"Mista Mid-nights": Mennonites and Race in Mississippi
DAVID R. SWARTZ*
Abstract: The racially charged atmosphere of Mississippi in the 1960s saw Mennonites respond by defending segregation, by warning against the dangers of civil rights demonstrations and by increasing evangelism among both ?colored? and white nonbelievers. But a growing voice was also heard among a small group of Mennonites appealing for racial integration, social protests and active social service. These diverging responses were both shaped by Anabaptist and American Mennonite historical and theological antecedents, including egalitarianism, nonconformity, separation, activism and quietism. By the early 1970s Mennonites in Mississippi as a whole began speaking out and acting in support of African-Americans. This trajectory from quietist nonconformity to engaged activism, however, belied a deeper fragmentation among Mennonites within the state and the nation.
In the summer of 1963, as the civil rights movement came into full strength in the United States, the Mennonite historian and social ethicist Guy F. Hershberger embarked on a monthlong tour of the South. By the early 1960s, Hershberger had maintained a regular correspondence with Martin Luther King Jr. for several years and was coming close to siding with King’s program of nonviolent resistance to racism, though previously Hershberger had derided even nonviolent resistance as ?a form of class warfare.? Unlike his previous sojourns to the South, Hershberger came this time not to strengthen ecumenical ties with King, civil rights organizations and African-American churches, but to see how ?our Mennonite people? were responding to segregation in the Deep South.
Preaching and leading discussions about race relations, he saw much about the Mennonites in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana that pleased him. In Macon, Mississippi, he found a father and son, Perry and Thomas Miller, Mennonites who had moved the year before from Middlebury, Indiana, already deeply involved in community development, employing large numbers of ?coloreds? and teaching many to read. In Boone, North Carolina, he found a thriving Mennonite Brethren colony, which, he reported, was ?all Negro and consists of four or five congregations at various points within the county.?
But Hershberger also discovered much that disturbed him. Too many southern Mennonites, he thought, were misbehaving. In Atmore, Alabama, Hershberger felt that ?the leadership has absorbed too much of the spirit? of ?rank-and-file Southern whites . . . characterized by a uniformly familiar ring of an unhealthy, unchristian anti-Negro attitude.? In Macon, Mississippi, he heard troubling statements by Mennonites about ?niggers,? including ?a considerable amount of complaint about their slovenly ways, without a sympathetic understanding of what makes them that way.? About a congregation in Gulfport, Mississippi, Hershberger wrote, ?Some of the Gulfhaven people have accepted the typical southern white attitude toward the Negro.? Hershberger recalled that midway through his presentation at Gulfhaven Mennonite Church one member interrupted him, asking, ?Do you want to bring Niggers into our church? Is this what you are trying to do’? Another woman conceded that she would not object ?if a few came as they did in the Catholic church and sat in their section.? After his tour of over a dozen Mennonite congregations, he concluded that ?some appeared to defend segregation almost with desperation.? Thus in the course of one month in 1963, Hershberger had encountered a staggering variety of positions on racial belief and practice in a religious movement that preached racial egalitarianism, though this ideal remained largely theoretical and widely untested on the ground.
This study recounts the story of white Mennonites and race relations in Mississippi in the mid-twentieth century. Among the nearly dozen Mennonite settlements that existed by the 1980s, I outline four Mennonite responses to racism in the South during the civil rights era: a quietist response by an agrarian Mennonite colony in Noxubee County, Mississippi; a moderately integrationist response by a community in Gulfport, Mississippi; a segregationist response by a minority of Noxubee County and Gulfport Mennonites who defended the existing caste system; and an activist response among a small coterie of northern Mennonite civil rights leaders who made repeated visits to Mississippi to protest racial conditions there.
Against the uniformist, ahistorical presuppositions often adopted by commentators of race relations, I argue through these case studies that the Mennonites of this era were not uniformly racist nor consistently egalitarian in their attitudes or actions. Needed instead is a contextual approach to understanding how commonly held historical religious beliefs are applied to very different social ends by historically related groups (like the General Conference, Mennonite Church, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Holdeman, Beachy Amish and Old Order Amish groups mentioned in this study). More specifically, I contend that each Mennonite community in Mississippi spoke and acted in ways clearly rooted in their common Anabaptist history and theology. But they used those received principles’including nonresistance, nonconformity, egalitarianism, activism and quietism’to inform and reinforce their racial attitudes and behavior in selective ways. For some, their Mennonite heritage was used to buttress a segregationist orientation and political passivism. For others, their faith moved them to break away from quietism to engage in social activism. For all, faith was lived in Mississippi. As northern Mennonite and southern cultures collided, each Mennonite community negotiated that collision in different ways.
