A New Civil Rights Story
The nonviolent movement is telling us, by its philosophy and ritualistic acts, that change comes not only by a few external acts but by a great many internal acts.
—Lillian Smith, white southern writer and social critic, 1963
A Sunday Morning Demonstration
Members of Bethesda Mennonite gathered for a Sunday morning demonstration in 1961. Two children offered impish grins to an unnamed photographer (see figure 8.1). Perhaps they had recently returned from a Fresh Air vacation in the country. The other demonstrators from this St. Louis congregation paid no heed to the photographer as they conversed after worship. At the top of the steps, two women—one white, one black—wore prayer coverings at a church where evangelist Rowena Lark once wore hers. Like Lark, they demonstrated their claim to church membership through sacred dress. Farther to the left, pastor Hubert Schwartzentruber held one of his children while he spoke with his wife, June, and another churchgoer. Perhaps they discussed Curtis Burrell, an African-American member of their congregation away at seminary. They may have commented on Burrell’s marriage to Lois Headings, a white Mennonite from Hutchinson, Kansas, whom he met through church connections. The two men standing below them might have been discussing the sermon, local politics, or street marches through the Pruitt-Igoe Housing development. On this Sunday morning in St. Louis, these dozen Mennonites demonstrated while talking after church.
Fig. 8.1 Bethesda Mennonite Church members, St. Louis, 1961 N. E. Kauffman, “Light Shines Out from the Inner City,” Gospel Herald 54, no. 23 (June 6, 1961): 517. Photo courtesy of Mennonite Publishing Network, Scottdale, PA
The Bethesda members transformed their informal gathering into a demonstration by holding interracial conversations. Within a housing project segregated from white St. Louis, Bethesda members sent a message. They evinced—as had Louis Gray, Rowena Lark, Nettie Taylor, June Schwartzentruber, and Susie Smith when they first posed for an integrated Sunday school photo in 1957—the possibility of integrated worship. They stood on the steps of their church having worshipped together, now visiting together, and in so doing, they challenged segregation. At this intersection between home and sanctuary, Bethesda members organized yet another daily demonstration of segregation’s demise. Some members joined street marches to further challenge the color line. Many chose to demonstrate in their living rooms. All took considerable social risks to support the goals of the civil rights movement.
Bethesda’s history speaks of a congregation well prepared to demonstrate across racial lines. Church planters Rowena and James Lark came to the city in 1956 at the invitation of local church federation leaders interested in encouraging “wholesome evangelism” in urban St. Louis.1 The Larks chose to locate their ministry efforts in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a federally funded development built to stem the spread of sub-standard housing and so protect downtown property values. The massive facility covered more than fifty acres and offered 2,870 apartments for up to fifteen thousand inhabitants, a higher density than that in the residences it replaced. Although originally conceived as a segregated housing site—planners had designated Pruitt project for African Americans, Igoe for whites—the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision forced city supervisors to declare the project integrated when it opened in 1954. By the time the Larks arrived, however, demand for urban housing had begun to decline, and de facto segregation followed.2 Only African Americans lived at Pruitt-Igoe.
By 1957 a young couple from southern Ontario, Hubert and June Schwartzentruber, arrived in St. Louis to take over leadership at Bethesda. The couple had been wed only six weeks before their arrival at Bethesda, and they brought with them even less ministerial than marital experience. By the time they set foot in Pruitt-Igoe, the development already showed signs of deterioration from poor construction, inadequate maintenance, and bureaucratic neglect. The Schwartzentrubers nonetheless moved into a project apartment and, according to a mocking letter sent to them by a white resident of the city, became “the first-and-only white tenants” of the housing project.3
During their fifteen-year tenure at Bethesda, the Schwartzentrubers helped build a congregation known for its interracial ministry. Although the congregation comprised mostly Pruitt-Igoe residents like Louis Gray, Susie Smith, and Nettie Taylor, who appeared in the St. Louis Argus photo that opens this volume (figure P.1), the congregation also attracted white Mennonite volunteers who moved to St. Louis to join the Schwartzentrubers in ministry. Church members supported efforts to address housing, education, and employment needs in the Pruitt-Igoe community and, in the process, merged demonstrations of the home and sanctuary with those in the street.4 Hubert, in particular, challenged the church to become more active in the cause of racial justice lest blood from the “ghetto … flow in Menno Simons country, to shoofly-pie village,” a reference to rural and racially homogenous Mennonite enclaves.5 Under his and June’s leadership, the congregation embodied interracial fellowship within and without the sanctuary.
Bethesda members thus represent the primary themes of this book. Daily Demonstrators has explored the deep texture of the civil rights movement, the often obscured actions taken by African-American and white churchgoers in their homes and sanctuaries. Only by examining the intimate spaces where women, children, border straddlers, interracial couples, integrated congregations, and black power advocates struggled and survived do the mechanisms of social change during the Second Reconstruction become evident. Alongside street marches and mass protests, another kind of demonstration brought an end to de jure segregation. In this kind of demonstration, Vincent Harding challenged his co-believers to move outside segregated communities, Annabelle Conrad married Gerald Hughes, and Larry Voth kept the doors of Community Mennonite open to all. If nothing else, Bethesda members and their co-believers manifested the integrated future sought by marchers in Birmingham, Chicago, and Selma.
The stories of those who stood on Bethesda’s church steps also confirm, challenge, and offer new insight into the civil rights movement. Like other evangelical groups, Bethesda congregants favored service and interpersonal initiatives over organized political action; they proposed relational rather than political solutions to racial inequality.6 Nettie Taylor, a founding member and matriarch of Bethesda, underscored this relational sentiment when she invited other African Americans from Pruitt-Igoe to “come and learn to love white people.”7 Leaders from Community and Woodlawn likewise discovered that Mennonites would support integrated congregations only as long as they focused on service. Attempts to organize political action rarely drew the broader church into the street.
The Bethesda members featured in figure 8.1 also confirm other historical findings. Note the ratio of seven women to three men. On the steps of Bethesda, as in the broader civil rights movement, women played a central role in ending segregation.8 At Bethesda, Taylor, Smith, Schwartzentruber, and their contemporaries—both those who wore plain clothes and those who did not—led Sunday school classes, organized integrated social activities, and offered sage counsel. In Virginia and elsewhere, Lark exercised new leadership roles, Broad Street matron Fannie Swartzentruber protested Jim Crow communion practices, and Fresh Air participant Margie Middleton challenged her hosts’ racial prejudices. The stories of African-American activist and teacher Rosemarie Harding in Atlanta, of white urban missionary Jane Voth in Markham, and of African-American church administrator Joy Lovett await exploration. Throughout these stories, women often led when men hesitated.
