Tribute to Muriel Duckworth

Bruce Wark reflects on the work of a notable peace activist who passed away Saturday.

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Muriel Duckworth's death on Saturday, August 22nd, brought a fitting tribute from her friend, the noted scholar and peace activist, Ursula Franklin:

"I would like her to be remembered as somebody who demonstrated that it's possible to change one's society, to be profoundly critical and still remain a respected member of that society."

Muriel Duckworth was everything Franklin mentioned, strongly committed to social change, profoundly critical and highly respected. I learned about the strength of her principles and her many accomplishments while working on her Wikipedia biographical entry over the last 10 months.

Duckworth argued steadfastly that "war is stupid"---not just a senseless waste of human life, but also a major obstacle to social justice. She believed that the billions wasted on weapons perpetuates poverty while reinforcing the power of privileged elites. Her profound critique grew out of her religious, intellectual and social experiences as a Quaker, a faith she shared with Ursula Franklin.

Duckworth's life-long social activism gained strength from the Social Gospel movement she learned about in 1929-30 when she studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The movement worked to improve people's lives by providing social services and adult education during the Great Depression. Duckworth herself worked as a UTS field student with working-class teenaged girls in New York’s "Hell’s Kitchen." Later she said she learned more from the young women than they did from her.

It was also at UTS that Duckworth first heard about the American labour leader Eugene V. Debs. Debs ran for the U.S. presidency while he was in jail for opposing U.S. participation in the First World War. A quotation of his hung on her wall six decades after she left UTS. It reveals a lot about how Muriel Duckworth herself thought and felt about social justice:

While there is a lower class, I am in it
While there is a criminal element, I am of it
And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

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