We want you to come and learn to love white people.
—Nettie Taylor, African-American head usher,
Bethesda Mennonite, St. Louis, 1957,
when asked if “colored people” were welcome
in a church with a white pastor
Shifting from the Streets and Sidewalks
In a conversation with a white Mennonite leader in 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. asked, “Where have you Mennonites been?”1 King’s theological studies made him aware of Mennonites’ long-term commitment to peacemaking, their racially egalitarian pronouncements, and their sacrificial efforts to bring about justice in the United States and throughout the world. King posed his question because he was looking for resources, both theological and human, to further the work of demonstrating for civil rights. Mennonites seemed like a logical group to join him in protest on the streets and sidewalks. Unbeknown to King, a small but identifiable group of Mennonites had been demonstrating for some time. They did so, however, in a manner King did not then recognize. They demonstrated at home and inside the church.
The five adults who gathered at Bethesda Mennonite Church in St. Louis on a Sunday morning in November 1957 were taking part in a civil rights demonstration (see figure P.1). Rather than marching with protest signs, the five Mennonites held open bibles and Sunday school quarterlies. They did not need to carry placards to attract public attention: a reporter from the St. Louis Argus, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, was writing a profile of their interracial fellowship. Like most observers of the civil rights movement, the reporter did not identify these Bethesda members as civil rights demonstrators. Even as he featured their fellowship, he failed to see the meeting as a deliberate action taken to disrupt the status quo. As the focused attention of June Schwartzentruber, Louis Gray, and Rowena Lark made evident, the carefully staged photo sent the message that an African-American woman like Nettie Taylor could command authority in an intimate, interracial gathering. The members of this Sunday school class thus took part in a civil rights demonstration, an organized event meant to disrupt the lives of a wider audience to bring about an integrated society. Their demonstration inside the church confronted those on the outside with an image of integration achieved.
Fig. P.1 Nettie Taylor, Susie Smith, June Schwartzentruber, Louis Gray, and Rowena Lark, Bethesda Mennonite Church, St. Louis, November 1957 St. Louis Argus, November 29, 1957, 2C. Photo courtesy of St. Louis Argus, St. Louis, MO
The photo of this integrated Sunday school class thus represents Daily Demonstrators’ thesis. Civil rights demonstrations that took place in the streets have received significant attention. In the intimate settings of homes and churches, a different kind of civil rights demonstration took place, one that challenged racial segregation in a less dramatic way. By examining the actions, beliefs, programs, and pronouncements of Mennonite groups like the Bethesda congregation from 1935 through 1971, this book shows how relationships, communal boundaries, cultural practices, and core religious convictions contributed to societal change. It does so by attending to the actions of Mennonites in their living rooms and meetinghouses. In those intimate, sacred locations, the slow, often contradictory process of religiously motivated, interpersonal exchange made possible a historic transition in post–World War II American society.
In Daily Demonstrators I explore new sites that expand our understanding of demonstration to include off-street action. By shifting attention to less public but no less significant environs, I show how racial change unfolded as co-believers took communion, sat down to dinner, and discussed marriages. Rather than sites of escape from the civil rights movement, living rooms and sanctuaries become arenas of racial agitation. Those who ventured across racial lines in intimate settings displayed courage equal to that of demonstrators who faced fire hoses and attack dogs. Children who traveled hours to stay in rural homes with strangely dressed white people braved unknown dangers as real to them as southern sheriffs were to voter registration workers in Mississippi. The pastor who faced down livid congregants after inviting an African-American preacher to his pulpit showed as much daring as students who faced down restaurant owners after sitting at a lunch counter. Demonstrators in sanctuaries and on sidewalks thus look surprisingly similar. All took risks, challenged assumptions, and longed for an egalitarian future. This church history of the civil rights era brings together home and congregation to show how religious practice in intimate environments interacted with higher-profile movements.
