Howard Kester

New Transcendentalist
7 min readJun 16, 2024


Howard Kester with Martin Luther King Jr. at a conference held at Scarritt College in Nashville Tennessee 1956.

Howard “Buck” Kester (1904–1977) was a committed socialist and a devout christian, outspoken opponent of segregation, overall a vigorous supporter of the economically depressed and exploited throughout the South, from striking coal miners to unionizing share-croppers.

He was born in Martinsville Virginia in 1904 and grew up in Beckley, West Virginia. As a young man, Kester had been instilled with conservative social ideas and a fundamentalist religious conviction. His father, although born Quaker, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before eventually becoming a well-respected member of the Presbyterian Church, and his mother was the daughter of a pre-civil war plantation overseer. In 1921 Kester left for Lynchburg College to begin his study towards Presbyterian ministry and he increasingly became “fraternalistic in racial views, neo-orthodox in religion, and socialistic in economic and political theory.”

During a summer pastorate in the rough coal-mining town of Thurmond, West Virginia, Kester saw the failure of Christians to fight for the welfare of all people as workers suffered under the unrestrained policies of mine management and ownership. He sided with the miners in their dispute though his superiors in the church did not want him to and he never held another Presbyterian appointment. Kester continued to pursue his increasingly leftist beliefs through the YMCA where he became part of a vocal minority of white members who wanted to end the organization’s segregation.

Through his involvement at the YMCA he was given an opportunity to tour Europe, especially Germany and Poland after World War 1 in 1923 and he likened the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe to that of African Americans in the South. Upon his return to the States, Kester helped to organize the first interracial student groups in the South.

In the fall of 1925 at the age of 21 Kester enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, but left within a year because of his conviction that the seminary overemphasized dogma at the expense of Christianity’s social dimension. Seeking a more satisfying theological education, he entered Vanderbilt University in the fall of 1926. His attempts to sponsor interracial fellowship meetings among students in the Nashville area and his unpopular political views cost him his job as assistant director of the Vanderbilt YMCA in March 1927. This loss of his only means of financial support occurred just three weeks after his marriage on 18 February to Alice Harris of Decatur, Ga. His dismissal was the first of many turbulent episodes the couple would share as a result of their commitment to social change.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity from Vanderbilt in 1931. Shortly after graduating he joined the Socialist party and became active in organizational work in central Tennessee. In 1932 he ran for Congress on the Socialist ticket. Although soundly defeated, he continued to work for the party until the late 1930s, serving as national executive committeeman in 1937.

He said of these years, “Wherever trouble brewed we tried to go.” He served as southern secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation until 1934. The story of his ousting is indicative of the other stands he took: Kester was supporting the Miner’s Union Wilder, Tennessee when the President (Barney Graham) was shot and killed by the mining company’s private guards. The FOR voted that they would not support any workers engaged in violence whether in self-defense or not, Kester dissented and was dismissed along with several others. Among those also dismissed was Reinhold Niebuhr, the Union Theological Seminarian, one of the US’s most influential theologians at the time (appeared on the cover of Time Magazine among other awards) who subsequently organized the Committee for Economic and Racial Justice and financed Kester’s work in the South. Under the sponsorship of Niebuhr’s committee, Kester investigated lynchings for the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, helped organize the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, assisted in the organization of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, publicized the plight of many of the South’s rural poor with his book Revolt Among the Sharecroppers (1936), lectured for the League for Industrial Democracy, and began publishing Prophetic Religion, the journal of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen.

By 1934, social activists across the spectrum considered Kester to be one of the most knowledgeable and committed students of racial injustice in the South and he was called upon by the NAACP to use his evangelical devotion, personal courage and southern heritage to analyze the most recent in a remarkable upsurge of southern lynchings in the Depression era, the October 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida. When he told his friend George Washington Carver he was investigating lynchings Carver advised him to carry a cyanide capsule in case he was faced with the possibility of torture from those who carried out the lynchings. Within days of the event he interviewed individuals from the black community, reticent to share information and individuals who were part of the mob that lynched Neal, who passed around photos and souvenirs from the day. After it became known in the town that he was investigating the lynching, he escaped and said “Scarcely have I ever had a more devastating experience than that…the lynching and subsequent developments are among the most ghastly things in all the long history of lynching. My nerves were frayed. I was warned to get out before it was too late…I was physically tired to death and my spirits were never at a lower ebb.”

