Can Violence Build God’s Kingdom?

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.


  1. 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 tobin.shearer@umontana.edu if they can confirm the attribution. 
  2. Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). 
  3. 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. 
  4.   Vincent Harding, “The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,” Mennonite Life, October 1967, 164. 
  5. 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). 

Fannie Swartzentruber, Ecclesial Gaslighting, and The Witness of Holy Disruption

Swartzentruber's photo

Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber. Virginia Mennonite Conference archives, Papers of Va. Menn. Bd. of Missions and Charities, Box “Harold Huber’s Papers, Broad Street Mennonite Church Materials (History, etc.)”

Tobin Miller Shearer

Fannie Swartzentruber has stuck with me for more than a dozen years. I first encountered this unassuming church matron from Gay Street Mennonite Mission in Harrisonburg, Virginia, back in March of 2005 while on a research trip to Eastern Mennonite University’s archives. As I read of her life and legacy, I was impressed with the deliberation, focus, and passion she brought to her ministry with the African-American community in Harrisonburg during the 1940s. Although her story, like all of ours, is complex—at times burdened by white paternalism and the patent racism of her era and at times leavened by a deep courage and fidelity of friendship across many decades—she nonetheless speaks to our present moment because of her witness of holy disruption.

Disruption in the church is, by its very nature, controversial. During the Mennonite Church USA gathering in Kansas City in 2015, Pink Menno activists disrupted the assembly meetings with a piece of satirical theater that left as many angered and frustrated as elated and energized. There have been other acts of holy disruption in the Mennonite world that have garnered attention. In February 2003, a group of activists connected to the Damascus Road anti-racism process disrupted a meeting of the Mennonite Central Committee Central States board to call for action to dismantle racism in the organization.1 In the 1980s, a homelessness advocate and Mennonite minister by the name of David Hayden disrupted meetings of the Virginia Conference to demand delegates’ attention to housing issues in their region.

Given Mennonites’—and especially white Mennonites of European descent—love of order, decorum, and respectability, it is perhaps no wonder that activists have chosen to disrupt convention meetings, delegate sessions, and occasionally even worship services. The payoff in attention to their cause, even if accompanied by frustration, anger, and, sometimes outright animosity, has been disproportionate to the risk. There was little chance that peace-loving Mennonites would physically assault interlopers. Even when emissaries of the 1969 reparations movement known as the Black Manifesto threatened to disrupt worship services, Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders enjoined ministers to engage in “orderly discussion” rather than “calling . . . the police” or “attempting to restrain those who would enter our services.”2

No wonder then that Swartzentruber caused such a fuss. In 1940, the Virginia Mennonite Conference’s executive committee announced that they would be conforming to the “general attitude of society in the South toward the intermingling of the two races.”3 The executive committee segregated the rites of baptism, the holy kiss, foot washing, and communion, claiming that they did so in “the best interests of both colored and white.”4 Not coincidentally, they instituted the Jim Crow policy even as Mennonites in Virginia faced increased pressure for their non-conformity to the country’s military buildup during World War II.5

Swartzentruber and her husband Ernest challenged their supervisors, demanding scriptural backing for the action. In a highly unusual reply, the bishops declared that not every decision necessitated scriptural mandates. Rather, they stated, “as a matter of expediency we must make some distinction to meet existing conditions.”6 The decision to take away the shared communion cup particularly devastated Fannie.

For the better part of four years, Swartzentruber went along with the dictate. She took communion from a separate cup. She watched Eastern Mennonite College deny admission to the daughter of one her African-American co-believers, Roberta Webb. She said good-bye to her long-time companion, Rowena Lark, as Lark and her husband moved away from the Jim Crow South to plant churches in Chicago. Swartzentruber went along with the demands of her religious community—until she could no longer do so.

During the communion service at Gay Street Mennonite Mission in the fall of 1944, Swartzentruber had had enough. She got up and marched out.

And she kept on marching. Toting her youngest daughter Rhoda in her arms, Swartzentruber walked four miles out of town to the farm north of Harrisonburg where she and Ernest lived. When Ernest returned home from church, she informed him that “she would never again sit through such a service.”7

Disruptive actions, whether ecclesial or otherwise, bear consequences. Church responses to those who transgress boundaries of decorum have often been just as debilitating, if not more so, than secular responses. Communities who preach grace and reconciliation in the midst of retaliation amplify the damage they do to transgressors. Even when camouflaged with scriptures, gaslighting is still gaslighting. In this instance, Mennonites were no exception.

