The Mennonite church in the United States has established a record from the middle to the end of the twentieth century of welcoming, celebrating, and then frequently discarding charismatic, provocative African-American leaders. Most – but not all – have been men. Some went on to established and well-respected careers outside the confines of the denomination. Few stayed within. Evangelist and seminary professor William E. Pannell provides one such example. I contend here that many of these figures offer striking parallels to the phenomenon of what journalist and author Christopher John Farley has called “magical African-American friends” or MAAFs.1
A MAAF, also referred to more problematically as a “magic negro,” is a well established Hollywood trope in which an African-American character plays a salvific role in the life of a White person, often through magic or supernatural means, even if it means sacrificing themselves to do so. In the 1958 crime drama, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Portier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom to save the life of the White convict played by Tony Curtis. In The Green Mile (1999), John Coffey as played by Michael Clarke Duncan exercises his healing powers on behalf of a White inmate, White death row guard, and the White wife of the prison warden before being executed. The MAAF trope crops up in a host of other Hollywood dramas such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The list goes on. The comedy duo Key and Peele spoof the Hollywood archetype in a hilarious 2012 skit the skewers the trope’s reliance on stereotypes.
Of particular importance to the function of a MAAF in these films is that the Black figure – again most often male but not always, note the Whoopi Goldberg role in Ghost – usually comes into the life of the White protagonist from outside. In the case of Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, he literally approaches the White lead played by Matt Damon from out of the dark of the night. In few of the films does the Black savior figure stay around in the life of the White person he or she has saved.
William E. Pannell came into the White Mennonite community having spent time with Brethren Assemblies in Detroit. By the end of the 1950s, already a well known evangelist, he began to show up at Mennonite sponsored meetings such as the 1959 round table discussion entitled “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” held in Chicago and sponsored by the Home Missions and Evangelism Committee of the Mennonite Church.2
Although in these early meetings, his voice in the minutes comes across as reconciliatory and appeasing, that would change over time. While in 1959 he commented, “We should remember that our primary problems are the spiritual, and here we must make our basic contributions,” a year later in the pages of the Mennonite Church news outlet, the Gospel Herald, he caricatured White people as being held hostage by an insurmountable “basic fear” of Black people expressed by trembling “slightly” and mumbling “nonsense about intermarriage.”3 By 1968, an excerpt from his controversial book My Friend, The Enemy criticized White-dominated missions conferences sponsored by congregations that relocated from Black neighbors even as they claimed to minister to them.4 As of 1971, he appeared in the pages of the General Conference news magazine, The Mennonite, with a reflection on the need for the Black community to have “power, control, the sharing of power.”5 That same year he also participated in the AFRAM conference held near Nairobi, Kenya, to bring together African-American and African Mennonites.6
Pannell’s Mennonite connections were more extensive than these publications and meetings suggest. He counted White Mennonite church planer Vern Miller as a “friend and brother,” even indicating that Miller introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.7 He recalled conversations with theologian John Howard Yoder while visiting Goshen College and referenced talks he gave at nearly every Mennonite college and high school as well as most Black Mennonite congregations in the U.S.8 Even more importantly, Pannell credited Mennonites with forming his “understanding of servanthood, of discipleship, of dimensions of faith in practice,” going so far as to exclaim in the course of an oral history interview, “Ah, boy, that was good stuff. I watched them live that stuff out in very uncomfortable circumstances. It helped me enormously.”9
And the exchange between Pannell and the Mennonite community wasn’t just one way. His invitation to participate in the 1973 AFRAM conference was only one indication of the trust that Black Mennonites placed in him. Already in 1968, leaders of the racially integrated Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had invited him to consult with them to discern their role as a church in their immediate neighborhood.10 White Mennonites also found Pannell’s contributions helpful. One reader praised Pannell for “Telling it as it is and honestly facing” racism present within the Mennonite community.11
The connection I make between Pannell and the trope of the Magical African-American Friend has less to do with the nature of Pannell’s specific interactions with both Black and White Mennonites than it does with a larger pattern into which his interaction with Mennonites fits.
Consider the following list: Hubert Brown, Curtis Burrell, Rosemarie Harding, Vincent Harding, Warner Jackson, James Lark, Rowena Lark, Joy Lovett, Stan Maclin, Charles McDowell, Dwight McFadden, John Powell, Ed Riddick. Every one of these high-profile African-American individuals appeared on a national Mennonite platform between 1950 and 2000 either as a speaker, author, evangelist, or church official. Every one of them then left the church for at least a stretch of time or disappeared from national attention.12 In the case of Pannell, he had never officially become Mennonite.
So this is my question. What does this pattern tell us about the White Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century? Each one of the individuals listed here is worthy of much fuller attention than what this column can offer. The reasons for their specific departures from the Mennonite world range from the most problematic of personal failings to decisions to pursue alternate career paths. But what troubles me as I review this list and ponder the tenure of William Pannell in the Mennonite world is that, like MAAFs, high-profile Black Mennonite leaders have rarely found a long-term home in the church.
And, the historical record would suggest, there is a through line in the personal narratives behind these names that speaks of White Mennonites being willing to be challenged for a period of time but only, in the words of Pannell, in “relationship to a suitcase.”13 Here is what Pannell wrote back in 1968. His words are worth quoting in full:
It took considerable time, several years in fact, before I began to realize that there were any number of people whose acceptance of me was conditioned by my relationship to a suitcase. A singing Negro has always been welcome as long as he is a vagabond, and has no intention to settle with his family. Again this is an overstatement since many would have been delighted if I would have stayed. But they too disappoint me when I discover their unwillingness to fight for my right to stay against those entrenched local forces of bigotry. They handcuffed me to my suitcase by their silence.14
He wrote these words now more than fifty years ago. The Mennonite community today counts a host of African-American leaders who have stayed and are leading the church: Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, Glen Guyton, Cyneatha Millsapps, Regina Shands Stoltfzus. There are many others.
Yet, for those of us who are White and Mennonite, the history of Black Mennonite leaders who have left after performing important leadership roles in the church – often at significant psychological and spiritual costs to themselves – is a cautionary tale, one that points to how easily even the best of intentions to welcome and embrace can all too quickly fall into the same traps of paternalism, exclusion, and stereotyping that are at the root of the highly problematic and ultimately racist portrayal of Magical African-American Friends.
In a community that continues to find it far easier to speak of and respond to racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms, the trap of the MAAF will be one that we will have to work hard to avoid.
- Gayle R. Baldwin, “What a Difference a Gay Makes: Queering the Magic Negro,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 5, no. Fall (2003), http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art5-whatagay.html. ↩
- Linden M. Wenger and Virgil Brenneman, “Program of Witness to and with Negroes,” (Chicago: Home Missions and Evangelism Committee Round Table, 1959), 1. ↩
- Ibid.; William Pannell, “The Evangelical and Minority Groups,” Gospel Herald, March 8, 1960, 205. ↩
- William E. Pannell, “Somewhere in the Middle,” Christian Living, September 1968, 24. ↩
- William Pannell, “Little Black Sambo Still Lives,” The Mennonite, February 16, 1971, 100. ↩
- John Powell, “AFRAM to Bring Blacks Together,” Gospel Herald, July 31, 1973. ↩
- William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, April 21, 1998, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 3, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Ne5q4L7G/view. ↩
- William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, February 28, 2000, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 5, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Dz2e8FCa/view. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- John S. Weber, “The History of Broad Street Mennonite Church 1936 – 1971” (Senior Thesis, Eastern Mennonite College, 1971), 46. ↩
- John E. Fretz, “Hard to Face It as It Is,” The Mennonite, March 2, 1971, 150. ↩
- John Powell, for example, returned to the church, fulfilled a variety of leadership roles, and continues to write a column for Mennonite World Review. James and Rowena Lark started a church in Fresno, California, in the mid-1960s that did not have a Mennonite affiliation. ↩
- William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 55. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
The Christmas pageant at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, was always a treat. The brick walls festooned with greenery. The eager anticipation of young children bursting into chatter and antics and no small bit of mayhem. Christmas carols. Advent wreaths. Food and friends and beauty. For the six years we worshipped with that congregation between 2002 and 2008, I don’t think we ever missed a pageant.