Walter White and the NAACP published Kester’s report anonymously, and sought to conceal his name from the American public in order to ensure his safety and make any future work as a NAACP investigator more effective. He arranged a luncheon in New York for December 12th where Kester presented an oral account of the Neal lynching and provided a face to the courageous reporting. White invited such prominent New York citizens as John Henry Hammond Jr., John D. Rockefeller III, Mary White Ovington and intellectuals such as George Soule, Roger Baldwin, Margaret Mead and Reinhold Niebuhr. Walter White expressed his high regard for the ‘young southern white man who ably and courageously investigated the recent lynching.’ and considered it a uniquely valuable tool to have a well-reared, polite and educated white churchman as the point man for the NAACP. White was grateful for Kester’s attention to the economic causes of mob violence and supported Kester’s view that class conflict, exacerbated by the depression, was an important factor in the Marianna lynching and riot.

Kester went on to investigate other lynchings and helped support the development of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial union to support poor sharecroppers.

In December 1943, age 39, Howard and Alice Kester accepted positions with the Penn Normal, Agricultural, and Industrial School on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina. He became the institution’s principal and she, its director of instruction. In December 1948 the Kesters resigned after the school had become a facility for adult education and a community service center. For a brief time in 1949–50 they lived in New York City, where they directed the Congregational Christian Service Committee’s program for the relocation of persons displaced by World War II. In the late spring of 1950 Kester became the director of the Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, N.C., and remained for eight months. From early 1952 to 1957 he was executive secretary of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, where he organized meetings such as the 3-day Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relation which he organized at Scarritt College, Nashville, April 25, 1957 in the hopes of getting more white liberal ministers to support the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights Activists.

In the fall of 1957 he joined the staff of Eureka College in Eureka, Ill., as director of student life, professor of history, and dean of students.

In 1960 the Kesters returned to North Carolina where Howard managed Christmont Assembly, a project of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) near Black Mountain. From 1965 to 1971 he served on the faculty of Montreat-Anderson College as an instructor in the department of social studies and as dean of students. His wife’s death on 6 Apr. 1970 and a heart attack he suffered eleven months later prompted Kester to retire to his home at High Top Colony. In January 1977 he married Elizabeth Moore Harris, Alice Kester’s sister-in-law and the couple’s friend for nearly a half century. Kester died the following July and was buried at Mountain View Memorial Park in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

The maverick preacher Will Campbell believed the timing of his friend’s activism made him, “a tragic figure in a way…I didn’t consider that he was defeated by the world’s standards, [but] he never won a battle.” A biographer, John Egerton claimed that “it would be difficult to name any white Southerner of the time who had more contacts across racial lines than he did, or more of a clear-eyed vision of the crippling effects of segregation on blacks and whites alike.”

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The Howard Kester Papers at University of North Carolina (16 feet of shelves have recently been digitized — just about everything he ever wrote!)

Egerton, John. “Howard (Buck) Kester.” A Mind To Stay Here: Profiles From the South, The Macmillan Company, New York, New York, 1970, pp. 70–91.

Kester, Howard. Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. 1936.

Lichtenstein, Alex. “The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: A Movement for Social Emancipation.” Revolt Among the Sharecroppers, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1997, pp. 15–59.

Martin, Robert F. Howard Kester and the Struggle for Social Justice in the South, 1904–1977. The University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Slade, Peter. “Dreaming and Doing: Howard Kester and His Search for Prophetic Christianity.” Can I Get a Witness?: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders and Agitators for Faith & Justice, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019, pp. 61–82.

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About the Author:

Taylor (Kester) Storey is a distant relative to Howard Kester who has written a MA Thesis on the history of colonizing and prophetic christianities. He found out about Howard Kester while researching. As of 2024 he is based in San Diego, California and posts most often on



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