A scant four months after Swartzentruber disrupted the Gay Street communion service, members of the Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions dismissed Fannie and Ernest from their positions as matron and superintendents of the Gay Street mission.8 Although officially cloaked in bureaucratic double-talk as “voluntary expression of willingness . . . to discontinue,” the decision was anything but voluntary. Family members attested to the trauma that both Fannie and Ernest experienced in the aftermath of their dismissal, trauma that was furthered by the ecclesial gaslighting they encountered.9

It was not until 1955 that Virginia Conference leaders overturned their segregation dictate. In a statement that year they publicly acknowledged their “former spiritual immaturity” and pledged to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to all “true believers.”10

But Fannie was not present for that conference statement. She and Ernest had left Harrisonburg in the aftermath of their ejection from Gay Street, settling in Greenwood, Delaware, in 1946, and then, following the death of her husband in 1986, moving to northern Indiana where she attended a Baptist congregation through her passing in 1999.

Regardless of the prophetic truth they often offer, holy disrupters bear the long-term consequences of their actions. In Swartzentruber’s case, her spontaneous march from the sanctuary to the streets resulted in her dismissal and in a long-term alienation from the church community that she loved.

Historical precedents are only sometimes illuminating of our present circumstances. Both past and present are complex and never map exactly one on one. But there are connections, tendrils we can draw across time. In this instance, I simply wonder whether the church can do better now. How will church leaders respond to those who have followed in Swartzentruber’s footsteps? Can they respond with grace rather than retaliation? Will the church let go of its gaslighting past? Will they find better ways to respond to the actions of holy disrupters like those who have called out church leaders for their collusion in the face of sexual abuse and those who have demanded that the voices of the LGBTQ community be included in the conversation about human sexuality?

Swartzentruber was alienated from her faith community, but she and her husband Ernest did experience a modicum of restoration. In the mid 1980s, while visiting the congregation that emerged from the Swartzentrubers’ work at Gay Street, the Broad Street Mennonite Church, members of the congregation apologized. They used the occasion of their church’s fiftieth anniversary to acknowledge that Fannie and Ernest had been wronged and that, on behalf of the Virginia Conference, they were sorry for their actions.

Fannie and Ernest were left in tears. Their family members later reported that the gesture, even though small and absent of official Conference approval, had freed them from a “depth of pain” that they had born for three decades.

In our present moment, I can only hope that the church moves much more quickly to restoration with those who have offered holy disruption.


  1. In the interest of full disclosure, the author helped organize that event. 
  2. “Lancaster Conference Peace Committee Responds to Black Manifesto,” Gospel Herald, August 12 1969. 
  3. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 43. 
  4. Ibid., 36. 
  5. Ibid., 43. 
  6. Ibid., 37. 
  7. Ibid., 41. 
  8. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  9. Harold Huber and Vida Huber, “Interview with Harold and Vida Huber,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005). 
  10. Linden M. Wenger, “Progress Report on Integration,” Gospel Herald, February 9 1960. 

Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council

Tobin Miller Shearer

On May 4, 1969, James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), walked down the center aisle of the Riverside Church in New York City to deliver the Black Manifesto, a document calling for white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations for their participation in slavery and the ongoing practice of racism, an amount Forman indicated was equal to about $15 per black person in the United States. Although as a fundraising tool the Manifesto missed its mark by several orders of magnitude, the document caused a firestorm of response from the white religious community. Given Forman’s threat that he or his lieutenants would disrupt church services in those communities where reparations payments were not made, denominations and congregations made plans for what they should do if Black Manifesto delegates showed up on their doorsteps.

MMC cross cultural cover

Brochure advertising a cross-cultural gathering sponsored by the Minority Ministries Council. “We They Coming Together: A Cross-Cultural Experience,” 1971: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71

Some made arrangements to call the police and then did so upon the delegates’ arrival. Others made plans to simply vacate their sanctuaries if a Black Manifesto activist showed up. A few planned on entering into dialogue. Even fewer invited Black Manifesto emissaries to their congregations and offered them payment. Although disruption was the intent and purpose of Black Manifesto activists, they did not as a rule engage in any form of violence.