Bethesda’s pastor Hubert Schwartzentruber and the children who shared the steps with him furthermore confirm church-based legislative advocacy. Schwartzentruber challenged white churchgoers to “support legislation that will help to remove some of the causes” of racial injustice.9 In particular, churches lobbied hard for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that became law the following year.10 Individual church members wrote their senators and representatives for many reasons. The children from Bethesda who stared boldly at the camera represent one of them. Although the children and their parents focused more on obtaining country vacations than politicizing their hosts, they nonetheless profoundly affected those who invited them to the country. In a few significant instances, Fresh Air participants prompted their hosts to enter the political realm by exposing racial prejudice in Mennonite communities. Because pastors like Schwartzentruber and participants like the two children from Bethesda ventured into unknown theological and relational territory, Mennonites and other Christian believers helped overturn legalized disfranchisement.
As the Mennonite experience illustrates, organizers staged civil rights actions in church sanctuaries. Congregations like Bethesda provided space, infrastructural resources, and emotional encouragement for marchers.11 Schwartzentruber offered additional support by joining public demonstrations. The first time he marched, a bystander called out, “Come and see the stupid preacher marching with them today.”12 By marching and opening their sanctuaries to organizers, pastors like Schwartzentruber invited taunts and physical harassment. Although few Mennonites participated in demonstrations, some joined Schwartzentruber in the streets. Minority Ministries Council member Lynford Hershey frequently demonstrated, as did those who responded to Vincent Harding’s 1963 challenge at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana. Even in a quietist community, some congregations supported civil rights activism by sending church members to take public action.
In addition to confirming evangelical withdrawal, female leadership, and congregational activism, the Mennonites featured in this book demonstrate that activists within congregations and homes need to be treated as part of the civil rights narrative but on their own terms. The church was not just a staging ground for civil rights activity; it was also a site of civil rights activity. To be certain, leaders of an organizing effort like the Montgomery bus boycott depended heavily on churches to house the mass gatherings that offered hope and succor to those who refused to ride segregated public transportation. Yet congregations like Bethesda and other integrated worshipping communities fought their own battles against segregation inside church walls. Although Bethesda members appeared relaxed as they stood on the steps of their church, they struggled to worship across racial lines. The effort to do so could leave leaders discouraged and all too cognizant of the limits of interracial ministry. Reflecting on his years in St. Louis that ended in the uncertainty and tumult of black nationalist calls for racial separation, pastor Hubert Schwartzentruber later recalled, “We tried integration and of course integration didn’t work.”13
Members at Community and Woodlawn also grappled with ecclesiastical integration. By trial and error, they tried to master interracial worship. As they stumbled forward, members of Bethesda, Community, and Woodlawn revealed integration’s fault lines. Like leaders of street-based demonstrations, pastors of integrated churches did not always succeed. Just as civil rights movement historians have studied both the failed Albany campaign and the more successful Birmingham venture, scholars have much to learn from the failed Woodlawn and the more successful Community Mennonite congregations. Both of the latter sites reveal concentrated efforts to overturn sectors of a racially segregated society.
This story also challenges the primacy of legislative strategies. Although evangelical groups placed relationships before civil rights action, they sometimes led where public officials followed. At Bethesda, for example, church members welcomed interracial unions. Burrell’s marriage to Lois Headings received little comment.14 By supporting such unions, members from Bethesda, Lee Heights, Woodlawn, and other churches forced their co-believers to reexamine racial assumptions. These congregations fostered intimate contact across racial lines well before the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving ruling overturned antimiscegenation laws. At many Mennonite congregations located in African-American neighborhoods, white people came to worship, fell in love with the community, married locally, and, like Annabelle Conrad, never left. Although not comparable in scope to a national Supreme Court ruling, the interracial relationships of all kinds that emerged from congregations like Bethesda were accepted by members of those churches in advance of judiciary action. Members of interracial churches lived in different neighborhoods, ate with different families, spent money at different businesses, and married different partners than they would have had they belonged to segregated churches. Loving may have changed the law, but integrated churches had long before changed people’s lives.
The histories of Bethesda and other Mennonite churches also call into question the idea that black nationalists terminated contact with whites. In the main, historians have pointed to the separatist impulse promoted by leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other less well known groups like the Revolutionary Action Movement.15 Many of those same scholars portray the willingness of a group like the Black Panthers to ally with white radicals as an exception to the historical norm.16 On the contrary, the story told in this volume points to ongoing contact between members of the white community and black nationalist groups. Rather than end all dialogue, black nationalists kept talking to the very people they claimed to disown. Schwartzentruber again provides an example. In 1967 “the most militant black power leader” in Pruitt-Igoe asked Schwartzentruber for “a meeting place for youth.”17 The local leader kept talking with Schwartzentruber even though the pastor remained ambivalent about the request. Similarly, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman Stokely Carmichael, his successor H. Rap Brown, and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver frequently spoke before white audiences. In the Mennonite church, leaders of the Minority Ministries Council also conversed with white people. John Powell and his contemporaries asked for reparations and stayed to talk about it. James Forman and his Black Manifesto emissaries did the same. Woodlawn pastor Curtis Burrell dialogued with white Mennonites well past the point when Mennonite officials cut ties with him. Rather than voicing a one-sided demand, the black power movement looks like a pointed call for conversation.
Evidence of such sustained contact points to a broader interpretation of the civil rights movement. Rather than an increasingly segregated and splintered movement that ended in a collapse upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the movement in support of racial justice continued to attract white and black members alike. Although the nature of the contact had changed, the presence of ongoing conversations, however strained and contentious, provides evidence of an interracial network that had not disintegrated as much as contemporary accounts and later historians have suggested.18 The beloved community praised by King may not have come to fruition in the way he envisioned, but an interracial network nonetheless emerged out of the public purview that fostered contact and conversation across racial lines.
The Mennonites studied in this work also provide new insight into the inner workings of the civil rights movement. Children, for example, appear more central to civil rights initiatives. The grinning children on Bethesda’s steps represent the thousands of Fresh Air participants who challenged racism in white homes during the 1950s and ’60s. Because they entered foreign territory, they prompted their hosts to take new action. Such action, however, came at a cost. For all the courage and determination displayed by the Fresh Air children, their stories also reveal an unsettling strand of paternalism and misuse. Some adults hosted children to establish their credentials as racial egalitarians at a time when critics labeled them racists. Others forced their relatively powerless charges to conform to standards of belief and social practice that did not make sense in the children’s home communities. Still other Fresh Air providers assumed the worst of the children and claimed that the white, rural way of life was superior to the children’s African-American, urban existence. Such actions did significant harm. At the same time, the children found creative ways to resist their hosts’ paternalism by acting boisterous, building friendships, and connecting with their peers from home. The stories of Margie Middleton, Albert Potts, Sammy, Jerry Smith, and their contemporaries reveal that children brought the movement to communities untouched by adult organizers.
