Africa, Homer visited Dr. Albert Schweitzer and was instrumental in helping to convince him to speak out against nuclear testing. Schweitzer’s condemnation of atomic and hydrogen testing in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo electrified the world. In New Delhi, India, and Bandung, Indonesia, site of the nonaligned conference of 1955, Homer met Prime Minister Nehru who was also to become an ally in the campaign to end nuclear testing, along with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and other great humanitarians.
Following the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Homer went to Alabama and met Dr. King for the first time. It began a relationship that would continue through many protest campaigns, a visit to Ghana in 1957 to participate in independence celebrations, and the Selma March. Following King’s assassination in Memphis a decade later, Coretta Scott King asked Homer to accompany her husband’s body back to Atlanta. On the civil liberties front, Homer preached his most famous sermon, “Is McCarthy a Concealed Communist?” at the Community Church of New York in 1953 where he served as summer minister.
In 1959 Homer resigned from the Evanston Unitarian Church at the height of his popularity and moved to New York. He served as associate director of the American Committee on Africa for a year with George Houser, his old FOR colleague. But with the escalation of the Cold War, he soon accepted the post as executive director of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. With Norman Cousins, Norman Thomas, and other veteran peace leaders, he orchestrated the national campaign against nuclear testing as President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev unleashed a new round of atmospheric explosions. The turning point in SANE’s campaign to win over public opinion was a public relations campaign featuring Dr. Benjamin Spock. Though he had resolutely resisted all previous entreaties to speak out, America’s beloved baby doctor finally yielded to Homer’s persuasion and agreed to appear in a series of advertisements entitled “Dr. Spock Is Worried.” Along with Cousins’s behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy between JFK and the Russian leader, the partial test-ban treaty of 1963—the first step in reversing the nuclear proliferation since the dawn of the atomic age—was concluded. Three months later, Kennedy died in a hail of bullets in Dallas.
In 1965 Homer moved to Boston to become director of the Social Responsibility Department of the Unitarian Universalist Association during an era marked by unparalleled interfaith cooperation and internal denominational conflict. Under the helm of President Dana McLean Greeley and Homer, the UUA assumed leadership on a wide variety of civil rights and peace issues. However, the rise of the black power movement following King’s assassination split the denomination into bitter factions. As one who had devoted and risked his life for racial justice, Homer suddenly found himself under attack by black militants.
As the UUA closed ranks, a new conservative administration took power and Homer was fired. Homer returned to the international stage and accepted the position of Secretary-General of the newly founded World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) in New York. In this role, he brought together leaders of the world’s faiths to speak out on war and peace and social issues, carrying on the dream of the World Parliament of Religion that met in Chicago in 1893. Once again, Homer found himself working the corridors of the United Nations, where he lobbied delegates on arms control and religious freedom, ghost wrote speeches for Security Council members, and founded the NGO Committee on Disarmament. On one occasion, he found himself in charge of a boatload of Vietnamese refugees who had been rescued by a WCRP-chartered vessel but could not find port. Following his divorce in the early 1970s, Homer married Ingebord Belk, a German Quaker who had worked for Amnesty International and UNICEF.
In 1984 Homer received the Niwano Peace Prize from Rissho Kosei-Kai, a Buddhist sect in Japan. RKK founder Nikkyo Niwano, Rev. Dana Greeley, and Homer (occasionally joined by centenarian Rev. Imaoka, the minister of the Unitarian Church of Tokyo) had formed an alliance of religious liberals in America and Japan and served as the pillar of the WCRP. Homer’s lifelong support of religious and racial tolerance was hailed in a series of special lectures he gave in Japan.
For several years in his late sixties Homer served as minister of the North Shore Unitarian Fellowship in Winnetka, just north of Evanston. In the late 1980s, he moved to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to work on his autobiography, be near his collected papers at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, and spend more time with his children and grandchildren. However, pressing social issues prevented Homer from taking up his pen for an extended writing project. Into his mid-seventies, he lent his indomitable energy to local civil rights projects in Chester, the continuing campaign against apartheid in South Africa (including being arrested at the embassy in Washington), and efforts to prevent the war in the Persian Gulf.
Upon returning from a trip, Homer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Though his condition was untreatable, he attempted to control the symptoms with a macrobiotic dietary approach, as had Dana Greeley, who had died from colon cancer a few years earlier. On August 5, 1993, Homer passed away quietly at home with his children, Alex and Lucy; step-daughter, Renate; and Ingebord, by his side. Memorial services were held at the United Nations, Swarthmore, and Evanston, and in Boston the Unitarian Universalist Association established the Homer A. Jack Office of International Affairs in honor of his contributions to peace and freedom.
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Jack, Homer A. Homer’s Odyssey: My Quest for Peace and Justice. Beckett, MA: One Peaceful World Press, 1996.