It is striking then, that only two months after the release of the Black Manifesto, Paul G. Landis and Noah G. Good–leaders at the time in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference–sent a letter to every pastor in their conference calling them to “repent individually and as congregations of any and all racial prejudice or class discrimination that may be present in our own hearts” after first cautioning them against calling the police or restraining “those who would enter our services or buildings” because “[t]his will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.”1 If nothing else, these cautions come across as highly unusual among a religious group known for their commitment to nonviolence and nonresistance. Under what other circumstances would pastors need to be cautioned against engaging in violence or calling the police to intervene? Good and Landis seemed to have been very afraid that uncontrollable chaos might ensue among this particular group of white Mennonite quiet in the land.

On August 16, 1969, at the (Old) Mennonite Church General Assembly in Turner, Oregon, African-American Mennonite pastor John Powell called for a fund in the amount of $500,000 to be set up “for the purpose of developing and expanding ways of serving the urban poor and other minorities in new and meaningful ways.” He challenged the church to raise that same amount for each of the following five years (for a total of $3,000,000)–an amount indicated as $0.50/member/month. The fund, later deemed the Compassion Fund, was envisioned as a way to “open the door to a new world of freedom and brotherhood.” Powell also called for “racial sensitivity education in white congregations.”2

Like the Black Manifesto that prompted it, the resulting Compassion Fund would never meet its funding goals although it would also result in a firestorm of response, much of it negative, from white members of the Mennonite church. A 1971 report would note receipts of $100,000 in 1969, and $60,000 in 1970 – amounts far below the $500,000/year goal.

Much more could be said about how the Black Manifesto helped bolster the development of what would come to be called the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, I will focus on the struggle that emerged over the MMC as its members fostered a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition intent upon supporting the black and brown freedom struggles within and without the (Old) Mennonite Church. I will also suggest what those observations might mean to the contemporary church.

Echoing the work of Richard Foster, I contend that the struggle over both the Black Manifesto and the Compassion Fund was about three things: money, sex, and power. Those three issues remain at the core of Mennonite Church USA’s current struggle to dismantle racism internal to its structure and corporate life.

Money. The MMC’s struggle to obtain funding from the Mennonite Church drove to the heart of the problem of racism at that time. Prior to the advent of the MMC, most of the church’s mission and service endeavors in communities of color – where, in fact, the majority of the work took place in both domestic and overseas settings – was typified by white mission workers leading efforts to serve communities of color or, in a few instances, partnering with communities of color. Very few of those efforts were led by people of color from within or without the Mennonite community, James and Rowena Lark being two of the most notable exceptions. MMC’s proposal to fund communities of color to lead their own work and minister in their own communities completely upset that paradigm. The list of funded projects makes the case. In 1970 alone, the MMC funded twelve different urban churches’ self-run summer programs, a new business and black farm cooperative start-up in Mississippi, a “radical black theological seminary in Philadelphia,” and a Mexican-American Advocacy group in South Bend, Indiana, among many other projects.3 The evidence makes clear that this shift to black and brown run programs–more than any other element of the MMC programming initiative–left white Mennonite constituents cold. Their dollars did not flow to support this kind of mission and service.

Sex. On March 23, 1971, the Gospel Herald, the news magazine of the Mennonite Church, ran a race relations survey carried out by MMC white anti-racism educator Lynford Hershey. Hershey had sent the survey out to 98 Mennonite churches, of which 58 responded. Of the many questions asked, one of the most striking made the statement: “There is nothing morally wrong with interracial marriage if both partners are Christian.” Of the 2694 responses to that question, 51% were uncertain or disagreed with the statement.4 Of course that also means that 49% agreed with the statement, but in 1971 it still spoke dramatically of a church community that found the issue of interracial sex to be troublesome at best, morally suspect at worse. Given that the Supreme Court had in 1967 already overruled anti-miscegenation laws in Loving vs. the State of Virginia, it remains all the more problematic that a majority of the Mennonite Church five years later continued to be afraid of the prospect of their white daughters marrying black men – which was almost without exception the gender configuration that sounded alarms. In correspondence with John Powell, former Goshen College President Ernest E. Miller accused Powell of having claimed that “unity and peace” would come through “having interracial sex relations,” a claim he objected to in light of a comment purportedly made by Martin Luther King, Jr. while at Goshen College, in which King apparently said – as he had asserted elsewhere in the sexist language of the day – that “we want to be your brothers in Christ, not your brothers in law.”5 As my research into the Fresh Air rural hosting program has made clear, white Mennonites continued to express grave concern that interracial contact would lead to interracial sex well into the 1970s and 1980s.