Likewise, Fresh Air hosts, white missionaries, and African-American converts maintained strong social networks. June and Hubert Schwartzentruber stayed in touch with Curtis Burrell for many years.19 A young woman who taught Sunday school in Bethesda in St. Louis also worked at an integrated mission church in Reading, Pennsylvania.20 A volunteer from Andrews Bridge in southern Lancaster County later served at Glad Tidings in New York City.21 As church members nurtured friendships and workers volunteered at multiple mission stations, connections among race workers flourished. The missionaries and converts relied on friends and acquaintances from this network to challenge racism among Mennonites. This informal social network sustained efforts to end segregation in the church in the same way that intergenerational contacts between older and younger activists supported street action.22
In addition to insight into children’s activism and social networks, this study of Anabaptists also reveals that church doctrine both undermined and supported efforts to end ecclesiastical Jim Crow practices. Hubert Schwartzentruber, for example, articulated well the danger of Mennonite theology. He noted that anemic interpretations of discipleship repulsed African Americans who ventured into the church when “fine words about conscientious objection and nonresistance” did not translate into tangible action for racial justice.23 As a result, he excoriated “the mickey mouse stuff” taught by some Mennonite leaders.24 Schwartzentruber may have been referring to executives from the Lancaster Conference who responded to the Black Manifesto by steering attention away from reparations. In this instance and elsewhere, the bishops claimed separation from the sinful world and thus obscured the church’s participation in worldly racism.
Along with Lancaster bishops, others across the church found their integrity reduced by the separatist doctrine of nonconformity. Although church leaders from the (Old) Mennonite Church side of the community struggled to promote commitments to separatist belief while leaders on the General Conference side spent less time defining nonconformity in terms of dress and other distinctive practices, members from both denominations continued to articulate an identity defined by collective separation. When that nonconformist perspective combined with racial prejudice, many white Mennonites came to view African-American converts with intense suspicion. Those who inhabited the pristine terrain of nonconformed Christianity from birth viewed those who came from the former sinful world as alien and different, an otherness compounded by white Mennonites’ unexamined racial prejudice. To say the least, the juxtaposition of doctrine and racial ideology proved volatile.
At the same time, many African Americans joined the church because of doctrine and, following their entry, confounded white Mennonites’ expectations. The Anabaptist vision of social justice and spiritual atonement attracted Curtis Burrell, Betty Gwinn, Vincent Harding, Gerald Hughes, Rowena Lark, Margie Middleton, and other African-American converts.25 Once in the Mennonite church, they refused to accept subordinate status. They led, demanded full membership, and claimed both black and Mennonite identities. In response, some of their white co-believers rejected stereotypes that depicted African Americans as inferior, second-class believers. Other white Mennonites rejected the challenges brought by African-American converts. In 1952 a church member in Chicago rebuffed the Larks’ leadership by claiming that “lassitude, and immorality” defined the African-American community.26 Three years later officials from the Ohio Conference denied ministerial credentials to Gerald Hughes because he had married a white woman.27 In the 1970s white Mennonites in Atlanta forced African-American pastoral leaders Betty and Macon Gwinn to step down from their leadership at Berea Mennonite during a time of church growth. The white leaders “of Mennonite origin” had registered their complaints with leaders from the sponsoring conference body because they felt “there shouldn’t be change.”28 Despite such evidence of racism in the church, many African-American Mennonites continued to promote and claim church doctrine as their own. Others found the inconsistencies overwhelming and left. Mennonite church doctrine thus both repelled and attracted African Americans.
Study of the civil rights movement has already shown that Christian doctrine could support activism as easily as the status quo. This study adds nuance to that insight by directing attention inside the church. Other historians have claimed that church doctrine pushed believers into the street to either end segregation or support it. Daily Demonstrators argues that church doctrine also pushed believers into the church to either end segregation or support it. Of course, some churchgoers found ways to remain active in both the street and the church. Regardless of where church members became involved, their actions suggest that church doctrine was neither one-directional nor one-dimensional. The faith commitments affirmed by believers pushed and pulled for better and for worse. In short, belief balanced. For every doctrinal commitment that attracted an African-American convert, another blocked his or her entry. For every statement of belief prompting a white Mennonite to welcome a visitor regardless of skin color, another encouraged suspicion and cold distance.
Although its focus has been on the Mennonite church, this narrative assumes that most white-majority religious groups during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s crossed the color line in a similar manner. Like Mennonites, Protestant and Catholic groups also practiced paternalism, struggled to integrate their services, and hesitated to take part in street-based civil rights activism. The divide between church leaders who urgently pursued racial justice and grassroots members who remained skeptical of such action also tied Mennonites to other Christian communities. Although the Mennonite story bristles with details often missing from larger and less contentious communities, the story told here parallels other plots.
This story unearths a number of new insights about the civil rights movement. One is that children played a significant part in the daily demonstrations for racial justice. The record of Fresh Air children who challenged their hosts’ political commitments reveals the young people’s frontline activism. Rather than a controversial exception in the annals of street action, the children’s march during the 1963 Birmingham campaign becomes a public representation of a common though less dramatic exchange between African-American children and white adults. African-American children also encountered white adults through Sunday school programs, widely popular vacation bible schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, and recreational summer programs. Although the children held significantly less power than the adults with whom they came in contact, they nonetheless attracted the attention, time, and resources of the white church members simply by attending such programs in large numbers. When situated as an essential part of the civil rights movement, children emerge as first responders to the paternalism of the white church. African-American children encountered—and were frequently damaged by—the kind of white, paternalistic action African-American adults sought to eradicate.
The civil rights movement is also revealed as encompassing a greater variety of resistance activity than previously thought. No cameras rolled as Fannie Swartzentruber marched out of Broad Street Mennonite in 1944 to protest segregated communion services, but every member of that congregation and those they told about the disturbance paid close attention nonetheless. Although reporters failed to cover Faye Mitchell, Ola Mae Smith, and Johnetta Wooden when they integrated Community Mennonite Church in 1961, the women influenced those around them as much as the Little Rock Nine influenced the students, faculty and staff at Central High. Rowena Lark’s long-term commitment to asserting her church membership by wearing Mennonite attire also drew little public comment but made a strong impression on members of her church community. When Lynford Hershey set up weekend seminars to bring members of the Minority Ministries Council into contact with white rural pastors, the national press did not send reporters to cover the events; nonetheless, the encounters changed lives. In addition to street marches, boycotts, sitins, and picketing, the civil rights movement also involved congregational walkouts, integration visitations, distinctive attire, and structured seminars within religious groups.