One of those years my partner played the part of Mary. A young man from the youth group played Joseph. Another year, I played Joseph, and the partner of one of our pastors played Mary. In both instances, as was the case most every year, the holy couple was interracial.
Not such a big deal, that. Not in 2018. Although commercials featuring interracial couples still ignite the ire of white supremacists and interracial couples report instances of social ostracism and harassment, interracial marriages have grown more commonplace and socially acceptable – at least as compared to 1963.
I mention 1963 because that was the year when the depiction of an interracial holy couple in Community Mennonite’s Christmas pageant did cause a hullabaloo. A big one. They had to call in the denominational heavyweights. It was not, apparently, very pleasant.
This is how it went down.
By December 1963, Community had been experimenting with integration for a little over two years. One Sunday in 1961, three African-American women attended a Sunday morning worship service at the previously all-white congregation. In 1956 when charter members had purchased property on which to construct a sanctuary, they had signed off on a restrictive covenant excluding “‘any one who is not a Caucasian’ from the premises.”1 The congregation, nonetheless, welcomed the African-American women. Despite a few bumps along the way, a core of both white and black members continued to attend. And, by all accounts, they enjoyed each other as they worshipped.2
Yet, tensions built below the surface. From the onset, some white members had raised concerns that an integrated congregation would lead, inevitably, to intermarriage. In keeping with the history of black-white racial unions, the white community has been less supportive of interracial unions than has the black community, a pattern especially true in the 1940s and 50s.3 Although white attitudes had begun to liberalize by the 1960s, the issue remained fraught in a community like Markham that was at that time in the midst of white flight. Black families had started to relocate to the community in search of a bit of suburban safety and security.4
In that context of rapidly changing racial demographics, a long history of white fear of interracial marriage, and a still fledgling congregation, the organizers of the 1963 Christmas pageant cast a black Joseph and a white Mary.5 The service ensued. Christmas came and went. All apparently without incident.
Then the church board met on January 17. With the start of the new year came reports on attendance (it was up), heating of the church building (it had started), and offering envelopes (they should be numbered). Then the pastor at the time, Larry Voth, invited the field secretary for city churches from the national-level home Missions Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Peter Ediger, to speak. Ediger noted that the rest of the denomination was very interested in what was happening in Markham as this small, formerly all-white congregation found itself on a journey toward racial integration. He offered a word of encouragement by noting that when a congregation is “having a struggle for existance [sic] it is a living church.”6
All seemed in order.
And then it wasn’t.
Church board chair Al Levreau read Genesis 11:1-9, the description of the tower of Babel in which “the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”7 The notes from the meeting on January 17 don’t explain what message Mr. Levreau meant to send by reading that passage. Perhaps he saw in the story of Babel’s chaos a case study to be avoided as Community Mennonite embarked on racial integration.
What was clear was that he did not approve of mixed race marriages. Not at all. Not even the hint of one in a Christmas play. With a generous dose of understatement bordering on cheekiness, the unidentified keeper of the minutes observed, “there was quite a discussion regarding inter-marriage.”8
It must have been quite a discussion. At the end of it Levreau has resigned from his position a board chair and declared that he would not return to worship services at CMC. After a unanimous vote to close the meeting, Ediger offered “a word of prayer.”9
I’ve often wondered what the conversations went like in the church parking lot after this meeting. I imagine that there was some venting. Perhaps even a bit of invective and opprobrium directed at the departing chairperson. A bit of self-righteous indignation even? Or, there could as easily have been mourning and expressed concern for the sudden separation. After all, when the congregation had weathered a previous racial controversy, Levreau had been the one to lobby for an open-door policy that set the path toward the integrated nativity scene.10 The record doesn’t say.
A month later the board met again. This time the president of the entire General Conference joined the meeting on February 15. Although Levreau did not attend – and in fact had not been visited by church leadership since his abrupt departure – board member Margaret Carr also objected to the prospect of intermarriage and grilled conference executive Walter Gering on the denomination’s position on the topic. After Carr explained her objections to both integration and intermarriage, Gering backpedaled by asserting that denominational officers had never encouraged intermarriage but that he thought black and white couples could have a happy marriage. When prompted, African-American board member William Smith explained that black families in the congregation were not interested in marrying across racial lines, an assurance that black church leaders had been stating to white Mennonites for nearly a decade.11
The controversy came to an end a month later. A delegation reported that they had met with Levreau, but that he was not willing to return unless he could influence the church away from integration. Smith replied, “As well educated as we are why do these things keep coming between us?”12 His incredulity at the prospect of a Christian brother objecting to his presence in the congregation leaps off the page across a half-century.
In response the board put their collective foot down. They voted – unanimously – to discontinue discussion about whether the church would be integrated and to declare – officially – that “Community Mennonite Church of Markham, Illinois …welcomes continued growth on a racially integrated basis.”13
History could have gone in a different direction that night. Board members could have chosen to be silent, allow the controversy to spill over into the congregation as a whole, or simply decide that the bother wasn’t worth it. Other majority white churches certainly did.14 But instead they set their faces toward an uncertain future and made the decision to continue trying to figure out what it would mean for black and white to worship together.
I chose this story to write about because it is a Christmas story, and we are in the midst of the nativity season. And also because I miss CMC’s Christmas pageants. They were a fine thing. Always a bit chaotic around the edges. Sometimes the congregation’s singing was a bit flat. It wasn’t always entirely – well – polished. But the love in that room? That was unmistakable. And the holy couple – by tradition through the first decade of the twenty-first century if not longer – was always interracial. The hope and promise of that image – however simplistic it may have been – never failed to move me.
I write this blog post on the morning of a day in which I will later denounce white nationalism at a local rally. Given the resurgence of white supremacy in our country, writing about an integrated Christmas service fifty years in the past can seem irrelevant if not naïve. To a degree, that may be true. But I also know that when I speak tonight, when I call out white nationalists for being small-minded, hard-fisted, and racist through and through, I will do so carrying a little bit of that nativity scene with me, and a little bit more of a congregation that decided to say yes rather than no to the question of integration before them fifty years ago.
- Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.↩
- Don Burklow and Grace Burklow, “Interview with Don and Grace Burklow,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mary Ann Woods, “Interview with Mary Ann Woods,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mertis Odom, “Interview with Mertis Odom,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.2005); Gerald Mares and Dolores Mares, “Interview with Gerald and Dolores Mares,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2006).↩
- Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.↩
- Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).↩
- That is at least the gender arrangement recalled by one couple. The written record doesn’t specify the gender mix, just that they were an interracial pair. Given the response by certain white members of the congregation, a black male/white female combination makes the most sense. Historically, the white community has been less threatened by white male/black female pairings, in part due to the record of white slave masters raping female enslaved Africans and denying the progeny that resulted any rights of inheritance. For reference to CMC’s casting decision, see: Mares and Mares.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).↩
- Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”↩
- Shearer, 167.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”↩
- M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).↩
- Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kip Kosek, “‘Just a Bunch of Agitators’: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches,” Religion and American Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017).↩
I have been thinking a lot about fear as of late. Two events prompt me.
The first is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Black Manifesto. The second, a statement released in early September 2018 by a group of evangelicals entitled a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.” The two documents—and the responses to them—suggest to me that white evangelicals, and the Mennonites sometimes counted among their number, have a legacy of fear to confront.
* * * * *
The story of Mennonite engagement with the Black Manifesto is an unexpected one. It begins in New York City.
On May 4, 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staffer James Forman took over the service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. From the front of the sanctuary, he read the Black Manifesto, a document demanding $500 million in reparations for the church’s participation in slavery and ongoing racism. Forman’s act sent shock waves through the Christian community not so much due to the amount of the request but because it came with the threat of ecclesial takeovers. Newspaper reporters from across the country described his original intervention and the subsequent occupancies that followed. In Mennonite-intensive Lancaster County, the Intelligencer Journal ran more than twenty articles about the Black Manifesto in the space of just over two months.