Because demonstrations on the streets and sidewalks attracted so much more attention, this intimate, religious form of demonstration remains largely absent from studies of the civil rights era. Historians, social movement theorists, and contemporary activists study the thousands who demonstrated for racial justice to gain fresh insight into mechanisms of change. Scholars and organizers alike examine the charismatic leaders, campaign strategies, political maneuvers, and organizational resources that encouraged so many to march.2 The firefighters who hosed demonstrators off sidewalks in Birmingham, the police dogs that attacked activists on the streets of the same city, and the state troopers who bludgeoned marchers on the road to Selma offer high drama that further fixes historians’ attention on cement surfaces.
The story of the civil rights movement also unfolded, however, in carpeted sanctuaries and living rooms. By wearing the distinctive costume of her religious community to worship services, Rowena Lark, the African-American Mennonite woman pictured on the right in figure P.1, countered the assumption that only white people could be Mennonite. June Schwartzentruber, in the middle of the same photo, modeled new ways of relating across racial lines when she sought the counsel of African Americans while sitting in their living rooms. Over meals at the dining table, Nettie Taylor, the object of Lark’s and Schwartzentruber’s attention, along with her children and other African-American youth, prompted white church members to rethink their racial stereotypes. Bethesda members and their allies challenged their white co-believers to pay racial reparations as they preached on Sunday morning. These intimate civil rights demonstrations challenged racial segregation by upsetting racial norms.
This study seeks to shift the gaze of civil rights movement historians from paved roads and concrete sidewalks to overstuffed couches and hardback pews. Although I recognize the importance of marchers, I argue that other less dramatic actors within home and church environments also contributed to the civil rights movement by amplifying, modifying, and sometimes opposing pronouncements made in the streets. I attempt to answer the question, How did the civil rights movement bring about change? by demonstrating that relationships, cultural practices, evangelical initiatives, and core religious convictions operated alongside street marches to bring an end to legalized segregation. Unless we understand the means by which actions in the home and sanctuary intersected with organized racial advocacy, our view of the long civil rights movement remains incomplete and skewed toward the street.3 By observing Mennonites in their living rooms and meeting houses across a thirty-six-year span, the slow, often contradictory, and messy unfolding of religiously motivated, interpersonal change in intimate, sacred locations is brought to light.
Pairing Home and Church
I was prompted to study Mennonites’ daily demonstrations by scholars who have broadened our understanding of political resistance and religious practice. In his book, Race Rebels, historian Robin D. G. Kelley deepens our understanding of how black working-class resistance in the workplace, on public transportation, and at sites of commercial entertainment supported organized political action. Kelley unifies formal political protest with everyday actions like stealing from an employer to protest low wages and spitting in the face of a bus driver to challenge segregated transit.4 I follow Kelley by noting the political significance of daily acts of resistance but expand his reach by attending to religious actors in their homes and in church buildings. Kelley only briefly mentions religious groups and, like many other writers in African-American history, ignores those African Americans who went to church with white people. The attention I pay to the everyday action of religious adherents was likewise prompted by the work of religious historian Robert Orsi on “lived religion.” Orsi argues that the best way to understand religion is to study religious practice “in all the spaces of experience,” not just in the formal sites of sacred gathering.5 Taken together, these writers invited me to explore new sites of demonstration to include off-street action and to show how religious practice in intimate environments interacted with high-profile marches.
