"Set your moral compass by this book. Taylor’s curiosity and his outrage have yielded a lucid, compelling, and eminently readable historical narrative . . . . Acts of Conscience clearly establishes conscientious objectors as credible witnesses and actors of extraordinary courage and purposefulness. Through their eyes we view unimagined brutality and degradation, and, by their example, learn how to combat people and institutions which brutalize and degrade human beings."—Simi Linton, author of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity and My Body Politic
"Steve Taylor has chosen a subject [riddled] with emotional impact and cultural shame, an act of courage in the first place . . . . Taylor’s book is an urgent, eloquent summons in a dark time."—Daniel Berrigan, SJ, American peace activist and poet
In the mid- to late 1940s, a group of young men rattled the psychiatric establishment by beaming a public spotlight on the squalid conditions and brutality in our nation’s mental hospitals and training schools for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Bringing the abuses to the attention of newspapers and magazines across the country, they led a reform effort to change public attitudes and to improve the training and status of institutional staff. Prominent Americans, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, author Pearl S. Buck, actress Helen Hayes, and African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune, supported the efforts of the young men.
These young men were among the 12,000 World War II conscientious objectors who chose to perform civilian public service as an alternative to fighting in what is widely regarded as America’s “good war.” Three thousand of these men volunteered to work at state institutions where they discovered appalling conditions. Acting on conscience a second time, they challenged America’s treatment of its citizens with severe disabilities. Acts of Conscience brings to light the extra-ordinary efforts of these courageous men, drawing upon extensive archival research, interviews, and personal correspondence.
The World War II conscientious objectors were not the first to expose public institutions, and they would not be the last. What distinguishes them from reformers of other eras is that their activities have faded from the professional and popular memory. Taylor’s moving account is an indispensable contribution to the historical record.
Steven J. Taylor is Centennial Professor of Disability Studies in the School of Education and codirector of the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. He is the coauthor of In Search of the Promised Land and The Social Meaning of Mental Retardation: Two Life Stories, among other books. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Qualitative Sociology.
7 x 10, 484 pages, 45 black and white illustrations