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

George Houser was believed to be the last living member of the inaugural Freedom Ride to integrate buses in the Deep South.|

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 and his wife of 73 years, Jean, moved to Santa Rosa from New York in 2009 to be near family. They lived together at Friends House, where he organized the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, his daughter said.

Last year, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given two months to live. But he hung on, taking interviews with biographers and graduate students writing about the turbulent times in which he lived.

“His mind was lucid to the end,” his daughter said Thursday. “He just continued to be an inspiration to people all over the world.”

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.

Houser also was known for his stand against conscription. He was sent to prison just before World War II after declaring himself a conscientious objector.

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.

“He was a quiet person, basically, but he was also a very strong person who worked on various causes and was a leader in those areas,” she said.

Houser and his wife lived from 1949 to 2009 in an “intentional community” in Pomona, N.Y., where they raised their daughter and three sons: David of Stoughton, Wisc.; Steven of Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Thomas of Colorado Springs, Colo.

In Santa Rosa, Houser was a guest speaker at Rotary Club meetings and was involved with the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County.

He staged a “respectful protest” at Friends House a few years ago when managers attempted to move the male half of an elderly couple to another facility because the man had dementia, his daughter said. Friends House relented, she said.

“He was compassionately involved,” his daughter said. “He had an effect.”

In addition to his wife and children, Houser is survived by nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for Sept. 19 at Friends House.

This report contains information from the New York Times. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or ?On Twitter @ppayne.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.