To further that exploration, I have deliberately paired home and sanctuary. At first glance the two settings appear disconnected. Home-based encounters are marked by an intimacy and close personal contact seldom associated with formal Protestant religious practice. Furthermore, although Mennonites’ religious forebears and their contemporary Amish cousins held worship services in their homes, the subjects of this study went to church at separate meetinghouses designed for this purpose. Little seems to link the home with the sanctuary. As I paid attention to the interactions of white and African-American Mennonites in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, however, I soon noticed that many white Mennonites presumed a physical familiarity with African Americans not limited to the home environment. African-American Mennonite women, for example, referred to white co-congregants who touched their hair in both homes and churches.6 Other African-American Mennonites recalled times, in those same settings, when their white co-believers stared at them with unabashed fascination or assumed friendship where none existed.7 Although inappropriate by contemporary standards and at the very least insensitive according to period mores, such familiar acts linked the home and sanctuary. Therefore, rather than treat the home as a private space definitively separate from semipublic worship settings, I have paired the two to examine how these presumptions of familiarity affected the interactions between African-American and white Mennonites.8 Among the Mennonites studied here, conversation and contact could be just as intimate and intense at a churchwide meeting or Sunday school class as in the living room.
This purposeful connection of home and sanctuary allows for careful study of Mennonites’ close social networks. Because by 1970 the community included only 180,000 adult members in North America, the effects of churchwide decisions can be traced to individual congregations and households, a difficult task in large denominations like the Presbyterians, which counted more than 4 million members during the same period.9 Historical records connect, for example, the decision by a midwestern Mennonite congregation to deny membership status to an African-American young adult with homes and churches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Goshen, Indiana, and Gulfport, Mississippi. Mennonite social networks reveal mechanisms of racial change amid a dense but traceable web of familial, personal, and congregational relationships.
The stories chronicled in Daily Demonstrators present homes and churches as active sites of, rather than staging grounds for, civil rights activity. Most civil rights scholars view racially progressive congregations as the support base of the civil rights movement. Historian David Chappell traces how “enthusiasm moved out of the church and into the streets.” In the same way, Alisa Harrison capably documents how women in home environments supported street actions.10 In both studies, the actions taken by civil rights supporters in churches and homes are counted only as staging grounds for the real action that took place elsewhere. I treat the intimate environments of home and sanctuary as sites of civil rights struggle worthy of their own study rather than as ancillary points of inquiry.
This home- and sanctuary-centered analysis opens up new vistas into the mechanisms of change inside intimate environments that have been glossed over by otherwise exemplary civil rights scholars.11 Actions in living rooms and Sunday school classes had political effects. For example, short-term, home-based hosting ventures prompted church leaders to travel to the White House, and pastors of integrated congregations appeared before Congress. In addition to affecting the political arena, the actors featured here changed the church community. Interracial relationships nurtured over cups of coffee, for instance, prompted action against sacred segregation. Yet most of the intimate actions described here reveal much more subtle and complex change processes. One couple’s interracial marriage prompted some of their co-believers to reconsider folk notions about race, while for others it reinforced stereotypes. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding’s activism called their colleagues to courageous action even while complicating the church’s theology of nonresistance. The Mennonite church that welcomed African-American members struggled to allow their young adults to socialize across racial lines. As these instances suggest, the stories told in Daily Demonstrators are fraught with contradiction, complicated by imperfection, and indicative of human limitation. Nonetheless, those same stories reveal the messy but no less substantive contributions to social change of personal relationships, theological commitments, and communal boundaries.
These richly complex narratives also challenge Mennonite histories of the twentieth century by bringing African-American Mennonites from the margins to the center of historical inquiry. Two of the most comprehensive twentieth-century historical works on Mennonites, Paul Toews’s Mennonites in American Society (1996) and Perry Bush’s Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties (1998), refer to African Americans in the Mennonite church only in passing and underestimate the impact made by African-American leaders like Curtis Burrell, Vincent Harding, Gerald Hughes, Rowena Lark, and Roberta Webb. Rather than sitting silently on the sidelines, African-American Mennonites vociferously challenged their faith community to show integrity of word and deed. Only by incorporating stories like those told in this volume does twentieth-century Mennonite history become complete.12
Choosing among Mennonites
Among the many religious communities available for study, I have chosen to examine the two largest denominations of the Mennonite community—the (Old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. The (Old) Mennonite Church was the larger of the two denominations during the period of this study, with 88,947 members in the United States as of 1971. Although not an official designation, the term (Old) Mennonite Church was adopted by many members of both denominations to refer to the larger group. I follow this practice to avoid confusion between the two denominations.13 By the time this study opens, (Old) Mennonite congregations clustered most heavily along the eastern seaboard, particularly in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and in the Midwest, in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. From these locations, (Old) Mennonites eventually came in contact with African-American communities in northeastern cities and throughout the South. Culturally, white members of this community were predominantly of Germanic-Swiss heritage and tended toward more strict interpretations of church doctrines in the area of distinct dress and practices such as the holy kiss, a gender-segregated greeting given within the confessed community. Similarly, many constituent groups belonging to or connected with the (Old) Mennonite Church employed strong bishop-centered authority structures. Church hierarchy and the subsequent ability to enforce a centralized position on racial matters would prove critical to interracial ministry and church positions.