In the story told in Daily Demonstrators, the movement was more contradictory and less defined by moral contrasts than is usually suggested. Within the Mennonite community, racial oppressors were also racial egalitarians: The Mennonites who segregated church sacraments in Virginia also integrated an institution of higher education before other colleges in the commonwealth.29 The Lancaster Conference leaders who baptized the first African-American Mennonites segregated their worship services before their southern counterparts. The mission board that challenged segregation in Gulfport, Mississippi, addressed racial prejudice in their home base of Newton, Kansas, with much less enthusiasm. Rather than a story defined by faultless street marchers and evil segregationist mobs, this new story of the civil rights movement follows individuals and institutions replete with multiple commitments, contradictory impulses, and unpredictable allegiances.
Significantly, the story told in Daily Demonstrators paints a civil rights movement less dependent on charismatic heroes than traditional scholarship has suggested. Long before I conceived this project, southern white writer and racial progressive Lillian Smith observed that a “great many internal acts” changed the racial order.30 Those internal acts required less dramatic heroism and more quotidian determination. The bravery of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., and other street marchers should not overshadow the courage displayed by Gerald Hughes, Rowena Lark, Nettie Taylor, and other internal actors. Although the latter group did not endure police brutality, death threats, or mob reprisals, they faced antagonists in the intimate spaces of home and congregation on a recurring basis. Instead of tear gas, nightsticks, and police dogs, they faced groping hands, demeaning names, and slammed doors. As Lillian Smith suggested, these daily acts of resistance proved as necessary as street mobilization.
The “internal acts” mentioned by Smith depended on much the same kind of character and insight as street action. When Bethesda pastor Hubert Schwartzentruber advised Minority Ministries Council staffer Lynford Hershey to “absorb the hostility” directed at African Americans and other people of color, he pointed to a strategy that required repeated exposure to emotional aggression.31 When Vincent Harding and Lancaster Conference secretary Paul Landis held frank discussions about their working relationship, they disrupted a pattern of paternalism common among Mennonites.32 As Rosella Regier, a white staffer of Camp Landon in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Lizzy Barnett, an African-American resident from the area, prodded the local bookstore to sell John Howard Giffin’s Black Like Me by organizing residents to request it, they adapted to local conditions.33 These internal acts required the same kind of long-term commitment, relational depth, and strategic creativity displayed in the most successful public campaigns of the civil rights movement.
This new story of the Second Reconstruction flattens out the civil rights timeline. The popular narrative of the freedom struggle starts in Montgomery with the boycotting of buses, rises to Birmingham with encounters with fire hoses, and collapses in Memphis with the killing of King. When sanctuaries and living rooms take their place alongside streets and sidewalks, the storyline evens out across time. Rowena Lark and Fannie Swartzentruber nourished their friendship from 1937 through 1970. Fresh Air children clamored for rural vacations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. African-American and white Mennonites kept worshipping together long past King’s assassination. The relationships, programs, and worship spaces that emerge from study of internal acts appear less vulnerable to dramatic crescendo and collapse.
The narratives contained in this volume ultimately reposition the role of religion in the civil rights movement. As noted in the preface, much has already been made of the Mennonite church’s role in both supporting and impeding efforts to overturn segregation and secure civil rights. Scholars have capably demonstrated the ways in which the church provided motivation, infrastructural resources, and rhetorical power to movement participants.34 Another body of scholarship documents the church’s role in fostering positions opposed to racial justice.35 The contribution offered through this text notes that religious community in the era of the civil rights movement was a part of that movement, not just its ground or a means of contributing to it. Racial freedom is incomplete unless it extends to religious groups. James Forman recognized the importance of the religious community to full freedom when he addressed his Black Manifesto to sanctuaries and synagogues rather than civic groups and business associations. To analyze the period effectively, historians also need to include religious actors.
Finally, the new story explored among Mennonites suggests fruitful research opportunities for other religious communities as well. Existing studies usually ask how the church became involved in movement sites rather than how the church became a site of the movement. Nancy Ammerman’s treatment of Baptists, John McGreevy’s exploration of northern Catholics, and Peter Murray’s work on the Methodists, while rich and worthy of attention on their own merits, nonetheless underemphasize the centrality of the church as a civil rights arena.36 Even David L. Chappell, whose masterful text Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement reveals the breadth of and divisions within white southern thought, focuses on the streets and sidewalks and treats action inside sanctuaries as a staging ground for public organizing.37 Scholars of other religious communities, including Jewish, Islamic, Bahá’í, and other groups outside the Protestant majority, can approach their subjects with full confidence that they study the very center of the civil rights story.
A New Mennonite Story
This volume tells not only a new story of civil rights but also a new Mennonite story. The race relations narrative chronicled within the Mennonite community has been typified by a mixture of self-congratulation and unease. Leaders from the church have made note of Mennonite involvement in the first written protest against slavery in the British colonies.38 Members of the church community have also pointed to the record of the early inclusion of African Americans in Mennonite communities beginning in 1897 in the Lancaster Conference.39 Indeed, the community received encomiums from external sources as well. The passage of the 1955 (Old) Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” drew the praise of other denominational groups for its clarity and grounding in the biblical text.40 African-American residents from the mountains of southeastern Pennsylvania stated in 1963 that Mennonite mission workers were “more helpful than any other single church group.”41 Members of the 1967 U.S. Congress heard about Mennonites’ good works in places like Harlem.42
Yet leaders also noted the underside of Mennonite race relations from the 1940s forward. Mennonites from the General Conference community, like Peace and Social Concerns secretary Leo Driedger, opposed their co-believers’ “hesitancy to receive Negroes into our brotherhood” in 1960.43 Already in 1952, Guy Hershberger, the secretary of the Mennonite Church’s version of the General Conference’s social issues committee, drew attention to Mennonites’ “condescending attitudes” toward African Americans.44 Those who praised and those who critiqued the church’s race relations record treated the problems as anomalies and the successes as the norm.45 In the main, Mennonites told a story in which racism came from the outside world into the church but never the reverse.
The narrative presented here suggests that the relationship between white Mennonites and African Americans within and without the church emerged from the church’s core convictions. Racial problems and successes both came from within the church community. Social practice and acculturation likewise played important roles in shaping how African-American and white Mennonites interacted, but convictions about nonresistance, humility, community, and, most important, nonconformity proved central. As noted in chapter 1, the Mennonite commitment to separate from a sinful world both attracted and repelled African Americans. Similarly, the belief that the community had successfully separated itself from sinful influences made it difficult to uproot racial prejudice. Few white Mennonites recognized that their cherished beliefs helped sustain proscribed actions.
From this perspective, the story of Mennonite race relations requires careful retelling. Racial intolerance and overt oppression need to be framed as common practice rather than as exceptions. Racial prejudices need to be assessed as present within the church, not merely as contagion from outside. Historians and theologians alike can gain from reappraising doctrines that were as likely to exclude as include. The church looks different when redemptive words are shown to augment exclusionary deeds. Mennonites have a story to tell that is no less essential for being filled with as much racial animus as egalitarianism.