Power. On March 8, 1971, MMC founding member Hubert Schwartzentruber made a provocative proposal. He suggested that both the Home Missions and the Voluntary Service arms of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities come under the authority of the MMC.6 He was in essence proposing a substantive shift of power, one that would have placed the heart and soul of the Mennonite mission enterprise under the control and leadership of people of color. Just as many Black Nationalist and La Raza groups were calling for a similar shift of authority and leadership over programs in their own communities, so too was this group calling for the right to lead mission and service efforts in their own communities. Although the proposal did not move forward, if action had been taken, the church’s mission efforts would have looked very different.

I contend that these three areas remain the principle issues in need of addressing today. Who holds the purse strings and gets to decide how money is distributed continues to stay largely in white hands. We have to find ways to talk about how money too often determines who is listened to, whose voice counts, who remains unheard.

Concerns about interracial sex – discomfort with it, talking around it – continues to be an issue. Two young men of color at Goshen College shared their experience with me of being either avoided or eroticized by white women, and on a related note, being asked to instruct white men on how to “act ghetto” – at term laden with all too much of its own psychosocial baggage.

Issues surrounding power continue to serve as an additional stumbling block to furthering the work of the church. We know from long experience that white norms and standards too often stand in the way of creating a new future. At the same time we see evidence of change in this realm as leaders like Iris Deleon Hartshorn, Glen Guyton, Stanley Green, Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, and many others demonstrate that the church does indeed thrive when people of color also lead.

My comments have focused on the legacy and present practice of racism. There is, of course, so much more that could be said in this arena. But, at the same time, I want to name and be clear that our analysis and discussion of this issue must be nested in and cognizant of the interlocking arenas of class, gender, physical ability, and sexual identity. In each of these areas the provisioning of power and privilege and the ongoing dynamics of oppression continue to be relevant and need to be explored as well.

Ella Baker, the most gifted and influential organizer of the modern civil rights movement, once said, “In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” My hope is that this brief foray into the history of the MMC and the Black Manifesto can be part of building that understanding.


  1. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis to Lancaster Conference Mennonite Pastors, July 1969, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Box: Conference Statements. 
  2. John Powell, “Urban-Racial Concerns Statement,” (Turner, OR: Mennonite General Conference, 1969), Archives of the Mennonite Church, I-1-1, Mennonite General Conference, 1898-1971, 1969 Session materials, Folder 5/8. 
  3. John Powell, “Compassion Fund Report,” (Elkhart, IN: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 12: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked, Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-7. 
  4. Lynford Hershey, “What Is the Mennonite Attitude on Race Relations.” Gospel Herald, March 23 1971, 262-264. 
  5. Ernest E. Miller to John Powell, December 3, 1969, Archives of the Mennonite Church, IV-21-4 Box 1, MBM, Minority Ministries Council, Data Files #1, A-K, Folder: General Correspondence, 1969-72. 
  6. John I. Smucker,”Minutes of Minority Ministries Council Executive Committee,” (Chicago, IL: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 7: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71. 

On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump

Tobin Miller Shearer

The evening of Monday, November 21, 2016, I received an email from a colleague. In it, she wrote, “You are on a ‘professor watch list’ compiled by a right-wing group.… Sorry to be the bearer of bad news….”

I had just returned home from leading a three-hour graduate seminar during which we discussed at length what it means to write advocacy history. Some students felt it essential to tailor their research and writing so that it could speak to present-day public policy. Others felt that contemporary interests fundamentally compromised historical scholarship. The only thing that mattered was whether you were true to the historical record.

Historians often tell uncomfortable truths about the past, truths that many in our church and society would prefer to forget.