By contrast, the General Conference Mennonite Church counted only 36,458 members in the United States in 1971. Congregations from the General Conference were clustered most heavily in Kansas and Nebraska but were also found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Owing to their concentration in rural communities in the Midwest, General Conference Mennonites came into contact with African Americans far less frequently than did (Old) Mennonites. The denomination sponsored some mission work among Native American communities but had little formal connection with African-American groups, save through the work of Camp Landon in Gulfport, Mississippi. The membership of the General Conference shared Germanic-Swiss roots with the (Old) Mennonite group but also included a large contingent of Mennonites with roots in Prussia and southern areas of Russia. The General Conference polity was more congregationally autonomous, was less defined by distinct dress codes, and, though committed to missions, worked more extensively in rural than in urban settings. A less robust church hierarchy also led to a greater variety of theological positions on racial matters among General Conference congregations.
I selected the homes and sanctuaries within these two denominations because the tensions inherent in Mennonite service left a clear record of their motivation for working across racial lines. By the middle of the twentieth century, these Anabaptist heirs of the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation, who eventually, in 1683, found their way to Germantown, Pennsylvania, confronted three primary tensions. First, having witnessed many Mennonite men choosing noncombatant or frontline status rather than conscientious objection during World War II, church leaders redoubled their efforts to promote the community’s historic commitment to peace.14 Concurrently, through the 1960s most church leaders prohibited members from joining nonviolent street marches because they saw all demonstrations as fundamentally coercive and therefore against the church’s nonresistance doctrines.15 At the very point when Mennonite leaders sought to increase congregants’ peace commitments, they decreased support for the highest-profile exercise in American nonviolence of the twentieth century. For the first time, Mennonites felt a tension between their commitment to nonresistant principles and their opposition to nonviolent marches.
Second, although they opposed civil rights marches, Mennonite leaders protected their increasingly fragile reputation as racial egalitarians. From the colonial period forward, Mennonites opposed the practice of slavery and cherished the memory of having done so.16 Mennonite leaders also referred to having been the first denomination to admit a black student to a private Christian college in the South.17 Although they took such early measures to oppose racial oppression, Mennonites had little success in evangelizing African Americans. By the end of the nineteenth century, only one African-American family had joined a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania, and only a few others trickled in during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Through World War II, few other African Americans joined the church.18 In addition to balking at the sectarian demands placed on converts, African Americans also shied away from formally aligning themselves with a group that often displayed overt racial prejudice.19 By the middle of the twentieth century, although more than a thousand African Americans worshipped in Mennonite churches on Sunday mornings, many fewer had officially joined. As of 1953, Mennonite congregations listed only 282 adult African-American members in a church that counted nearly a hundred thousand baptized congregants.20 Despite such limited engagement with African Americans, white Mennonites continued to consider themselves racial egalitarians because of their early opposition to slavery.