More specifically, the evidence presented in this volume suggests that the civil rights movement chapter of the Mennonite race relations story can no longer be told as a distant and somewhat irrelevant tale. Those same living room and sanctuary settings that prove integral to a complete telling of the Second Reconstruction also fill in narrative cracks in the Mennonite history of that time. The relationship between Rowena Lark and Fannie Swartzentruber not only underlines the importance of long-term relationships in the civil rights movement but also shows that Mennonite nonconformist symbols like prayer coverings held many more meanings than were recognized by church leaders. Vincent Harding’s ability to straddle borders and the Mennonite response to his activity across region and internal division reveal one way that movement leaders changed social segregation. The story of John Powell and other members of the Minority Ministries Council shows that interracial dialogue about reparations continued far longer than suggested by street-based activity and also illustrates how Mennonite leaders and grassroots members alike hesitated to support racially egalitarian commitments with financial resources. The meaning of religious symbols, the consistency of racial response, and the integrity of verbal commitments constitute the heart, rather than the extremities, of Mennonite history.
Others joined the daily demonstrators who operated within Mennonite settings. We already know that Southern Baptists clashed over whether to engage in evangelism or activism in the same way Mennonites struggled over quietism and public witness.46 Like Rowena Lark and Fannie Swartzentruber, women in the Methodist community fought long and hard to change their denomination’s discriminatory practices.47 Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics also debated the Black Manifesto.48 Within their homes and sanctuaries, members of these religious communities held many of the same sorts of conversations, developed similarly lasting relationships, and participated in programs like Fresh Air exchanges that brought African-American and white children and adults into intimate contact.
These stories are integral chapters of the civil rights narrative. Some of those accounts have already been told and need only new frames to place them at the center of the Second Reconstruction. Others need fresh attention to bring them out of obscurity. This volume suggests some of the more fruitful avenues of research to make that retelling possible. Within the Mennonite community, study of interracial marriage has revealed especially intense discussions of the most intimate of encounters across racial lines. The records of racial caucuses have surfaced unexpected conversations about black nationalism. The evidence from times and locations where interracial encounters took place—whether through hosting programs, urban missions, or integrated congregations—has pointed to stories that deepen and enrich our understanding of organized struggles for racial justice in the middle of the twentieth century. Only when researchers in other religious communities start at similar locations and follow the evidence will a more complete telling of the civil rights story be possible.
From the City to the Sacred
In 1944 Virginia, African Americans still sat at the back of the bus. In at least one instance, so did a white Mennonite. Harry A. Brunk had traveled from Harrisonburg, a Mennonite enclave nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, to Staunton, about thirty miles to the southwest. A teacher of history at Eastern Mennonite College, which at that point restricted membership to white students, Brunk also ran a small farm and wrote Mennonite histories. He spent the day of July 25 examining probate records in the Augusta County clerk’s office. By four o’clock, he had completed his research and struck out for the bus station. Evidently, the Staunton-Harrisonburg route drew numerous commuters, both white and black. Brunk could find a seat only in the “colored apartment” in the “very back seat of the bus.” Reflecting later on his ride home, he commented, “My but it was hot.”49
Approximately six years later, another white Mennonite from Virginia rode a segregated bus. In the early 1950s, Goldie Hummel boarded a bus for Delaware along with two daughters of Roberta Webb, one of the first African Americans to become a member at the Gay Street Mission in Harrisonburg, where Rowena Lark and Fannie Swartzentruber worked together. Hummel, who would later marry and take the surname Hostetler, had served in India with the Mennonite Board of Missions since 1948. While studying at Eastern Mennonite College before beginning her service overseas, she and her friend Tillie Yoder had met with college president John Stauffer to protest the school’s segregationist policy. Stauffer explained that, despite his sympathy for the young women’s position, objections from local Virginia Mennonites made change impractical.50 Yet the year after Hummel left for India, administrators at her alma mater defied local custom and admitted Ada Webb. As Hummel and the Webb sisters settled in for the bus trip that would take them to summer jobs in a seafood restaurant, the three young women brought with them that history of activism within the Mennonite church. Unlike Professor Brunk, they did not sit quietly in the back. Hummel explained, “I could have sat on a seat by myself so that white folks could sit by me. Instead I sat with one of the girls and the other sat in the seat before me. No one sat by her.” She concluded, “We were a little bit ornery. On the way up we sang that song ‘There’s Plenty Good Room in my Father’s Kingdom.’ ”51
These two stories raise the question, How do we best describe the race relations efforts of white and African-American Mennonites? This book has used the trope of daily demonstration to describe interracial off-street action. But is that description ultimately sufficient? Does it capture the full breadth of Mennonite racial exchange during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s? Does it limit Mennonites’ ability to speak beyond sectarian confines? Harry Brunk, Goldie Hummel, and the Webb sisters suggest that the daily demonstrators label fosters new inquiry into the civil rights movement even while limiting analysis of city-country, church-state, and sacred-secular relationships.
The two bus sojourns described here—one short, one long—delineate the classic signs of racial resistance. Although not an activist by any means, Brunk nonetheless opposed the racial order by sitting at the back of the bus without complaint. He was discomforted more by the temperature than by the racial company. During their much longer trip, Hummel and the Webb sisters arranged themselves to point out the contradictions of segregated seating. As they sang hymns laced with sacred irony, they challenged other passengers to recognize that Jim Crow custom alone kept a seat unfilled on a crowded bus. All involved knowingly crossed boundaries maintained by the state. All did so in light of their faith commitments. Hummel came to know the Webb sisters through her involvement at Gay Street. Brunk commented on race relations during the semidevotional act of writing diary entries. While they would not have described themselves in those terms at the time, Brunk, Hummel, and the Webb sisters were demonstrators of the most daily variety and, like the other Mennonites chronicled in this text, acted up in off-street venues.
At the same time, the label of daily demonstrator may obscure other traits of Mennonite action. Most immediately, these and other stories reveal previously unexplored connections between city and country. Brunk makes the case. He both taught and farmed. Besides setting up classroom debates about slavery, he tended produce, coaxed reluctant machinery into action, and marketed greenhouse flowers. For him, going to the city meant going to Harrisonburg, a town that by 1970 claimed fewer than twenty thousand residents. Although he kept track of current events, eventually by acquiring a radio, and commented on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he focused first and foremost on his Mennonite and agrarian worlds.