In the subsequent days and weeks since my name showed up on the Professor Watchlist website and the list received national attention in the New York Times and elsewhere, I’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of advocacy and the practice of writing history. It is not accidental that the developers of Professor Watchlist have targeted more academics from the field of history than from any other discipline. Historians often tell uncomfortable truths about the past, truths that many in our church and society would prefer to forget. Frequently the truths we tell as historians do influence public policy in tangible ways, whether we want them to or not.

I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years researching the Fresh Air rural hosting movement, a summer vacation program for urban children in which white Mennonite families have regularly participated. From the end of the nineteenth century through to the present, white rural and suburban families hosted children from urban centers for one- to two-week summer vacations. My research focuses on the period between 1939 and 1979 when the program transitioned from white families hosting white children to white families hosting black and brown children.

mla-bethel-1960-gulfport-group-with-bus

Photo of group of twenty-one African-American youth from Gulfport, MS, preparing for Mennonite sponsored Fresh Air trip to Kansas in July 1960. Used with permission of Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas

Back in 2008, I contacted the director of the oldest and most well known hosting group, the Fresh Air Fund, based out of New York City. Formerly known as the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, the New York Times is now its primary publicity partner. In that initial phone conversation, I described my research to the director. Although at first she was quite thrilled to hear that I would be writing a book about the Fresh Air movement, her tone abruptly shifted when I explained that I would be examining the programs’ racial dynamics. She went from friendly to icy in a minute. Despite my best efforts to assure her that I was a trained, professional historian, she informed me that they had no archive and, even if they did, I would not be given access to it.

I followed up the conversation with subsequent requests for access to their materials and, several years later, arranged to stop by their offices while I was on a research trip to New York. Despite a warm welcome and a tour of their offices, my request for access to their records was again denied, this time by both their executive director and their board. They told me that they had had a bad experience with a graduate student and, therefore, no longer gave researchers access to their records. Interestingly, a short while after they denied me access, they opened their archives to a historian from an Ivy League school with whom I had begun to correspond. His focus on the program’s early years did not touch on race.

The Fresh Air were wary of my agenda. Those who put me on Professor Watchlist were likewise suspicious that I carry an agenda. In the case of the former, an agenda to expose a troubling truth about the way race worked in Fresh Air programs. In the case of the later, an agenda to expose a troubling truth about the way race worked in society.

In my line of work, being singled out for extra scrutiny is not new. In the past, right wing groups ranging from the KKK to a group called Campus Reform have targeted me. Thus far, little has come of such scrutiny other than ill-conceived and rather anemic death threats. Although we are in a new and deeply troubling political climate at the moment, I remain wary but not unduly concerned.

But that is not the point of my essay.

Rather, I want to explore the possibility that I do have an agenda, that I am somehow breaking an ethical code by pursuing advocacy history. That possibility bothers me far more than being included on a Watchlist.

In the discussion with my graduate students, I made the point that sometimes advocacy history keeps historians from asking certain questions because they don’t want the subject of their research to look good – or bad – depending on their topic and particular political interests. In a recent discussion about his research on the black freedom struggle in Alabama during the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights movement historian Hassan Jeffries described how difficult it was to write the last chapter of his book, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. In that chapter, he had to describe the disappointing outcome of electoral politics in Lowndes County. Even though black citizens had finally earned the right to vote, black politicians lost touch with the freedom values that had brought them into office; they then betrayed their constituents. It was not a story that Jeffries wanted to tell, but he knew that he had to tell it or his historical project would have no integrity.

I’ve wondered if my own scholarship has that kind of integrity. On the one hand, when I’ve written about white Mennonites, I’ve been very conscious of the perception that I have an agenda, one bent on exposing Mennonite racism. As a result, I’ve been meticulous in my documentation, deliberate in my attempt to contextualize and explain, careful not to hold white Mennonites to a standard that was not present at the time.