Third, the church leaders who tried to prove their racial tolerance, even as they opposed civil rights marches, found their efforts further complicated by the Mennonite doctrine of nonconformity. Throughout their history in the United States, Mennonites had struggled to separate themselves from sinful social temptations by adopting distinctive clothing, avoiding worldly practices like dancing and attending movies, and refusing to join fraternities, secret societies, or labor unions. Although by the 1950s the most visible of these prohibitions had begun to weaken in many Mennonite communities, leaders continued to seek out ways to call their constituents to faithful, separatist conduct.21 As a result, many Mennonites felt torn between a desire to serve the African-American community and concern that such contact would stain them with worldly contagion.22
The tensions born of protecting a reputation as racial egalitarians while promoting nonresistance and nonconformity reveal the motivations of civil rights–era religious actors. As noted, many Mennonites opposed marches because they believed that nonviolent demonstrations relied on coercion and, therefore, contradicted their doctrine of nonresistance. Others, like African-American convert and Mennonite minister Vincent Harding, felt that marching in the streets was the only way to restore integrity to the nonresistance doctrine. The ongoing debates within the Mennonite community over how best to support racial justice while remaining true to core tenets left an uncommonly clear record of motivations, beliefs, and rationales missing from other racially egalitarian groups. The Methodists, for example, focused more on internal integration than on civil rights activism owing, ironically, to a relatively successful record of African-American evangelism.23 As a result, their motivations for civil rights activism are less clear. Likewise, the Society of Friends had long advocated for African Americans and, like Mennonites, sought to serve the world while remaining separate from it. Unlike Mennonites, however, Quakers readily participated in civil rights demonstrations and therefore had less need to debate and clarify their motivations. Amid debate, discussion, and intense soul-searching, Mennonites demonstrated a startling and transparent honesty about what they did and why they did it.
Finally, because of accidents of history and deliberate mission strategy, white and African-American Mennonites found themselves at revealing moments and strategic sites in the history of the long civil rights era. Mennonites in Virginia in the 1940s instituted and then struggled against a policy of sacramental segregation well before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. In a deliberate challenge to the civil rights activists who sought racial justice in New York City in the 1950s, Mennonites promoted their own means of achieving an integrated society by organizing “Fresh Air” vacations for African-American children in white rural homes. Vincent Harding became a close ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in Atlanta in the early 1960s. As King brought his civil rights campaign to Chicago in 1966, Mennonites sought to integrate previously segregated congregations. When James Forman threatened in 1969 to take over white churches and synagogues if church leaders refused to pay racial reparations, Mennonites in rural Pennsylvanian congregations used the occasion to solidify their commitment to nonresistance, a move that displaced racial issues in the church for the next two decades. In all of these high-profile locales and historical moments, Mennonites acted to bring about change in ways that have long gone unstudied but reveal much about the slow, persistent, interpersonal complexities undergirding the civil rights movement.
The particular tensions in Mennonite motivations did not, however, make Mennonite action unique. Like many other mainline Protestant evangelists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mennonite missionaries to African Americans practiced paternalism toward new converts.24 Like most Mennonite churches, individual Protestant congregations—as well as many Roman Catholic parishes—had a difficult time achieving and maintaining racial integration through the period of this study.25 White Mennonite congregants, like their contemporaries in Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal churches, hesitated to support the nascent civil rights activism of the 1930s and ’40s and only reluctantly lent support to the organizing efforts of Montgomery and Little Rock of the late 1950s.26 When Protestant and Catholic groups began to support the civil rights movement in earnest in the early 1960s, church leaders became involved to a greater degree than white grassroots members, a pattern evident in Mennonite churches as well.27
Comparative issues aside, Mennonites also proved disproportionately influential across the nation. In 1967 U.S. congressional representatives heard of the example set by “robust” Mennonites serving sandwiches and soda pop to children in inner-city Harlem.28 Martin Luther King Jr. met with Bishop Paul Landis to learn about the Mennonite commitment to nonviolence.29 National leaders from the Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations praised the (Old) Mennonite Church’s 1955 race relations statement.30 Reporters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Moundridge, Kansas, and Yankton, South Dakota, wrote favorable articles on Mennonites’ various interracial service programs.31 Members of this small, often reclusive denomination impressed leaders within and outside of the Christian community with their record of evangelism and service across racial lines. Long before tourists flocked in huge numbers to peer at conservatively dressed Mennonites and their Amish cousins, Mennonites drew attention for their interracial ministry.