Mississippi state officials were not aware of these differences when the State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency created to maintain racial segregation in the wake of the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, began receiving complaints from near the coastal city of Gulfport about ?a religious cult coming from somewhere up north around Pennsylvania or New Jersey . . . to help the negroes.? Mennonites were on the agenda on October 22, 1959, when Governor J.P. Coleman of Mississippi met with the commission. They decided to investigate further, and within a week investigators knew that Mennonites also lived in Meridian and Macon. The investigation uncovered state workers who said there was a ?Menonite [sic] group around Meridian, Mississippi, who also are advocating integration.? But other officials ?had no complaints that this group was advocating integration . . . and appeared to be a law-abiding group which had given no trouble.?
The governor, apparently confused by these contradictory reports, took a moderate stance, gently pressing hospitals with Mennonite workers to replace them as their terms expired. If he had known the whole story of Mennonites in Mississippi’of Mennonite racial bigotry and of strident Mennonite civil rights demonstrators, in addition to quieter Mennonite integrationist communities like Gulfport’he would have been even more confused. The various attempts of this transplanted northern sect to recreate a Mennonite world in Mississippi and negotiate a complex racial landscape were often as uncertain and confused as the governor’s perceptions of them.
COLONIZING NOXUBEE COUNTY
On the evening of February 14, 1959, a carload of men from Pleasant Grove Conservative Mennonite Church near Goshen, Indiana, their interest piqued by ads in Prairie Farm magazine, began driving south to investigate the southern prairies of Noxubee County, Mississippi. From the perspective of leaders from Pleasant Grove and its governing conference, the Conservative Mennonite Conference, an ecclesial body with ambiguous ties to the more prominent Mennonite Church, this proposed settlement was intended to be an exercise in ?evangelization by colonization.? The idea, according to conference visionaries, was to resettle a dozen or so families in areas lacking Mennonite witness. Their reasoning was that ?Mennonites have something to share . . . the love of souls as their foremost object.?
But the immediate concern of these Indiana men was farming’land prices were too high in the Goshen area. As they drove through Noxubee County, located on the edge of the Alabama-Mississippi line, their hopes seemed to be realized. Touring the area with city officials eager to attract experienced farmers like these Mennonites, the Indiana men inspected thick, black alluvial soil, impressive fields, blooming magnolia trees and beautiful crops. ?It looked like Canaan land,? one of them remembered thirty years later. When they left the eighty-degree weather and returned to snow and temperatures well below freezing in Indiana, their ?thoughts could not help from wandering to the South.? Throughout the next year they purchased thousands of acres of land priced at between $80 and $150 per acre, about a quarter the price of land around Goshen. Almost immediately they amassed double the land they had previously held in Elkhart County, Indiana. By early 1960 six families had moved to the eastern flatlands of Noxubee County near the Prairie Point community, most of them purchasing deteriorating plantations dotted with shacks where black farmhands had lived’and in many cases, still did. These settlers named the congregation of their fledgling colony Magnolia Conservative Mennonite Church, their first step in recreating a rural midwestern community in the South.
This sudden transition from Indiana to Mississippi resulted in significant culture shock for the northern transplants, many of whom had never spoken to a black person. Suddenly they were immersed in a county that was both the blackest and the poorest in Mississippi, itself the poorest state in the nation. They quickly learned that the phrase used to describe their region’the black prairie belt’referred not just to the black loam soil, but to the color of its inhabitants. The earliest Mennonite settlers wrote back incredulously to their families in Elkhart County, Indiana, that it seemed as if 90 percent of the population was black. And they were correct; the northeast precinct of Noxubee County where the Mennonites settled in 1960 was composed of 3,360 blacks and only 329 whites. Ways of living and patterns of speech were just as disorienting as skin color. One of the first Mennonite settlers recalled that ?soon after we lived here one of the black neighbors came to our door. I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I asked him to write it down, but he wouldn’t, which I suppose he couldn’t read or write as many of the blacks at that time were illerate [sic].? The inability of midwestern Mennonites to understand the Noxubee County dialect symbolized a wide cultural gulf.