The observations of this rural scholar were more about cities than about color. His diaries mention only a few other encounters with African Americans. At one point he asked for directions to the Norfolk courthouse from a “portly colored man.”52 On a long train trip, he bought pictures of Harper’s Ferry from a “colored porter.”53 He described such encounters only in passing. More typically, trips to urban centers like Norfolk or Staunton received more attention. In Brunk’s world, city sojourns trumped daily demonstrations. He spent more time writing about the weather or his purchase of a radio than about encounters with African Americans. Brunk was, in short, a country man, centered on farm life and sectarian scholarship rather than racial agitation on the streets or sidewalks.
Many of Brunk’s students had similar worldviews. The youthful evangelists who ventured into the African-American section of Harrisonburg in the 1930s and ’40s did so under the umbrella of the Young Peoples Christian Association’s “City Workers Band.”54 Local reports referred to the African-American Broad Street congregation and its segregated Chicago Avenue white counterpart as the “City Missions.”55 The mission workers not only commented about “gross sin and vice” among “colored people in Harrisonburg,” they also defined the objects of their evangelism in urban terms.56 Their reports are filled with references to streets and sidewalks, alcoholism, and imprisonment, terms identical to those used by urban reformers from the turn of the century forward. In a country that by 1920 had become more urban than rural, the Mennonites of Virginia—like most of their coreligionists in the period of this study—saw themselves as visitors and outsiders to the city. Given the forces that led to the Great Migrations of the early twentieth century beginning around 1915, many African Americans had begun to see themselves as urban insiders. The white Mennonites who evangelized African Americans came as rural representatives to a city setting.
Mennonite debates over street protest arose in part from rural distrust of the city. Mennonite bishops approved the involvement of Rowena Lark in the Gay Street summer vacation bible school program, but they called her “a colored sister of Washington, D.C.,” the biggest city in the area.57 At the time, Rowena, James, and their children lived on a farm in rural Pennsylvania; she only worked in the city.58 Those who opposed Vincent Harding knew that he came from a definitively urban background, having grown up in New York City, and that he served the highest-profile urban ministry at the time, Woodlawn Mennonite. Throughout their involvement with the Fresh Air programs, Mennonite hosts and promoters used labels like “city children” more often than “Negro,” “colored,” or “Spanish” to describe their young guests.59 Church planters in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia ran afoul of dress and lifestyle dictates that originated in rural ecclesiastic power centers. One minister in New York City complained to his bishop that plain clothes undermined “the work and witness of the church,” since urbanites viewed plain suits, prayer veils, and cape dresses as symbols of “a cult.”60 As these various references suggest, when Mennonites crossed racial lines, they also traversed urban and rural boundaries.
Such a dual crossing of both race and city points to larger questions beyond civil rights. The first of those asks whether the city has always initiated change. Popular assumptions and many a formal history trace a trajectory of innovation starting in the city and moving to the country. Breakthroughs in transportation, manufacturing, governance, and entertainment have frequently followed this vector. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, however, Mennonites made clear that change could also initiate in the country and move toward the city. Fresh Air children demonstrated on the front lines of the civil rights movement in white rural homes and brought perspectives from their time in the country back to the city. Vincent Harding immersed himself in the theology of peace and nonresistance that had been treasured and cared for by rural Mennonites and brought those doctrines to the city. Rural Mennonite pastors feared interruption from urban Black Manifesto emissaries, but they also asked their urban counterparts to think of the manifesto as a document about nonviolence rather than racial reparations. In so doing, they shifted attention from racial inequities in their own church, but the shift nonetheless began in rural Lancaster County and moved on to Philadelphia and New York.
In short, Mennonites raised questions about the relationship of city and country. Although the sheer size and demographic weight of urban complexes favored city dominance, the country also played a role. Rather than simply reacting to their urban cousins, the rural Mennonites featured in this book initiated substantive changes. From Fresh Air hosts to nonresistant bishops, Mennonites from the country did not wait upon the city before acting. When white Kansan Mennonite and General Conference Church executive Henry A. Fast personally applauded President Johnson for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he lent the support of a rural people who championed civil rights legislation in part because they brought city children into their rural homes. Rather than waiting for the city to creep up to their doorstep, they sought the city on their own terms.
Fast’s proactive initiative engenders multiple queries. Although complete answers require fuller treatment than this study allows, the questions themselves deserve attention. The Mennonite story of action in both city and country asks, How did rural and urban denizens influence each other during the middle three decades of the twentieth century? Which metaphors best describe their interaction? Has the city’s size obscured rural action in the same way that street action has obscured daily demonstrations? Did rural or urban labels ever mask racial dynamics? Did racial labels ever conceal demographic exchange?
Such questions suggest additional research projects worthy of future attention, but a few observations may offer initial insight. During the period of this study the city and the country seemed to have depended upon mutual innovation and challenge. As Daily Demonstrators has shown, sanctuary-centered action supported street-based agitation. Together, they altered the nation’s racial order. Although street action often prompted living room efforts, those who demonstrated in less public locations brought civil rights initiatives to otherwise untouched venues. In the same way, the city transformed the country by rendering sectarian dress dictates irrelevant, by making mass-produced mechanical innovations like the tractor widely available, and by providing a home—albeit often a hostile and aggressive one—to African Americans oppressed in southern segregated hamlets and excluded from northern sundown towns. At the same time, the country changed the city as it sent its youth to proselytize urban neighborhoods, uprooted tens of thousands of city children each summer for two-week stays in rural locales, and provided figures like Harding and King with theological grounding for their nonviolent initiatives.61 In the pockets and places where city and country collided, no one left unchanged.
The civil rights movement thus tells an urban and a rural tale. We already know that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference conducted high-profile campaigns in the cities of Albany, Birmingham, and Chicago. Alongside those urban-centered ventures, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers organized effectively in rural locations like Lowndes County, Mississippi. Fannie Lou Hamer hailed from the Mississippi delta and, with uncommon courage, registered African-American voters in rural settings. Activists like Septima Clark, Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, and Bob and Dottie Zellner likewise worked primarily in rural settings. Mennonites like Curtis Burrell, Lynford Hershey, Gerald and Annabelle Hughes, and Orlo Kaufman either came from or worked predominantly in the country to change the church’s attitude and actions about race relations. Albany, Birmingham, Chicago, and Montgomery may have garnered headlines, but Americus, Georgia; Blue Ball, Pennsylvania; Goshen, Indiana; and Macon, Mississippi, fostered change. In these latter, smaller, rural locales, activists took risks equal to those that journalists wrote about in urban centers. Klansmen murdered student voter registration activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner near the rural town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, not the major urban center of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rural workers formed the backbone of the civil rights movement.