Those articles told the story of Black Manifesto activists disrupting churches and religious organizations. In some cases, congregational leaders arranged for police to be present if disruptions took place.1 Riverside Church obtained a restraining order to keep Forman from hijacking their services a second time.2 In Philadelphia, police arrested a group of Black Manifesto activists who had occupied a Methodist congregation.3 On three separate occasions, Forman and his followers took over denominational headquarters in major cities.4 One group of activists threatened to spit into the communion cup during Catholic mass.5 Reporting on these events focused far more on the takeover actions than on the full list of demands included in the Manifesto.
As those reports continued to proliferate in the popular press, Mennonite church officials started to weigh in. Given that former Mennonite pastor and church agency worker Vincent Harding appeared on a roster of the Manifesto’s steering committee, church leaders paid close attention from the beginning. Two weeks after Forman’s appearance at Riverside, Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section executive secretary Walton Hackman sent a cover memo and copy of the Manifesto to every member of his executive committee and each department head in the entire organization informing them of Harding’s involvement.6 One week later, General Conference voluntary service workers in nine cities received a copy of the Manifesto.7 By June, an appeal to fund summer programming at urban Mennonite churches made a brief reference to the Manifesto in the pages of the General Conference magazine The Mennonite.8 That same month, Orlando Kaufman, the director of the southern voluntary service unit known as Camp Landon, floated the idea of an act of repentance on the part of white Christians but did not feel that most Mennonites would be ready for such a response.9
Never before had so many white Mennonites responded so quickly to a race-based challenge to the church. The passage of the 1954 Brown decision ending segregation in the U.S. had prompted a flurry of articles in the Mennonite press and precipitated the 1955 Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 had likewise resulted in a similar rush of public articles, but in neither of these cases was the subsequent response as sustained, vociferous, or widespread as the response to the Black Manifesto. Mennonites paid attention to the prospect of worship disruption.
Leaders of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee took the response one step further. After meeting on July 10, they decided to send a letter to every pastor in their conference—some three hundred ministers—instructing them what to do should a Black Manifesto emissary show up at the door of their meeting house. A copy of the Manifesto came with every letter. In their missive, the Peace Committee members expressed considerable sympathy for the Manifesto’s authors and acknowledged their own failings, noting, “we too have so often failed to care and be concerned about the needs of those who are suffering right in our own communities.”10 While stopping short of a direct call for financial reparations, the committee members did enjoin the pastors to “demonstrate Christian love and peace,” accept “Black people as equals,” make “financial resources available where it is needed, and “provide employment and housing opportunities.”11
The specific instructions, however, reveal the committee members’ underlying concern and, at root, a measure of fear. Enjoining the pastors to embody “the way of love” to any Black Manifesto emissary, the letter’s authors also instructed the ministers to allow for their services to be disrupted and to “listen to the reading of the Black Manifesto in a spirit of Christian love.”12 Such instructions appear consistent with the doctrine and expressed commitments of the Mennonite community at the time.
What follows next seems somewhat less consistent.
The third point of instruction states: We must avoid any defensive, unchristian spirit or actions such as attempting to restrain those who would enter our services or buildings or the calling of the police. This will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.
I remember the first time that I read this statement. It struck me as significant. Paul Landis and Noah Good, both highly influential members of the Lancaster Conference community, imagined that at least some of the pacifist, quietist, separatist, ordained members of their flock would get physical with black visitors to their congregation. They were afraid that they might call the authorities.
Good and Landis clearly were far more concerned about their pastors acting in ways they deemed inappropriate than with what might happen to those African-American activists if things got violent or the police showed up. In 1969, the police already had a long record of responding with violence to members of the black community. The likelihood of violence increased dramatically in settings where white lives and propriety were somehow threatened or disrupted. Yet, that threat to black life was not the primary concern emphasized in the letter.
That Good and Landis would be concerned about conflict should come as no surprise. White people’s avoidance of conflict in general and racial strife in particular during the 1960s has been well established.13 What was true for the white populace as a whole was doubly true for white Mennonites.14
Yet the chance that a Black Manifesto emissary would show up at a Lancaster Conference church was extremely low. I have yet to find a reference to a rural or suburban congregation being taken over by Forman or one of his emissaries. Some may have occurred, but they certainly did not show up in reports from the era. Congregations in Ephrata, Elizabethtown, Millport, or Masonville simply were not on the radar for those focused on the payment of half-a-billion dollars in reparations.
So why send the letter at all?
Perhaps Good and Landis wanted to educate their pastors about an issue that they deemed important. They knew that their members would have no ready access to a copy of the Manifesto, and wanted them to be informed.
Perhaps the Conference leaders desired to forestall the kind of ruckus that had taken place when church leaders of other denominations had shut the door on Forman and his lieutenants. Things had gone awry elsewhere.15 It is reasonable that they would not want to display public conflict at a time when Conference leaders were considering joining the larger Mennonite church denomination.16
Or perhaps Good and Landis had every reason to fear a racist response. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, Landis recalled his “concern that people were buying the right-wing reaction to black power” and his desire to foster “more of a Christian stand.”17 But overall, his memory of the events surrounding the Black Manifesto in Lancaster Conference was vague.
Memories can fail us.
Yet I am less interested in faulty recollections than I am in reactive fears.
Because those same kinds of fears are still with us.
In early September 2018, a group of evangelical pastors—all of them men—released a Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Others have analyzed the racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism amply evident in the declaration.18 My interest is in the fear that seems to be underlying the authors’ intent.
It looks a lot like the fear evident back in 1969.
The parallels between the two periods, nearly fifty years apart, are striking. In both 1969 and 2018, the African-American community and their allies have organized powerful challenges to white supremacy. As in 1969, much of that criticism has been directed at the church. Womanist and mujerista theologians, anti-racism educators—many of them faith-based, and a burgeoning group of historians, sociologists, and critical race theorists have challenged the patriarchy, sexism, and racism present within the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.19
No wonder that a group dominated by white men released a statement essentially saying that they did not have to pay attention to, consider, evaluate, or reflect upon their receipt of white privilege, participation in male dominance, or class dynamics. Those supported by systems of oppression have consistently been the last ones to agree to discuss that reality and have offered the most strident objections to changing the status quo. Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur and the other original signatories have much to gain by deflecting discussion about the systems that serve them. They are in particular, as noted in multiple responses, deeply reluctant to talk about racism.20
Beneath that resistance is a deep fear of exposure.
I don’t know the men who wrote the 2018 social justice gospel statement. I haven’t interviewed the pastors who received the 1969 Black Manifesto letter. But I recognize the signs: defensiveness, anger, striking out, attempting to forestall any discussion that might lead to a loss of power, a loss of face. Later in 1969, Mennonite pastor John Powell challenged the church to establish a “compassion fund,” a sort of Mennonite version of the Black Manifesto to be funded by above-budget giving at the rate of six dollars per member. Although some funds did come in to support the Minority Ministries Council’s ministries in African-American and Latinx communities, they never received even half of their $500,000 goal. In their attempts to raise the Compassion Fund monies, Powell and his colleagues encountered similar defensiveness. Powell wrote that, among many statements he had heard, white Mennonites had responded, “The Mission Board is collecting money to give to the niggers.”21
In her masterful 2013 study of white southern evangelicals and the challenges they faced to integrate their congregations, Carolyn Renée Dupont discusses at length the fear of the unknown, interracial contact, and loss of control that she found in white congregations during the civil rights movement.22 Under the guise of theological fidelity, white segregationists rejected the presence of the black body in their worship space. Their fear was evident, palpable, concrete.
* * * * *
A white pastor recently told me that she recognizes her reticence to speak up regularly about racial issues because she is afraid. Members of her congregation had invited church leadership to release a statement publicly expressing their opposition to white supremacy in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville in August 2017. Although they did organize a mid-week service of mourning and repentance, members of the church’s leadership team did not allow the statement to move forward because they were afraid that it would offend wealthy, white men in the congregation.
Although twelve months later the congregation had still not released a statement despite their location in a state with several active hate groups, she told me that she is trying to confront her fear. I respect her for it.