In the instance of Mennonite involvement in the Fresh Air program, I’ve described the programs as one-way, short-term, paternalistic endeavors that valorized the country at the expense of the city. But I did so only after discovering that African-American leaders within the church were equally critical of the programs at the time that they were being offered. As my research expanded to look at the Fresh Air Movement in its entirety, I discovered even more critical voices calling for discontinuation of the programs. One critic famously exclaimed that the programs allowed children of color to visit white suburbs for one week every summer but then locked “them out the other 51 weeks of the year.”1

The book that emerged from those ten years of research, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America features those critics. Of course, I also include accolades from an adoring press. But, as I look back at that work and my body of research on Mennonites writ large, I have to agree with my critics at the Fresh Air program and Professors Watchlist. I do have an agenda. It is not, however, the one they have accused me of having.

Back in 2008, the Fresh Air Fund director accused me of emphasizing something that they had “never paid attention to.” She was referring to race. Yet my agenda is not so much to focus on race – even though I have reams of evidence that, at least by the 1960s, the program claimed race relations as its raison d’etre – as it is to engage in truthtelling. You can’t tell the truth if you don’t tell the whole story. At that time, the Fresh Air Fund simply didn’t want to hear the racial side of their story.

Professor Watchlist has accused me of talking about systemic racism and white privilege in my classes and, more generally, of “discriminat[ing] against conservative students and advance[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Again, they are off the mark. I do most certainly talk about systemic racism and white privilege in the classroom but make a point of inviting students to disagree and debate with me at every turn. The minute students feel that they can’t disagree with my perspective, I am no longer doing my job. Here again, my interest is in challenging my students to engage with a difficult truth, one that most of my students have not previously encountered.

So, yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as a historically determinable truth. It is not coincidental that the discourse of postmodernism – one which calls Truth with a capital T into question – has emerged at a point when female, black, brown, gay, lesbian, and trans voices have finally begun to be heard in society. Postmodernism suggests that there are only individual perspectives, that all truth is relative. My study of history has convinced me that, while there are many perspectives, there are also raw realities evident in the practice of slavery, the denial of women the vote, the institution of apartheid and Jim Crow, and the persistent and recurring evidence of racism, sexism, and abuse within the white Mennonite community, some of it directly connected to Fresh Air ventures as former Fresh Air participant Janice Batts has courageously made known. And so despite being denied access to the Fresh Air Fund records, I kept on writing; despite being put on a watchlist, I will continue to teach history and research difficult topics.

A coda: a week after the Watchlist came out, I received an email out of the blue from the new executive director of the Fresh Air Fund. A volunteer had sent her a link to a lecture I gave on the programs at Eastern Mennonite University this past January. She wanted to talk about “your studies, findings, perspectives, and thoughts of the ‘Fresh Air’ Friendly Towns, in particular.” It was a gracious note. We will be speaking in two weeks.

Like me, the Fund’s executive director is deeply concerned that we “now sit with the reality of a Trump presidency.” Although I expect that we will have differing perspectives on the contemporary worth and value of a program that I have found fundamentally paternalistic and based on assumptions of white superiority, I am equally convinced that we will have much to learn from each other. At this point I don’t know what the outcome of our conversation will be, but I am eager to discover where a path of advocacy history in a time of watchlisting will take us.


  1. Ellen Delmonte, “An Editorial Feature,” Call and Post, Saturday, July 3 1971. 

The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born

Tobin Miller Shearer

J. Lester Brubaker taught me a lesson. He did so back in 1950, fifteen years before I entered this world. That is the wonder of history.

Brubaker wrote an article beneath the headline “Colored Missions.” In it, he used his position as editor of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference’s Missionary Messenger to suggest ten ways to “win the Negro of America to Christ.”1 Starting from the assumption that it was easier to help the “dark-skinned American” than the “dark-skinned African” because it was less expensive and did not require learning a “difficult language,” Brubaker carefully enumerated his motivations and methods for reaching across the color line.2

j-brubaker

J.  Lester Brubaker, 1952 Lancaster Mennonite High School Laurel Wreath

His was a daunting task. Two years after he penned his essay, there were still only twelve African-American congregations listed in the Mennonite Yearbook, and they were lumped together with “Spanish speaking” missions and ministries focused on “Jewish People” under the category “Missions Among Different Peoples.”3 What was segregated in print was also segregated in practice. Many retirement and children’s homes run by Mennonites would not accept African Americans. Nearby Virginia Conference continued to enforce its 1940 bishop-approved segregation guidelines for all church sacraments from communion to the Holy Kiss.4 And the numbers were small: by 1953 mission worker Leroy Bechler reported only 282 black members of the Mennonite Church in the United States.5

