Friday, August 21, 2015

George Houser, civil rights leader, dies in Santa Rosa at 99

August 20, 2015

The Rev. George M. Houser, an anti-apartheid activist and leader in the U.S. civil rights movement who was believed to be the last living member of the inaugural Freedom Ride to integrate buses in the Deep South, has died.

The Methodist minister, considered one of the most important yet unsung activists of the era, died Wednesday at the Friends House retirement center in Santa Rosa. He was 99.

“His heart was always with anyone who was dealing with any kind of subjugation,” said his daughter, Cotati attorney Martie Leys. “He was always fierce in his determination to see justice prevail, but he was always respectful, always nonviolent, always willing to talk.”

He credited his upbringing by his late parents, Methodist missionaries Otto and Ethel Houser, with his passion to oppose race-based mistreatment of human beings.

“I guess it was in my genes,” he said in a 2010 interview with The Press Democrat. “I didn’t grow up in an atmosphere of prejudice.”


Houser co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights group, in 1942 after he and a black friend were denied service at a Chicago restaurant. The group became a national organization, enrolling tens of thousands of members. They endorsed nonviolent protests and sit-ins at establishments around the county.

Five years later, he and activist Bayard Rustin tested the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on interstate transportation. They launched the Journey of Reconciliation, placing white and black activists on buses throughout the South, risking attacks and arrests. It foreshadowed the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s and now is widely considered to have been the first of them.

For their efforts, Houser and Rustin received the Thomas Jefferson Award for the Advancement of Democracy from the Council Against Intolerance in America in 1948.


In 1952, Houser co-founded Americans for South African Resistance and became the executive director of the American Committee on Africa in 1955. He worked to abolish apartheid and to end colonial rule throughout Africa before retiring in 1981. Later, he met with South African leader Nelson Mandela on several occasions.

Houser was recognized for his work in Africa in 2010 when he received the Oliver R. Tambo Award.

His wife said he was reluctant to take credit in whatever he did despite always taking a central role.


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