The stories of white and African-American Mennonites that raise questions about urban-centered innovation also generate queries into the relationship of church and state. Popular narratives again provide a starting point. School children learn that the United States’ most treasured documents mandate church-state separation. At the same time, by the 1940s politicians—with a few notable exceptions—had accepted that they had to evoke religious affiliation to gain office. While state bodies held no authority over religious communities, membership in a mainline Protestant group offered political legitimacy as no civic membership could. Politicians who claimed Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Bahá’í, or even Catholic affiliation, however, saw election bids fizzle. The separation of church and state, whether or not one takes Mennonites into account, was, at best, complicated.
Such an involved relationship demands even more thorough analysis when viewed from the perspective of the Mennonite story. Mennonites witnessed to government officials with new deliberation during World War II when they lobbied for conscientious objector status and alternative service options on behalf of their young men. In the 1950s and ’60s, Vincent Harding and white allies like Delton Franz, Marie Regier, and Hubert Schwartzentruber insisted that their co-believers show integrity by lobbying for racial justice as actively as they had pursued conscientious objector status. As a result of their advocacy, a number of Mennonites from both the (Old) and General Conference communities contacted their elected representatives in support of civil rights legislation. Although other historians have pointed out the importance of church-based advocacy in the passage of the 1964 civil rights bill, few have noted the involvement of a sectarian group that had previously refrained from calling its members to political action.62 The relationship between Mennonites and the state had changed.63 The question is not whether the change took place but how best to describe it.
One approach posits that Mennonites in the (Old) and General Conference denominations became skeptical observers. Even if they did not shift from writing letters to marching in the streets, some monitored state action with new attention. Mennonites like historian and farmer Harry A. Brunk began to keep closer tabs on the government. The day after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, Brunk noted the occasion of its passing and the limits of its reach. Although a “very important piece of legislation,” he wrote, it would take “some thing more than law” to bring about substantive change.64 Perhaps he knew that members of Lee Heights Church in Cleveland had already begun to change attitudes in their neighborhood and church by embracing the interracial marriage of Annabelle Conrad and Gerald Hughes long before the legislature or judiciary ended miscegenation laws in 1967. His diary confirms that he knew African-American Mennonite Roberta Webb. Almost certainly he knew of African-American church planter and preacher Rowena Lark. In a close-knit community like Harrisonburg, he also would most likely have known of the friendships between Webb, Lark, and Fannie Swartzentruber and their common challenge to the church’s segregation practice. He had witnessed Eastern Mennonite College open its doors to African-American students like Webb’s daughter Ada six years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. As Brunk monitored the government’s actions in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, he did so with a skeptical eye, informed by the actions of daily demonstrations all around him.
The skeptical observer role that Mennonites like Brunk defined for themselves calls for new interpretive schemes. Spatial metaphors, those that define church-state relationships in terms of distance, prove less helpful in illuminating history than do those of content and dynamic. A spatial metaphor would suggest that Brunk and his Mennonite contemporaries moved closer to the state in the same way that spies creep forward seeking unobstructed sight lines or neighbors bend over backyard fences straining to eavesdrop. By contrast, rather than evaluating the relative distance between church and state, interpretive metaphors focus on content and dynamic to assess the nature of the relationship.
For instance, an alternate way to describe Brunk’s relationship to the state suggests that, by observing state action, he picked up a new gardening tool, the hoe of observation and advocacy. Such an instrument had long been available. Other gardeners outside the Mennonite church regularly used such an implement. But by tradition, few Mennonites had. They preferred to garden by hand, to avoid both observation and advocacy. Only after outsiders pointed to the inconsistency in public witness did Mennonites seek new tools. By the beginning of the 1970s, some Mennonites had begun to use observation and advocacy in earnest. Many would continue to use traditional forms, of evangelism and daily demonstration. But some Mennonites had chosen advocacy and, in some settings, received church blessing for doing so. Although such proactive implements would long feel uncomfortable in the hands of many church members, more so among (Old) Mennonites than their General Conference cousins, that church members had picked them up and not been disowned made future use inevitable.
Thus even as the city and the country intertwine, so too do the church and state. Historians of this period need to set aside questions that interrogate the distance between the two entities. They can instead ask, How did already intertwined relationships change? How long did these last? Who shaped them? In what order did they develop? How frequently did they develop? Such questions change not only the metaphors employed to explain the past but also the avenues of inquiry down which historians travel. In the case of Mennonites, interpersonal exchange at the grassroots level again took priority over public action. The full interweaving of church and state relationships manifested in the midst of those quotidian interactions.
Finally, this chronicle raises questions about the division between the secular and sacred during the middle three decades of the twentieth century. In the past, scholars of religion divided religious practice and worldly engagement into separate spheres. More recent scholarship, especially in studies of the African-American religious experience, has challenged such rigid boundary setting. In contemporary studies, religious adherents appear as highly engaged citizens who connect individual salvation to collective action, bring political leaders into worship spaces, and claim divine prompting in the midst of specific historical stimuli.65 More than anything, scholars argue that the sacred and the secular interpenetrate.66 This study does not challenge that basic observation but does raise questions about its applicability across time. In the 1940s, Goldie Hummel and the Webb sisters would have had few opportunities to travel from sacred space into the secular world as equals. In the 1950s, they challenged secular Jim Crow bus regulations with sacred tools: church hymns and interracial fellowship. By the 1960s, they might have responded differently, perhaps by both praying and writing letters to local state representatives. The walls between the secular and the sacred may have been exceedingly thin; that is not in question. But the manner of their relating across the sacred-secular divide changed over time.
How does this basic observation about diachronic change in the relationship of the sacred and the secular shape our understanding of the civil rights movement? Some have claimed that, as a revival, the movement surpassed the Great Awakenings in scope and impact.67 Others, that charismatic leaders like King and Ralph Abernathy clothed a political campaign in religious rhetoric but ultimately based their campaign outside the church.68 This narrative asks whether the fundamental observation beneath those claims—that civil rights participants chose between the secular and the sacred—assists in the interpretive work of history. Are there more effective framing devices than secular-sacred dichotomies? Can students of the civil rights movement and U.S. history adopt analytical frameworks that acknowledge religious practitioners’ deep engagement with all aspects of society and pay attention to how their actions change over time? How can historians craft narratives about periods of significant change that do not separate the streets and sidewalks from the pulpit, bimah, altar, or prayer rug? Humans practice religion. They appear resolute in this pursuit. How can scholars describe religious practice with precision and nuance without replicating past interpretive errors? This study suggests one approach, deliberately setting aside questions of distance between street and sanctuary, city and country, church and state, and the sacred and secular. Other approaches remain to be discovered. By paying attention to shifts over time, setting aside clear demarcation between religious and secular pursuits, and discarding spatial metaphors, clearer more definitive understandings of the civil rights movement may yet emerge.