* * * * *
The history of Mennonites’ response to the Black Manifesto, this curious moment of warning pacifist pastors neither to pummel visitors to their congregation nor call the police to do it for them, as well as a statement issued to forestall discussion about racism and other forms of oppression, and privileging call for a similar sort of courage as that shown by the pastor who spoke to me, one that—at the very least—casts out fear. Or at least acknowledges how fear very often keeps us quiet at the very moment when we need to be speaking with our fullest voice.
- “Forman Lauds Pastor after Rights Sermon,” Intelligencer Journal, May 12, 1969. ↩
- “Forman Asks $200 Million from Catholics,” Intelligencer Journal, May 10, 1969. ↩
- “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church,” Intelligencer Journal, July 11, 1969. ↩
- “Offices of Church Occupied,” Intelligencer Journal, June 6, 1969. ↩
- “Protesters Arrested in Churches,” Intelligencer Journal, June 16, 1969. ↩
- Walton Hackman, “Manifesto to White Christian Churches and Jewish Synogogues [Sic],” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1969). ↩
- Fred Unruh, May 26, 1969. ↩
- “Special Funds for Summer City Needs,” The Mennonite, June 10, 1969. ↩
- Orlo Kaufman, June 19, 1969. ↩
- Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis, Letter, July 1969. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). ↩
- Tobin Miller Shearer, “White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,” Global Mennonite Peacebuilding: Exploring Theology, Culture, and Practice, 35, no. 3 (2017). ↩
- “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church.” ↩
- https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lancaster_Mennonite_Conference ↩
- Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill.2005). ↩
- http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/09/on-john-macarthurs-racist-statement-on-social-justice/ ↩
- See, for example, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson, Melinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014); Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietistic Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). ↩
- See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html ↩
- John Powell, “The Compassion Fund Is,” Gospel Herald, March 24, 1970, 271. ↩
- Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013). ↩
Tobin Miller Shearer
Hip-hop artist, rapper, and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs reminisced about his experience with the Fresh Air Fund (FAF) during an interview with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel on August 1, 2018. Combs described his time among the Plain people as a “beautiful” experience that formed his identity. He recalled milking cows, picking berries, riding buggies, and eating large Amish meals, all of which – in the absence of electronics – “taught him how to just relate with each other.” He concluded his reminiscence with a “shout-out to the Fresh Air Fund.”
Combs sounds nostalgic in the interview despite Kimmel’s repeated attempts to poke fun at the experience. Rather than a means to obtain cheap child labor – Kimmel suggested that the Amish had “somehow bamboozled this charity into sending you there to work” – Combs mentioned how often he thought about his host family and how they had contributed to his life. When Kimmel joked that Combs should hitch a horse to his Bentley to recreate the buggy rides of his youth, the rap star and actor stayed serious, emphasizing that he “truly appreciated” his summer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Combs’s memory holds only positive associations with his summer hosting venture.
The juxtaposition of a world-wise, very wealthy, hip-hop artist with the world-wary, frugal, hymn-singing Amish captured the media’s attention. In addition to dozens of accounts on entertainment portals ranging from People magazine to Billboard.com, the venerable BBC News also reported on the exchange five days after the interview appeared. Always media savvy in their fundraising efforts, the FAF tweeted out a link to the Kimmel interview within forty-eight hours.
The story told by Combs echoes the prevailing narrative about the Fresh Air Fund. It is a tale composed with nostalgia, sung without discord, resonate with racial harmony. Since its founding in 1877, the Fund has brought city children to the country for summer stays – most of them of the one- to two-week variety. Combs purported two-month stay is much rarer. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s as white flight resulted in increasingly black and brown urban centers, the Fund shifted from sending white ethnic children from the city to white rural hosts to sending African-American and Latinx children from the city to white rural hosts. As told in thousands of glowing newspaper accounts generated by the Fund for distribution to regional newspapers, happy hosts welcomed happy children to rural and suburban communities invariably happy to host them.
There was no room for another narrative in the Fund’s accounts. Nostalgia from public figures like tennis champion Arthur Ashe, crooner Bing Crosby, comedian Jimmy Durante, actor Lauren Bacall, and singer Ethel Merman only offered positive testimonies.
And the Amish and Mennonites frequently starred in those accounts. A 1958 press release praised the Mennonite family who hosted a family of five fresh air boys from New York City for an off-season Christmas visit replete with a feast of turkey and stuffing, sweet pickles, peas, carrots, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, fruit cake and ice cream for dessert. Summer’s Children, a 1964 promotional film produced by the Fund, featured Mennonite and Amish families. In 1976, the Fund’s executive director Lisa Pulling noted that Mennonites made Pennsylvania the “most popular place to go” other than New York itself. That same year, newspapers across the country featured a column by popular writer George Will in which he praised the Amish for their Fresh Air hosting in glowing terms every bit as nostalgic as those offered by Combs. After describing the “creak and jingle of harnesses, and the clippity-clop of hooves on pavement,” Will described the family of Benuel Smucker in Ronks, Pennsylvania, who “have no truck with modernity, including electricity, a fact which does not bother their guests from the Big Apple — twin eight-year-old black boys.” Combs was far from the only African-American child to have discovered the appeal of rustic, rural havens.
As the burst of interest in Combs’s story makes evident, the prospect of placing urban children of color with pristine symbols of the nation’s agrarian past – scholar and poet Julia Kasdorf refers to the Amish as “whiter than white: innocent, pure, plain—Puritans but without their unhappy edge” – has mass appeal. When placing innocents with innocents, everybody wins. There is no racial loser; no antagonist; only the celebration of borders crossed and friendships won.
However, that formula of doubled innocence did not always balance. Children grew homesick and begged to return to the city. Busloads cheered upon crossing back over into New York City. Neighbors, townspeople, and sometimes hosts used racial epithets to refer to their charges. Accusations of theft abounded. Administrators had to remind the hosts that they were not just getting free labor. Assured that they were getting a vacation, some guests balked at the demands of chores and refused to toil without compensation. Up until the mid-1980s, the Fresh Air Fund paid little attention to screening hosts for a history of sexual abuse even while intensively screening the children for STDs and other communicable diseases. The narrative related by Combs is, at the very least, more complex than he suggested.
As much as I was fascinated to hear Combs talk about his Fresh Air experience, it was not the content of the narrative itself that drew my attention. While my research suggests a far more problematic story than the one he told – particularly when the model itself continues to be one-way, short-term, urban-negative, and racially paternalistic – it was the nostalgic way he told the story that I found most gripping.
No matter how hard Kimmel tried to make light of Combs’s reminiscences, he stayed sincere and focused on the positive memories that he held of his time with the Amish. Here was a highly successful entrepreneur whose personal worth tops $800 million, a man who lavishes expensive gifts on his children, a philanthropist who has founded his own program to assist urban youth – one that includes a summer camp each year – and who has given generously to both victims of Hurricane Katrina and students at Howard University. Amid that material success, he harkened back to his time with the Plain people, a group whose lifestyle and commitments seem light years from his own.
But through nostalgia – an emotion defined by sentimental longing and a wistful yearning for better times gone by – Combs made a connection. He saw in his life some measure of charity, hard-work, care for children, and simplicity. He claimed to have learned those values, at least in part, from the Amish; the experience “helped to make me what I am,” he explained in his interview with Kimmel.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Our current president used its appeal to great effect in his most recent campaign. Yet, as was the case with Combs and the Fresh Air Fund, nostalgic appeals often cover over the complexities and underside of history and, in so doing, create a past that never really existed. That’s why the writing and research of history are so critical at this moment. Without a grounding in as much evidence as can be mustered, we risk basing our decisions on fanciful and false presentations of the past.
Combs said in the interview that he would love to know if his host family realized what he grew up to become. Apparently they do, since his sister, who also stayed with the same Amish family in eastern Lancaster County, recently contacted them.
