Standing up for justice and truth

December 5, 2004
Elsie Austin circa 1970. At left is Firuz Kazemzadeh, then a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States.

SAN ANTONIO — When she was just a girl, Elsie Austin (1908-2004) bravely stood up for justice and truth, and she never stopped doing so throughout her long life.

One of only two African-American children in her Cincinnati classroom, Elsie pointed out errors in a textbook that denigrated the role of Africans in world history.

Elsie then told her class about the many contributions made by Africans in producing works of great beauty from bronze, gold, and ivory.

"There was an electric silence," she said many years later. She recalled that her teacher had then agreed with her and described to the class the contributions made to the world by African-Americans.

Elsie Austin gained her initial motivation to stand up for principle from the example and teachings of her brave forebears such as her great-grandmother, who refused to be intimidated by the racist terror perpetrated against her by the Ku Klux Klan in her home state of Alabama.

After Dr. Austin became a Baha'i in 1934, she gained life-transforming inspiration from accounts of the life of 'Abdu'l-Baha. She was confirmed in her Baha'i attitudes and beliefs by Hands of the Cause of God Dorothy Baker and Louis Gregory, an African-American.

In a 1998 lecture Dr. Austin said that Baha'is constitute a unique world community, one that is operating in every part of the world where there is tension, violence, and hatred.

Elsie Austin (wearing coat and holding frame, seated center) with women attending the first Baha'i Convention in Tunis, Tunisia. 1956. Slideshow
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Elsie Austin (wearing coat and holding frame, seated center) with women attending the first Baha'i Convention in Tunis, Tunisia. 1956.

"We are making a serious effort to pry human beings away from their alienating traditions, their comfortable ignorance, and their prejudice -- but we must try harder."

Dr. Austin never wavered in her own resolve to try harder, but rather redoubled her efforts over the decades.

The service rendered to humanity by Dr. Austin was so distinguished that, after her death in October 2004, the Universal House of Justice advised the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States to hold memorial gatherings throughout the Baha'i community in the United States and in the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. That event will be held on 11 December 2004. Another such gathering will be held in the Baha'i House of Worship in Uganda.

Describing her as a "dearly loved, keen-sighted, stalwart promoter and defender of the Cause of God," the Universal House of Justice said "the shining example of her sacrificial life will remain a source of inspiration to her fellow believers for generations to come."

Dr. Austin met the head of the faith, Shoghi Effendi, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1953, and shortly afterwards earned the accolade from him of Knight of Baha'u'llah for introducing the Baha'i Faith to Morocco.

She was a member of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Baha'is of the United States (1946-53) and North and West Africa (1953-58), and of Local Spiritual Assemblies in five countries -- the United States, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Bahamas.

She was one of the first members of the Auxiliary Board, assisting the Hand of the Cause of God Musa Banani in that role for four years. She also served at the Baha'i World Centre in the Holy Land.

Dr. Austin recorded a series of firsts in the secular community. She was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati's College of Law and the first to be appointed assistant attorney-general of the State of Ohio.

After a legal career with several federal government agencies, she spent a decade in Africa as a Foreign Service officer, working in cultural and educational programs sponsored by the United States Information Agency, and initiating the first women's activities program of that organization in Africa.

Dr. Austin participated in many international women's conferences, including the 1975 International Women's Conference in Mexico City where she chaired the Baha'i delegation.

In such roles, as in her daily life, her natural dignity and grace, and her down-to-earth attitude won the hearts of those with whom she came into contact.

Citing her determination, independence, honor, and justice, her longtime friend, Lecille Webster referred to her love of fine dining and her sense of humor.

During one address Dr. Austin said, "I have shortened this talk, lest it become like the mercy of God in that it endures forever and passes all understanding." And in a resume, Dr. Austin described her hobbies: "Reading, writing, theater and anything else which stimulates the mind and does not involve drastic exercise."

Dr. Austin won a string of awards, including two honorary doctorates. A scholarship for law students from minority groups was named after her, and she served as national president of Delta Sigma Theta, a prestigious national US public service sorority.

Her writings appeared in legal journals as well as in Baha'i magazines. One of her articles, later produced as a pamphlet, was about her mentor, Louis Gregory.

More than seven decades after she stood up for the truth in her classroom, Dr. Austin delivered a lecture in which she said that there are times when it is necessary to protest, not violently but with the courage to reject the false and the unjust.

"If we go about it with faith, with intelligent protest, standing up and demonstrating what the right attitude and motivation is for human progress, we can cause progress," she said.

"After all, the battle we face is essentially a spiritual battle to transform the souls and spirits of human beings, to empower them to express love and justice, and to develop a unity of conscience."