Mennonites opened new windows into the civil rights movement because they acted like many other Protestant groups but explained their motives with uncommon clarity. As they responded to key civil rights events in the context of a close-knit community, they revealed intimate mechanisms of change in home and sanctuary often obscured in other religious groups. Although shifts toward a racially inclusive church and society seldom came easily or without conflict, both setbacks and successes entered the historical record. It is the tumultuous, messy, and at times rancorous chronicle of their debate, rather than a pristine record of racial equality, that recommends Mennonites for study.
A New Civil Rights Movement Story
From these demonstrations of Mennonite racial exchange a new story appears, one that highlights a movement less dependent on charismatic male leaders focused on legislative change. Following an overview of Mennonite racial history, the second chapter of this book shows the emergence of African-American and white women as vibrant organizers who often flummoxed white male church leaders by pursuing their own means of achieving racial integration. Similarly, as chronicled in the third chapter, African-American children challenged white adults to confront the church’s racial naïveté and prodded their elders on to the White House by bringing the movement into rural environs. When men take center stage in chapter 4, charisma becomes less important than the skill of straddling racial and religious borders. In the arena of interracial marriage examined in chapter 5, the efforts of members of integrated congregations to bring about changes independent of Washington officials reveal the limits of legislation. Those same congregations, taken up anew in chapter 6, brought about changes in segregated streets by first integrating pews. As argued in chapter 7, on the Black Manifesto, the unintended consequences of grassroots civil rights actions in rural Mennonite churches appear as important as the legislative triumphs claimed by national leaders. In contrast with the dramatic, heart-thumping marches, the quiet but no less forceful actions of women, children, border straddlers, evangelists, integrated congregations, and rural pastors demonstrate that street-initiated change came to fruition amid the complexities of home- and sanctuary-centered response. This book, then, speaks to a major absence in American religious studies, namely, the remarkable role that religious outsiders like the Mennonites have had in making possible key transitions in the depth and spread of social movements.
Finally, this history of white and African-American Mennonites shows that church leaders who sought to maintain religious boundaries during the civil rights era often visited harm while desiring to do good. To a degree, those who define sacred space inclusive of some invariably exclude others.32 Even those church leaders, African-American and white alike, who invoked the beloved community as a symbol of inclusion often drew clear lines between themselves and committed communists, practicing homosexuals, and professed atheists. The well-documented suspicion directed toward organizer and activist Bayard Rustin, a gay man with a history of involvement with “red” groups, is only one example of how religious boundaries could alienate and marginalize.33 The beloved community, like most religious groups, necessitated exclusion.
In addition to such overt boundaries, Mennonites also maintained subtler lines of demarcation that thwarted the very goals they claimed to support. The professed desire to separate from society to form a redeemed community that would prove attractive to African-American believers often kept those converts from joining. Similarly, nonconformist doctrine militated against full confession of racist practice. A community whose identity hinged on integrity of word and deed hesitated to acknowledge that, in the arena of interracial contact, they were not as separate as they claimed. Even in the midst of historically significant support for civil rights efforts, the fault lines and fissures of Mennonite race relations reveal the manner in which boundaries set by religious communities exacted a human cost despite church leaders’ egalitarian aims.