Should Combs talk with his former hosts, I wonder what they would discuss. As is the case in the vast majority of Fresh Air exchanges, long-term relationships are rare, difficult to sustain, and often end when the children enter adolescence. A great deal of evidence shows that white host families are much more reluctant to host teenagers due to the possibility of interracial romance blossoming. Nonetheless, perhaps they would discuss Combs’s efforts to better the lives of other children from the city. Perhaps they would chat about additional memories Combs carries from his sojourn. They might even talk over the ways in which Combs life remains so far from their own.
But, if I had to guess, I would venture that they would spend at least some small measure of their time simply reminiscing about, in the words of Kimmel, the now incongruous image of “Diddy in a buggy.”
Crandell, Richard F., ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children. New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962.
“Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children.” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976, 51.
Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.
Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry.” In The Amish and the Media, edited by Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher, 67-90. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.
“Lancaster Holds Film Premier.” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964, 1-2.
Shearer, Tobin Miller. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.
Will, George F. “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children.” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976, A-4.
[^1]: Richard F. Crandell, ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children (New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962).
[^2]: “Lancaster Holds Film Premier,” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964.
[^3]: “Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children,” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976.
[^4]: George F. Will, “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children,” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976.
[^5]: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry,” in The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008), 69.
[^6]: David Hechler, The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988), 29-54.
[^7]: I explore all these themes in my recent book: Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
[^8]: “Sean Combs, “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Combs#Charity_work_and_honors, Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2018.
[^9]: “Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs wants to find the Lancaster Amish couple he spent summers with as a Fresh Air Kid” LNP Monday, August 7, 2018 https://lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/sean-diddy-combs-wants-to-find-the-lancaster-amish-couple/article_cd3b8412-9973-11e8-8892-4be24b7102d6.html
[^10]: Shearer, 79.
Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.
“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1
I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2
The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4
To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5
The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9
It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.
But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.
Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.
But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.
Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?
Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.
But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12
It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.
Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15
I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.
Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.
- David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. ↩
- “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. ↩
- James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. ↩
- Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. ↩
- Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. ↩
- “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). ↩
- A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), . ↩
- Horst, 284. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. ↩
- Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. ↩
- Shank, 2. ↩
- Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). ↩
- Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). ↩
- Shank, 2. ↩
Tobin Miller Shearer
In an era when the sitting president of the United States is able to re-tweet highly racist and inflammatory videos with apparent impunity, we need ever more sophisticated and historically grounded means of analyzing the problem before us. Although the use of historical analysis for political ends is fraught with difficulty, careful attention to specific historical trends can be illustrative. This graph-based analysis of Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s engagement in and response to racism from 1900 through 1970 may offer some insight for our present moment. This kind of analysis may show us the pieces we are missing in our present response.
* * * *
I expect that I am far too fond of charts. My friends, when they’re being honest, tease me about my nerdy ways. Workshop participants shake their heads bemusedly in response to my excitement when I comment on a new handout.
So it is not surprising that I would turn to graphic representation for a new study of racism in Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
Actually the research is not entirely new. I simply revisited the database I developed when writing my dissertation and subsequent book Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Johns Hopkins: 2010). I then mapped the ways in which white Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders and members dealt with external and internal race relations. The charts emerged from conversations that Cheryl Miller Shearer, my life partner, and I had as we prepared to lead a Sunday School class on racism and white supremacy at our congregation. I’ve chose Lancaster Mennonite Conference as the focus of my study because of their geographical location in a region representative of much of the kind of racism we see resurgent in society today.
The first graphic (Chart A) positions acts of racism on a grid with a public/private y-axis (vertical line) and an individual/collective x-axis (horizontal line). While by no means representative of every conceivable type of racist action, the graphic demonstrates that acts of racism in the twentieth century have been carried out across the full spectrum of public/private arenas and by a wide array of individuals and groups. The chart also suggests that collective manifestations of racism have been far more prevalent – and therefore damaging – than have individual acts of racism.
The second graphic (Chart B) positions acts of anti-racism on the same public/private|individual/collective grid. In particular, the named categories are representative—though not comprehensively so—of the kinds of anti-racist actions taken by white Christians in the twentieth century.1 This chart indicates that—across the white Christian community—responses to racism have been fairly robust and, to a degree, addressed racism in all its manifestations. What the chart does not indicate is the degree to which these responses are common in various Christian communities. For example, few white-majority Christian groups have been comfortable with confrontational acts or covert actions (for descriptions of the categories used on this chart see Appendix One below). Responses to racism on the individual end of the horizontal axis have been somewhat anemic, suggesting that white congregations have done less well at preparing and equipping their congregants to resist racism on an individual basis even though many white church leaders claim that they do encourage their congregants to take individual action.
The third graphic (Chart C) highlights a sampling of the kinds of racism that white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference participated in between 1900 and 1970 according to the records I have surveyed below and anecdotal evidence shared with me over the years (for citations and complete source listing, see Appendix Two). White Lancaster Conference Mennonites display a pattern consistent with the broader society during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. The Lancaster Conference actively and knowingly participated in racial segregation, promoted paternalistic programs like Fresh Air summer hosting ventures, invested far more money and resources in white congregations than in congregations of color, told racist jokes, and regularly hired those who looked like them.
None of this is surprising.
The fourth graphic (Chart D) highlights the kinds of anti-racism that white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference participated in between 1900 and 1970. Here again, most of the actions conform to patterns consistent with the broader society. As Christian Smith and Michael Emerson have demonstrated, white Protestant Christians—of which Lancaster Mennonites would be a sub-category—have been far more comfortable engaging in relational acts, non-political social service projects, and some types of educational initiatives.2 In short, actions in the public-collective quadrant are rare.
It is somewhat surprising, then, to note that Lancaster Mennonite Conference did pass a public “race relations statement” in 1960 and then assigned a committee to revise it in 1970. Much could be said about the content of the 1960 statement. I will limit my comment here to note that the 1960 statement is strong on integrationist thought and action but does not deal with systemic manifestations of racism. Nonetheless, the statement did put Lancaster Mennonite Conference on record as opposing “race prejudice” and the “segregation of races.”3
The other outlier that Chart D points to is that Lancaster Mennonite Conference went through a rather substantive shift from an overtly and unapologetic segregated institution to an, at least officially, desegregated institution. Prior to the passage of the 1960 statement, Lancaster Conference institutions practiced racial segregation in congregations, Vacation Bible Schools, Sunday Schools, mission outreach, and retirement communities. They did so deliberately, by official decision, and with little record of hesitation. The decision to integrate all such facilities did result in integrated congregations, retirement communities, etc., but the implementation of that integration was slow, attenuated, and incomplete a decade later.
The fifth and final graphic (Chart E) superimposes this record of anti-racist response on the breadth of racist actions in society. As the chart makes evident, white Lancaster Conference Mennonites were historically far more prepared to address acts of racism when they occurred in private and were non-confrontational in nature. With the exception of passing their race relations statement, white Lancaster Conference Mennonites did little if anything to respond to the public-collective—and therefore systemic—acts of racism and were likewise ill-prepared to respond to institutional racism in the form of lending practices, hiring decisions, policy determinations, etc.
I was, however, surprised to encounter the founding documents of Menno Housing, a Lancaster Conference related initiative to promote racially integrated neighborhoods. Leaders of Menno Housing did so by providing housing for “minority group families … in white neighborhoods” and for “white families” in historically black and brown neighborhoods.4 This kind of economically focused programming addressed the public issue of housing segregation and drew attention to the lending and realty practices that supported it.
The biggest take-away from my charting exercise is that white Lancaster Conference Mennonites were best equipped to respond to racism when it took interpersonal forms in the individual-private quadrant. Between 1900 and 1970, members of this community learned the lessons that they should not use racial epithets or tell racist jokes and that they should have friends from other racial groups. During that time period, they did not learn, however, of the overwhelming, sustained patterns of systemic and institutional racism both within and without their community. They lacked the theological and programmatic resources necessary to dismantle racism in all of the four quadrants in which racism operated in their churches and the society around them.
According to available research, what was true for white Mennonites in Lancaster Conference was true for most white members of mainline denominations in the United States. The question then, as now, is how will we equip our white congregations to be ready to respond to racism in its collective forms—that is both systemic and institutional—whether publicly or privately manifested?