And so we come back to buses. Civil rights movement narratives have frequently featured buses: those that Bayard Rustin and others rode in 1947 in a failed attempt to enforce integrated interstate travel, those that ran empty because of boycotts in Baton Rouge in 1953 and in Montgomery two years later, and those that burned because Freedom Riders integrated them in 1961. Although the bus that Goldie Hummel and the Webb sisters rode to Delaware and the one that carried Harry A. Brunk home to Harrisonburg never appeared on the nightly news, they lumber through history carrying new insight. These lesser-known buses, like those examined by Robin Kelley in his study of working-class commuters who protested maltreatment by spitting in the faces of bus drivers, open new lines of inquiry into where change came about, how religious commitments and orientations shaped that change, and the manner in which both state and church responded.69 We understand the civil rights movement better because we now also know of buses on which Goldie Hummel and the Webb sisters acted ornery while singing sacred hymns and where Harry A. Brunk willingly wedged himself into the back seat and so into integration.
For four days in August 1976 a small group of Mennonites came together to focus on racism. As participants in a seminar sponsored by a group of evangelical Christians committed to putting their faith into action, the integrated group joined Baptists, Brethren in Christ, and about two hundred other Christian practitioners in a “last-ditch effort to catalyze action to attack racism in church and social institutions.” Planners brought in secular speakers like Lerone Bennett, a historian and Ebony senior editor, and members of the religious community like Vernon Grounds, president of the Conservative Baptist Seminary in Denver. In addition to listening to plenary talks, seminar participants joined task forces, where they laid plans to “confront racism” in local congregations, at church-sponsored schools, throughout denominational boards, and in the arts and media.70
The group met in Newark, New Jersey. Nine years earlier, that city had been the site of a racial uprising triggered by an instance of police brutality and quelled by even more violent law enforcement action. Soon after the violent street activity, more than a thousand African Americans traveled to Newark to participate in the Black Power Conference, the second national gathering of African-American politicians and activists focused on bringing the black power agenda into the political realm. Although the two conferences held little in common other than locale—the 1967 conference was political, the 1976 group, religious—participants in both gatherings planned how to confront racism. Their strategies, however, differed. The 1967 conference encouraged “economic development, community control, armed self-defense, and black identity.”71 Eleven years later, the church group focused on education of people in the pew. Yet the two groups shared an underlying analysis of the problem they sought to overcome. Participants at both conferences sought ways to end what the later group referred to as the “racist system of society.”72
At the end of the 1976 meeting, the five Mennonite participants joined seven of their religious cousins from the Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Brethren communities in drafting a statement. They called on their coreligionists to end racist practices in church and society through education, relationship building, and institutional transformation. Notably, the Anabaptist workshop participants drew on the distinction between individual and institutional racism that black nationalist activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton had articulated scant months after the 1967 Newark conference.73 In calling their religious community to eliminate “subtly racist practices within structures of the church,” the group noted the difference between individual and “corporate/institutional” racism.74 Although the black nationalists who attended the first conference did not concern themselves with majority-white Christian denominations as they sought to achieve racial autonomy, echoes of their discussions continued to reverberate throughout the sectarian meetings held nine years later.
Mennonite participants in the second conference were not, however, religious mimics of secular agitators. They brought with them the legacy of decades of daily demonstration. Among the dozen signers of the 1976 Statement on Racism by Concerned Anabaptists, two individuals make the case. The last name listed was Hubert Schwartzentruber. The former pastor of Bethesda Mennonite in St. Louis at that point worked for a Mennonite mission agency, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries. He brought nearly two decades’ experience gained from prodding individuals and organizations to serve African Americans and other people of color as well as they served white people. During those years, Schwartzentruber had learned to push for racial justice by appealing to community values. Rather than simply regurgitating the rhetoric of black nationalism, Schwartzentruber and his colleagues called the church to “a renewed commitment to nonconformity” to racial prejudices of the world.75 The practice of talking in vestibules and at dinner tables about racism in the church had taught them to ground racial advocacy in ecclesial commitments.
Dwight McFadden also built on daily demonstrators’ actions. McFadden, an African-American Mennonite hailing from New Holland, Pennsylvania, had been introduced the previous fall as the associate general secretary of the Mennonite Church.76 McFadden represented the denomination’s newly formed Black Caucus, the group that had risen from the ashes of the Minority Ministries Council. As he attended conferences like the one in Newark, agitated for change in denominational and parachurch organizations, and organized Black Caucus members to ensure fair representation on church boards and committees, McFadden followed in the footsteps of Minority Ministries Council executive secretary John Powell, Atlanta service unit leader Vincent Harding, and early church founder Rowena Lark. McFadden and his colleagues were able to call for an end to “subtly racist practices” within the church because Powell, Harding, Lark, and others before them had spent years identifying those practices for removal.77
The effect of a document like the 1976 Statement on Racism by Concerned Anabaptists remains unclear. Schwartzentruber released the statement through the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, and it subsequently appeared in the church press.78 The historical record has left no overwhelming evidence that church members read the document and then began speaking “in a prophetic and redemptive manner.”79 We do know that through the 1990s, staff from the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries continued to call on Mennonites in their homes and sanctuaries to resist racism.80 Although Schwartzentruber and his cosigners may not have catalyzed as much action “to attack racism” as they had hoped, they nonetheless established a foundation that made future action possible.
We also know that in the summer of 1997, Dwight McFadden became the first African-American moderator of the (Old) Mennonite Church. The Mennonites who supported McFadden’s nomination had been visited by many a daily demonstrator. Those delegates, like most members of religious communities, had also been influenced by street-based agitation. The racial order shifted—an African-American Mennonite entered high church office—because both sets of civil rights movement actors demonstrated. Although African-American Mennonites continued to attest to the presence of racism within the church well after McFadden’s term ended, his installation nonetheless tied together two streams of history.81 On that hot summer day in 1997, the street and the sanctuary merged.
Such a confluence completes the movement narrative. Church, home, street, and sidewalk combine to tell a story that deepens our understanding of the Second Reconstruction. Although every bit as complex as the waters that ran together in the nomination of a black man to lead a white church, such narratives await further retelling. Once told, stories from the sanctuary and living room place Vincent Harding, Rowena Lark, and Fannie Swartzentruber alongside public agitators like Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Anne Braden. In this new, more complete story of the civil rights movement, the Mennonites featured here take no minor part. Like Dwight McFadden on the dais the day that he accepted his nomination, they stand at the center of the story. By so enriching the civil rights narrative, Fresh Air children, interracial couples, and all those who took risks outside the public purview finally get their due. Their names become known and their internal actions receive validation. The narratives of these actors’ lives in turn reveal an important historical insight. From perhaps the most unexpected of religious communities—a quietist, white-dominated, marginal group of Mennonites—we learn that mobilized marchers did not walk alone as they overturned de jure segregation. Daily demonstrators walked alongside them.