To be certain, some African-American leaders pushed back against these walls of racial segregation. James and Rowena Lark had been actively ministering within the African-American community for several years, with James being ordained as a minister on October 6, 1946.6 Both Larks had gained notice of the church at large, and in 1951 James would come to serve on the church-wide Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR), a group that would, concurrent with Lark’s involvement and the leadership of Guy F. Hershberger, focus on race relations for many years.7 Over in Chicago, James and Rowena had started Bethel Mennonite church where they lead an integrated congregation and advocated for full inclusion of African Americans. In a 1950 article, Rowena noted that a “worker” in their congregation, originally from Virginia, became “the first Colored girl ever to attend E. M.C. as a registered student.”8

But despite these efforts, segregation in 1950 was, in the Mennonite community, the norm. Integration, however halting, was the anomaly.

In that historical context, Brubaker wrote his editorial. Having studied at Franklin and Marshall College and taught English at Lancaster Mennonite School, Brubaker knew how to wield a pen. He also knew his audience.

And this is where the lesson that I learned fifteen years from before I was born enters in.

Among the many suggestions that he had to offer [see sidebar/image], Brubaker focused brubaker-mm-1950on two themes: becoming involved in changing institutions and being nice to black people. As a thoughtful writer, Brubaker was of course more nuanced in his recommendations. He seems to have realized that the problem of racism was not just a matter of individual prejudice, so he called for changes in “church-administered institutions” and for more involvement in efforts to improve economic, labor, and social conditions for black Americans. He likewise recognized that white Mennonites were prone to patronizing behaviors and superiority and so enjoined his readers to “[n]ever show a patronizing or ‘better-than-thou’ attitude.”9

But the lesson that Brubaker taught me is just how long the Mennonite Church has been struggling to overcome this dichotomy between advocating for institutional change and fostering interpersonal relationship. When Brubaker encouraged parents to “not teach children to be color conscious” because “they likely will not notice the difference unless adults emphasize it,” he could not have been more distant from the African Americans who in 1950—and for decades previously—had been asking for more attention to the realities of racism, not less. Even for his relative sophistication and nuance, as a white Mennonite from Lancaster County, Brubaker and his co-believers stood at a far remove from African-American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett who had long been advocating for forthright, nuanced, and informed approaches to racism. Likewise, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma noted the deep-seated patterns of white racism and prejudice that could not be overcome by avoiding discussion about race.

Brubaker and his contemporaries knew how to encourage each other to be nice, to host black and brown children from the city, and to sponsor children of color at their summer camps. But those actions, regardless of how well meaning, lovingly offered, and challenging they were to implement, missed the mark of the standards set by African-American leaders of the day.

What is so striking is that this same dichotomy is present in the contemporary church. White Mennonites continue to find relationally based solutions far more attractive than the kind of activism promoted by groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. The problem now, as it was in 1950, is that the solutions white Mennonites are most familiar with have not been called for by the black community and have not proven effective over time. Addressing violence against black communities, paying reparations for slavery, and instituting community controlled policing have proven historically much more difficult for white Mennonites to support.

Our way forward as a church community will turn in part on how well we come to grips with the very dichotomy that J. Lester Brubaker helped me understand has been part of the Mennonite zeitgeist for sixty-five years and counting.

 

Works Cited

Bechler, Le Roy. The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986.

———. Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955. Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955.

Brubaker, J. Lester. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11.

Lark, Rowena. “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church.” Our Journal, May 1950, 1-3.

“Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization.” 1. Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940.

Shetler, Jan Bender. “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries.” Paper, Goshen College, 1977.

Zook, Ellrose D., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Vol. 43. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952.


  1.  J. Lester Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11. 
  2.  Ibid. 
  3.  Ellrose D. Zook, ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory, vol. 43 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952), 42. 
  4.  “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,”  (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940). 
  5. Le Roy Bechler, Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955 (Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955), 1. 
  6.  Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986), 49-54. 
  7.  Jan Bender Shetler, “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries” (Paper, Goshen College, 1977), 18. 
  8.  Rowena Lark, “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church,” Our Journal, May 1950, 3. 
  9.  Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” 11.