White church leaders often contend their congregants are prepared to deal with racism on an individual basis. If that is all they do, if that is the only piece of the puzzle they have to offer, the kind of overt racism practiced by our current president —not to mention the less overt and systemic kinds—will remain with us for a very long time. We need to add the missing pieces of public, collective action to our faith-based responses.
Appendix One: Categories Used in Chart B
- Ritual acts (prayer, liturgy, worship, etc.)
- Public witness (marches, picketing, vigils, etc.)
- Confrontational acts (meeting disruption, sit-ins, personal confrontation, etc.)
- Educational initiatives (classes, workshops, book clubs, etc.)
- Personal preparation/education (fasting, reading, personal prayer, etc.)
- Research development (local history, institutional analysis, writing, etc.)
- Institutional transformation (changing policy, procedure, mission statements, practices, etc.)
- Development work ($) (giving drives, fundraisers, budgetary allocation, etc.)
- Relational connections (one-one-one conversations, personal challenges, interrupting racist jokes, etc.)
- Social service programming (food drives, housing initiatives, emergency monetary provision, etc.)
- Official declarations (statements, pastoral letters, sermons, etc.)
- Personal accompaniment (night watches, witnesses, being present, etc.)
- Political actions (letter writing, voting, advocacy for candidates, etc.)
- Covert actions (hiding refugees, secret taping, group infiltration, etc.)
- Corporate engagement (stock purchasing, board membership, board ownership, etc.)
- Economic actions (boycotting, strikes, work slowdowns, etc.)
Appendix Two: Citations for Chart C
Ritual acts (prayer, liturgy, worship, etc.)
- 1963 ordination of “first colored minister” James Harris in Lancaster conference (1963b)
Public witness (marches, picketing, vigils, etc.)
- 1970 Lancaster conference leaders make specific statement not to become involved in marches or demonstrations (1970b)
- 1970 Pastoral Messenger editorial repeats opposition to marches (Baer 1970)
Confrontational acts (meeting disruption, sit-ins, personal confrontation, etc.)
Educational initiatives (classes, workshops, book clubs, etc.)
- 1926 Publication of article by black author (Faust 1926)
- 1939 Publication of article about mission work among African-Americans (Good 1939)
- 1946 Publication of article describing racism within and without the church (Erb 1946)
- 1946 Publication of editorial asking whether the church is equipped to engage in “Negro missions” (Wert 1946)
- 1950 Publication of advice on relating to “negroes” including call for fresh air hosting (Brubaker 1950)
- 1952 Publication of article on “Winning the Negro with Love” (Lehman 1952)
- 1960 Publication of article on “Building Interracial Churches” that includes quote “We don’t want to be your brothers-in-law; we want to be your brothers in Christ.” (Landis 1960)
- 1960 held panel with white mission workers and black church leaders on “understanding racial difficulties” (Stoltzfus et al. 1960)
- 1964 Lancaster Conference leaders attend and speak at conference on race relations in Atlanta (1964)
- 1965 Lancaster Conference leaders attend urban racial meeting in Youngstown, OH (Gingerich 1965)
- 1968 Peace Committee of Lancaster Conference aims to change white attitudes (Landis 1968a)
- 1968 Article published about the privilege of white people, white supremacy, and call for healing on the occasion of MLK, Jr.’s assassination (Landis 1968b)
- 1969 letter and response to Black Manifesto warns against calling the police (1969a, Good and Landis 1969, Hess 1969)
- 1970 program developed to get preachers of color in white congregations (Wenger 1970)
Personal preparation/education (fasting, reading, personal prayer, etc.)
Research development (local history, institutional analysis, writing, etc.)
- conducts attitude survey on interracial housing in New Holland PA (Bomberger and Longenecker 1967)
Institutional transformation (changing policy, procedure, mission statements, practices, etc.)
- 1915 Establishment of separate, segregated “Colored Mennonite Congregation (1915)
- 1933 Establishment of segregated Sunday School for black people in Lancaster (Herr 1933)
- 1936 Segregation of vacation bible schools in Philadelphia (1936); (Eshleman 1936)
- 1938 Purchase of property for Lancaster “colored mission” (1938)
- 1941 Purchase of property for Philadelphia “colored mission” (Lutz 1941)
- 1948 Proposal to integrate retirement facilities (1948)
- 1950 Listing of eleven mission statements to the “colored” (Stoltzfus 1950)
- 1954 Establishment of integrated retirement community in Philadelphia (1954)
- 1954 Starting of new missions to “Negro People” in Harlem and Tampa (Garber 1954)
- 1954 evidence of small integration at LMS and of prejudice on the part of the principal (Weaver 1954)
- 1955 move away from segregation in Tampa mission facilities (Kraybill 1955)
- 1960 set up committee on race relations and call for full integration of all Lancaster Mennonite institutions (Thomas 1960)
- 1962 Evidence of segregated churches starting to integrate (Shenk 1962)
- 1963 Congregation in Lancaster Conference – Monterey – conducts interracial marriage but places stipulation that it cannot be a public wedding (Hershberger 1963)
- 1963 previously segregated congregations in Steelton, integrate (Kraybill 1963)
- 1969 committee on peace and industrial relations has extensive conversation about John Powell’s statement at Turner, Oregon, that give rise to Minority Ministries Council (Landis 1969)
Development work ($) (giving drives, fundraisers, budgetary allocation, etc.)
Relational connections (one-one-one conversations, mission and evangelism)
- 1928 Call for missions to North American blacks (1928)
- 1932 Decision to engage in African Missions (1932)
- 1935 Maintenance of segregated mission in Philadelphia (Herr 1935)
- 1944 Witness to migrant workers (Mosemann 1944)
- 1961 report by Tampa missionaries exposes strong prejudice and paternalism of missionaries posted there (Lehman 1961)
- 1962 Lancaster Conference church plant in Atlanta says that “the church of Jesus Christ overlooks race” (1962)
Social service programming (food drives, housing initiatives, emergency monetary provision, etc.)
- 1926 Relief and mission work at Welsh Mountain (Weaver 1926)
- 1929 Service to black children at Welsh Mountain (1929)
- 1943 Purchase of building for elderly black woman in Welsh Mountain (Miller 1943)
- 1950 Founding of Mission Children’s Visitation Program (Buckwalter 1947-1953);(Kraybill 1950)
- 1951 High profile of Fresh Air program (Thomas and Thomas 1951)
- 1952 Query by Lancaster Conference official over Fresh Air children carrying venereal disease into Mennonite homes (Kraybill 1952)
- 1957 appreciation banquet for migrant laborers (1957)
- 1957 article about “caring for the little brown-faced children” while parents, deemed to be in poverty because of sin in their lives, worked in the fields (Sensenig 1957)
- 1961 Fresh Air Program for children from city missions in full swing (Shenk 1961)
- 1966 Fresh Air Program still going strong (Benner 1966)
- 1968 Fresh Air Program still active (1968b)
- 1970 use Black Manifesto money to help out black member of an urban congregation (1970a)
- 1970 Fresh Air program still ongoing (Lapp et al. 1970)
Official declarations (statements, pastoral letters, sermons, etc.)
- 1955 statement by Lancaster Conference offered (1955)
- 1959 Lancaster Conference race relations statement developed (1959)
- 1960 Lancaster Conference on race relations released (1960)
- 1963 Bishop board prints 5,000 copies of race statement for distribution (1963a)
- 1963 bishops call attention to racial strife and urge additional use of conference race relations statement (Landis 1963)
- 1970 Committee formed to revise race relations statement (Stauffer 1970)
Personal accompaniment (night watches, witnesses, being present, etc.)
Political actions (letter writing, voting, advocacy for candidates, etc.)
Covert actions (hiding refugees, secret taping, group infiltration, etc.)
Corporate engagement (stock purchasing, board membership, board ownership, etc.)
Economic actions (boycotting, strikes, work slowdowns, etc.)
- 1967 Mennonites in Lancaster found Menno Housing to promote integrated housing (Voth 1967, Wenger 1967)
- 1968 Menno Housing founding documents incorporated and passed (1968c, 1968a)
- 1969 Menno Housing still focused on interracialism (1969b)
- Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Rohrerstown, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
- “The Stranger That Is Within Thy Gates.” Missionary Messenger, February 15, 1-2.