Although not intended as a guide to transcending racial boundaries, Daily Demonstrators does offer a practical message. The stories herein validate those who care about racial justice but refrain from marching. It is a theme that I did not originally intend to develop. As an occasional activist, I was initially interested in recounting street drama. Sunday morning worship services, midweek supper table conversations, and prayer coverings held little attraction. Yet the more I studied Mennonites, the more I recognized that they sat in pews and ate at tables to bring an end to segregation. As I prepared their narrative, I became concerned that the story of the civil rights movement in Mennonite homes and sanctuaries might undermine street protest. In the end, I have set that concern aside. The narratives of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis show that nonviolent protest has toppled oppressive regimes. Alongside those protestors, the Mennonites featured in this book took part in the civil rights movement while staying at home and going to church. Their story merits attention because it reveals a younger, less street-centered, and more conflicted civil rights movement. At the same time, this story provides examples for those who by choice, temperament, or conviction do not take to the streets but may instead learn to act as daily demonstrators.
To tell the story of the new kind of civil rights activism featured in this text, I have drawn on diverse sources that highlight Mennonites’ civil rights experience. To begin, I visited more than a dozen archives, libraries, and personal collections in Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to examine letters, minutes, diaries, and journals of white and African-American Mennonites. Through these sources, I placed people in time, sketched the official story of Mennonite race relations, and—in some wonderfully surprising instances—discovered previously unexamined records of exchanges between white missionaries and African-American proselytes. Those records also pointed me toward interview subjects. More than forty people answered my queries about their motivations, the circumstances of their engagement with the civil rights movement, and memories of conversations with friends, family, and church members. These personal reflections added detail, internal perspective, and illustrative anecdotes that I then checked against the written record. To supplement these written and oral sources, I also examined hundreds of photographs of white and African-American Mennonites. In addition to chronicling the official representation of program supporters and church officials, I learned much from accidental photographic evidence—the expressions, postures, positions, and arrangements of those photographed.34 This pictorial evidence, in turn, focused my attention on the material culture of Mennonite costume.35 The significance of the color, positioning, size, fabric, and shape of the distinctive Mennonite prayer covering, for example, tell a story absent from accounts based on written and oral evidence. Together, these four sources—written archival documents, oral histories, photographs, and material culture—open up a narrative of religious actors who participated in the civil rights movement even though their contributions, for the most part, have gone unnoticed.36
Few desired to demonstrate on a daily basis more than Louis Gray, Rowena Lark, Nettie Taylor, June Schwartzentruber, and Suzie Smith at Bethesda Mennonite in 1957. They came together in the heart of a housing development literally falling apart, owing to the very legacy of racial inequity that the civil rights movement sought to overcome. Although not all Bethesda members opposed marches, they sought racial change within the confines of their fellowship as well as on the sidewalks of Pruitt-Igoe. In the intimacy of an unadorned Sunday school room, they defied the social boundaries that made interracial encounters like theirs so worthy of attention. Although, as this history shows, Lark and her contemporaries knew firsthand the cost of crossing boundaries within the church, they nonetheless made such interracial spaces possible through their actions and beliefs. The chapters that follow tell how groups like those gathered at Bethesda led daily demonstrations in the intimate spaces of living rooms and sanctuaries and, in so doing, changed the streets and sidewalks of the world around them.
NE EARNS MANY DEBTS in writing any book. Mine have piled deep in preparing this manuscript. My primary interlocutors have long been Josef Barton and Cristina Traina of Northwestern University, and I am grateful for their gracious insight. Martha Biondi, Curtis Evans, Felipe Hinojosa, Fred Kniss, Don Kraybill, Jarod Roll, Michael Sherry, Sarah Taylor, and the anonymous external reviewer at the Johns Hopkins University Press have given perspicacious feedback. The knowledge of archivists and librarians Harold Huber, Jim Lehman, Erin Miller, Joe Springer, Dennis Stoesz, John D. Thiesen, Carolyn C. Wenger, and Nate Yoder has made many a historical insight possible. Financial support from the Louisville Institute, Northwestern University, and the University of Montana has also been invaluable. Finally, I owe a debt to my family. Cheryl, Dylan, and Zachary—you are amazing.