- SIXTH QUARTERLY JOINT MEETING OF THE EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES WITH THE BISHOP BOARD OF THE LANCASTER CONFERENCE DISTRICT HELD AT THE LANCASTER VINE STREET MISSION, JAN. 14, 1929. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
- Minutes of the Twenty-first quarterly Meeting of the Board of Bishops and the EMB of M & C held at the E. Chestnut St. Church. Lancaster, Pa.: EMBMC.
- Mennonite Mission for Colored, Philadelphia, Pa. In LMHS – Diamond Street Cong. Lancaster, Pa.
- Minutes of the Forty-Fourth Quarterly Joint Meeting of the E.M.B. of M.&C. and the Board of Bishops held at the Ephrata Church, Ephrata Pa. April 5, 1938 at 9:30 A.M. Ephrata, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
- EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES Executive Committee Meeting Mellinger’s Meeting House. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
- Eastern Mennonite Board Executive Committee Meeting 3/6/54.
- Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
- “Migrant Workers Meet In Lancaster.” Christian Living, March, 10.
- Statement on Race Relations. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
- From the East West North South: God is no respector of persons…. Are you? Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
- “Mennonite Faith Called ‘Total Love’.” Gospel Herald, August 14, 720-721.
1963a. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. East Petersburg, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
1963b. “News Notes.” Pastoral Messenger, July, 6-7.
- “Mennonite Churches in South Hold Conference on Race.” The Mennonite, March 31, 203-204.
1968a. Menno Housing Executive Committee Meeting Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.
1968b. Mission Children’s Visitation Program July 15-29, 1968. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
1968c. Statement of Purpose. Salunga, Pa.: Menno Housing, Inc.
1969a. “Lancaster Conference Peace Committee Responds to Black Manifesto.” Gospel Herald, August 12, 702.
1969b. “Menno Housing Works to East Poverty, Race Discrimination.” Mennonite Weekly Review, April 10, 2.
1970a. “A Proposal for the Use of Black Manifesto Funds.” Salunga, Pa., April 13.
1970b. “Report to the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Mellinger Mennonite Meetinghouse, Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” Pastoral Messenger, October, 3-5.
Baer, Russell J. 1970. “Editorial.” Pastoral Messenger, January, 4.
Benner, N. 1966. Boys on bus on the way to fresh air placement.
Bomberger, Luke R., and Charles B. Longenecker. 1967. Attitudes regarding interracial housing in the New Holland area. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.
Brubaker, J. Lester. 1950. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May, 11.
Buckwalter, Ira J. 1947-1953. Colored Workers Committee Notes 1947-1953. Colored Workers Committee.
Erb, Ruth G. 1946. “Meeting the Challenge of Negro Missions.” Missionary Messenger, January, 3-4, 12.
Eshleman, Merle W. 1936. “Mission for Colored, Philadelphia.” Missionary Messenger, February 16, 11.
Faust, Jessie. 1926. “A Negro View of the Color Problem.” Missionary Messenger, June 15, 10-11.
Garber, Henry F. 1954. FORTIETH ANNUAL REPORT EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES 1953. Elizabethtown, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
Gingerich, Simon G. 1965. Report of the Findings Committee Urban Racial Meeting, Youngstown, Ohio. Elkhart, Indiana: Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
Good, Noah G. 1939. “Our Witness to the Negro.” Missionary Messenger, April 16, 14-15.
Good, Noah G., and Paul G. Landis. 1969. “Dear Brethren.” Salunga, Pa., July.
Herr, Barbara H. 1935. “Philadelphia.” Missionary Messenger, October 20, 12.
Herr, H. L. 1933. Minutes of the Twenty-fifth Quarterly Meeting of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities of Lancaster Co., and The Board of Bishops, held at Mellinger’s Church, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1933. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities.
Hershberger, Guy F. 1963. “Dear Abram.” Goshen, Ind., August 27.
Hess, Mahlon M. 1969. “Editorial.” Missionary Messenger, August, 24, 23.
Kraybill, Paul N. 1950. Mennonite Mission Children Visitation Program. Salunga, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
Kraybill, Paul N. 1952. “Dear Mr. Lewis.” Salunga, Pa., June 25.
Kraybill, Paul N. 1955. EASTERN MENNONITE BOARD OF MISSIONS AND CHARITIES and LANCASTER CONFERENCE BOARD OF BISHOPS Bimonthly Joint Meeting. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.
Kraybill, Paul N. 1963. That Middle Wall Falls Again. Salunga, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions.
Landis, Paul G. 1960. “Building Interracial Churches.” Missionary Messenger, January, 6-7.
Landis, Paul G. 1963. “Lancaster Mennonite Conference Report, Mellinger Meetinghouse, Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” Pastoral Messenger, October, 3-5.
Landis, Paul G. 1968a. COMMITTEE ON PEACE AND SOCIAL CONCERNS Executive Secretary’s Report. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
Landis, Paul G. 1968b. “Dr. King’s Message Often Misunderstood.” Mennonite Weekly Review, April 18, 4.
Landis, Paul G. 1969. Peace and Industrial Relations Committee. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
Lapp, Elmer, Dale Stoltzfus, Esther Petersheim, Evelyn Buckwalter, Jim Moyer, Velma Landis, Maria Lugo, Doris Stoltzfus, Dorothy Kruse, Ray Siegrist, Anna Kuhns, Jesus Cruz, Lorraine Weaver, Alton Longenecker, and Dick Frey. 1970. Glad Tidings Mennonite Church Program Evaluations. New York city: Glad Tidings Mennonite Church.
Lehman, Joseph S. 1952. “Winning the Negro with Love.” Missionary Messenger, November, 7, 9.
Lehman, Martin W. 1961. “Dear Bro. Charles.” Tampa, Fl., October 13.
Lutz, Henry E. 1941. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
Miller, Orie O. 1943. SIXTY-THIRD QUARTERLY MEETING OF E.M.B. OF M. & C. and LANCASTER CONFERENCE BOARD OF BISHOPS held at Chestnut Street, Lancaster Church. Lancaster, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Board of Mission and Charities.
Mosemann, Alta M. 1944. “Witnessing In Southern Migrant Labor Camps.” Missionary Messenger, June 11, 5,12.
Sensenig, Velma. 1957. “Migrant Ministry.” Missionary Messenger, April, 2, 14.
Shenk, Norman G. 1961. “Dear Brethren.” Salunga, Pa., December 14.
Shenk, Norman G. 1962. Joint Members’ Meeting of Steelton, Myers Street and Sharon Congregations. Steelton, Pa.: Eastern Mennonite Mission Board.
Stauffer, Leon. 1970. Peace Committee Minutes. Salunga, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee.
Stoltzfus, Luke, William Weaver, George Nolley, James Harris, and John H. Kraybill. 1960. “Understanding Racial Difficulties.” Missionary Messenger, January, 6.
Stoltzfus, Robert. 1950. “A Short History of Mennonite Work Among the American Negro.” Missionary Messenger, October, 12.
Thomas, Amos, and Martha Thomas. 1951. “Dear Bro.”, March 21.
Thomas, David N. 1960. Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes. East Petersburg, Pa.: Lancaster Conference.
Voth, Arthur A. 1967. Lancaster Area Housing Group. Lancaster, Pa.: Menno Housing.
Weaver, Amos W. 1954. Response to LeRoy Bechler Survey. Lancaster, pa.: Lancaster Mennonite High School.
Weaver, John H. 1926. An Experience at the Welsh Mountain.
Wenger, A. Grace. 1967. “”No Room” – in Lancaster?” Missionary Messenger, July, 5-7.
Wenger, Chester L. 1970. “Dear Pastors.” Salunga, Pa., August 24.
Wert, Daniel D. 1946. “What About Our Negro Missions?” Missionary Messenger, January, 2.
- Assessment based on my study of the white Christian community. Appendix One describes the actions included in each of these categories. ↩
- Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). ↩
- Lancaster Mennonite Conference, “Statement on Race Relations,” Pastoral Messenger, April 1960. ↩
- “Statement of Purpose,” (Salunga, Pa.: Menno Housing, Inc., 1968). ↩
Tobin Miller Shearer
My sons, Dylan and Zach, are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In their mid-twenties, they live in Chicago and carry the cards to prove their DSA membership. I’ve seen them.
Dylan and Zach regularly fill us in on their work for the DSA. They attend rallies, sit on committees, and organize community-building events. We joke sometimes that this is their form of church.
But we also have more serious conversations such as the one that Zach and I had several weeks ago about the antifa movement, the loosely organized coalition of individuals and associations focused on defeating the resurgence of U.S.- based neo-fascism and white supremacy. In my conversation with Zach, I had dismissed the antifa movement as indiscriminately violent and therefore dangerous. Zach pushed back, reminding me that the antifa movement had, quite literally, saved lives during the “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August. Antifa members had used violence to protect a group of clergy and other Christian leaders like the Harvard philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West when they had come under attack. Zach challenged me to not dismiss what I didn’t understand.
I have thought often about his comment and the antifa movement in the weeks since Charlottesville. While I continue to count myself a pacifist due to my religious beliefs and upbringing, I am now at a point where I no longer know if what I once thought to be true still is.
To be fair, it is not just Zach’s prompting that has pushed me to reconsider the relationship of violence and nonviolence.
Every other year or so I teach a course entitled, “The Black Radical Tradition.” In it I introduce my students to Robert F. Williams. An unapologetic defender of armed self-defense during the civil rights movement, Williams found himself publicly denounced by Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked out of the NAACP, and by 1961 forced to flee the country following trumped up kidnapping charges by the FBI. I feature a photo of him and his wife Mabel, each holding a pistol, on the webpage for the African-American Studies Program that I direct at the University of Montana.
I include Williams on that webpage because he personifies a central question arising from the study of the black freedom struggle: what is the appropriate relationship of violence and nonviolence in the struggle to overcome racism—or any form of oppression?
After introducing Williams, I spend a day arguing that he and those influenced by him were not only harmful to the overall goals of the black freedom struggle, but that they were actually far more conservative than they were radical. I attempt to convince my students that violence is “the white man’s way” and is, therefore, an inherently racist and colonialist practice. To further bolster this position, I also aver that violence does violence to the perpetrator, drawing on the thought of non-violence advocate Elias Chacour: “If to overcome the beast, we become the beast, then the beast has won.”1 I conclude with a flurry of evidence showing that nonviolent methods were successful in the South from the 1940s through the 1960s, that violent methods were often highly sexist, and that civil rights leaders like long-time activist Daisy Bates absolutely excoriated Williams for not being true to the nonviolent principles that had proven so successful in the struggle for black freedom.
I then do something different. The next time that the class meets I rebut my previous argument by noting that, in communities like Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the 1960s, armed self-defense groups such as the Deacons for Defense successfully protected nonviolent demonstrations, offering a sign of strength, an indication that they would not be intimidated, that they would not yield. I note that even the most principled and committed of activists, people like NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers—a man who was ultimately assassinated for the nonviolent resistance he promoted—seriously considered the possibility of organizing armed struggle in Mississippi. Evers even studied the tactics used by the Mau Mau rebels who had fought against British colonial rule in the 1950s.2
Students find most convincing the argument made by civil rights historians Charles Cobb and Charles Payne that one of the reasons the KKK and other white activists killed relatively few civil rights field workers was that local families in communities like Greenwood, Mississippi, had armed themselves and forced carloads of white aggressors to retreat under fire. When I add that women also shot back at their attackers and that young people were rarely convinced by the dictates of nonviolence, my students rethink their assumption that the civil rights movement and violence were antithetical.3
In that same course, I also discuss two other civil rights figures with distinctive views on violence and nonviolence: Vincent Harding and Gloria Richardson. By the middle of the 1960s, civil rights activist and Mennonite minister Vincent Harding had witnessed the violent backlash directed at his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1967, that violence had only intensified. No wonder that Harding then challenged white Mennonites on their acquiescence to and participation in state-sponsored violence. Harding pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized revolutionaries bent on seizing power while taking “advantage regularly (though often unconsciously) of political, economic, and military power.”4 Although in subsequent essays in the 1990s and beyond Harding remained faithful to King’s ethic of nonviolence, Harding recognized and called out the inconsistency of a Mennonite community that preached nonviolence but had relatively little cause to live it out.
The same tension between nonviolence and armed self-defense surfaces when I introduce my students to Gloria Richardson, the activist and organizer who led the early 1960s struggle to defeat segregation and achieve economic justice in Cambridge, Maryland. Through her leadership of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), Richardson passionately defended the right to self-defense in the face of racial terror. Heralded as a proto-Black Power icon, Richardson added, “Self-defense may actually be a deterrent to further violence. Hitherto, the government has moved into conflict situations only when matters approach the level of insurrection.” Although the Cambridge campaign incorporated tactical nonviolence, Richardson and those protesting with her rejected nonviolence as an all-encompassing ethic. As a result, the demonstrations in Cambridge often turned violent and, by June of 1963, Maryland’s governor had sent in the National Guard to quell the rebellion growing there. Intervention by the Kennedy Administration then resulted in the short-lived but ultimately effective “Treaty of Cambridge,” an agreement to end segregation and increase black hiring in city jobs. Richardson maintained that the treaty resulted directly from the violent means used by the CNAC, an analysis she went on to impart to younger activists like Stokely Carmichael.5
But the conversation that Zach and I had in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has made the issues I discuss with my students feel far more pressing, urgent, and immediate. The ideas have jumped the fence from academic exercise to real-life proving ground.
Since Charlottesville I have thought of the many times I’ve witnessed members of the Anabaptist community offer smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence, a bumptious attitude seldom grounded in experiences such as those faced by the clergy in Charlottesville. At the same time, I’ve recalled conversations I’ve had with those who have lived out their nonviolent commitment with integrity through involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other peacebuilding organizations. I’ve been deeply impressed by both those who have witnessed outside the military establishment like Daniel Berrigan, Molly Rush, and the rest of the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists as well as by those who have witnessed inside the same, like Lisa Schirch of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
And I’ve wondered what this present moment means for my own ongoing commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.
When Zach challenged me on my easy and ready dismissal of the antifa movement, I had to admit that I for one like a world in which Cornel West is alive. I am very glad he will continue to gift us with virtuosic theological performances. I like that world a whole lot better than one in which Professor West and those others who protested with him are not present. I am grateful for the antifa members who saved their lives in Charlottesville. I am also grateful for those who stood in silent witness prepared to be nonviolent even if they came under attack.
At this moment, my desire is this. I wish that those of us Anabaptists who hope to have something relevant to say—or do—in the context of a resurgent white supremacy will grapple with and respect the tradition of armed self-defense that is today being taken up by some members of the “antifa” movement. I hope that we will not be too quick to dismiss what they may have to teach us about the limits of our own commitment to nonviolence.
Indeed, as a historian of both the black freedom struggle and the Anabaptist community, I hope that we will be able to recognize that violence in the tradition of armed self-defense has sometimes done real, palpable—dare I say it—kingdom building work.
As I write those words, they sound foreign and alien to my Anabaptist ears. Nonetheless, I think the historical record bears out my contention.
Perhaps I should be fearful of what my sisters and brothers in the Anabaptist community may have to say to me about such a heterodox assertion. Yet, at this moment, I care far more about whether the words I pen in this article will have some modicum of relevance to my sons and their comrades in the DSA.
- The author has heard numerous speakers attribute this quote to Chacour, but as of publication has not been able to confirm him as the actual source. The author invites readers to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if they can confirm the attribution. ↩
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). ↩
- Ibid., 373; Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 148-149. ↩
- Vincent Harding, “The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,” Mennonite Life, October 1967, 164. ↩
- Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007), 88; Biography.com Editors, “Gloria Richardson,” A&E Television Networks, https://www.biography.com/people/gloria-richardson-21442461 (Accessed September 27, 2017). ↩