This divide was most evident in clothing styles, faith practices and work habits. Veiled women dressed in simply patterned cape-style dresses and men wearing beards but no mustaches were an oddity for native Mississippians, white and black alike. Magnolia Mennonites also stood out in their patterns of relating to the state, patterns that proved much more offensive to their neighbors than unusual clothing. They refused to defend themselves from personal attack, for example, or to participate in the military, or even to vote. White neighbors cursed J.P. Hoover: ?If you damn Mennonites don’t vote, why don’t you just get out of the county’? Work habits clashed nearly as much. While white Noxubee County locals perceived Mennonites as lax in civic responsibility, Mennonites often perceived their neighbors as lacking a rigorous work ethic. A Magnolia member remembers that when she was a child, ?our Mississippi neighbors worked when they felt like it and took time to visit with their new northern neighbors across the fence, hours on end, when they felt like it. I could sense frustration in my dad, seeing the need to be friendly and also thinking he should be working instead of spending half a day visiting across the fence.?
A more violent collision in culture occurred as native whites discovered that Mennonite attitudes toward race differed from their own. In keeping with their historical egalitarian orientation, Mennonites were more sensitive toward blacks than were their white neighbors. While racial tensions were low in Noxubee County compared with other locations in Mississippi, it was partly because whites were in such firm control. The year most Mennonites arrived in Macon’1960?no blacks were registered to vote in Noxubee County. Leland Miller, one of the first to move to Noxubee County from Indiana noted, ?The civil war had been fought 100 years before, but I was reminded that it was not too far removed when I saw a man with a board paddle his 30 year old married hired man. [The hired man] ended up running away sometime later.? When Mennonites arrived, schools and movie theaters in Macon were segregated. The Dreamland theater was for whites, the Savoy for the ?colored.? Newly arrived Mennonites disapprovingly noted that public restrooms (one black for every two white restrooms in an overwhelmingly black county), water fountains and restaurants were segregated. The initial response of Mennonites to these segregationist arrangements was shock and confusion about why white Noxubeeans were ?using the colored people that way.? Many blacks felt and appreciated this sympathy. One man even argued that ?he [the Mennonites] got more respect for the colored man than he does for the white.?
Mennonite discomfort with ?using the colored people that way? also referred to inequity in pay for labor. Mennonites found themselves under considerable public pressure to pay blacks no more than $2 per day in the cotton fields. The median income for nonwhite farm laborers in the county was a mere $715 per year in a state where the median income was quadruple that amount. Here the image of Mennonite racial sensitivity becomes more complex. By introducing large-scale mechanization to the farm community, Mennonites rarely needed to hire additional laborers. Their arrival thus inadvertently placed blacks in an even worse economic position, since it not only displaced them from their land but also left them unemployed.
The abrupt introduction of northern whites into Noxubee County led to a clash of cultures at a time when the county was experiencing a dramatic decline in population’from 25,669 residents in 1940 to 14,236 in 1970. In those same years, the northeast precinct of Noxubee County where Mennonites settled dropped by half, from 5,503 to 2,627. So it was understandable that some locals resented Mennonites because of their sudden incursion into this vacuum. As Mennonites bought up thousands of acres of land, blacks complained that the newcomers put up ?No Trespassing? signs on their properties, imposing new restrictions on their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Moreover, blacks felt that local banks and government agencies treated Mennonites better than them, giving Mennonites advantages in financing the purchase and development of land. One man, Reecy Dickson, bitterly recalled that ?you have blacks that could live on the land, but couldn’t afford to buy the land . . . we haven’t gotten anything out of Noxubee County, no more than pushed into town.? When one Mennonite purchased the Augusta farm, twenty-six black families were asked to move off the property to make room for a herd of cattle to graze. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1969 seemed to justify black bitterness. The number of black farm operators in Noxubee County fell from 1,404 in 1959 to 501 in 1969. These farmers saw their tillable land drop from 19,649 acres to 4,800 acres in the same time period. While the decrease in black farming probably was not due solely to land purchases by Mennonites (similar precipitous drops occurred in many Mississippi counties during the 1960s), many Noxubee County residents nevertheless blamed the newcomers. Percy Brooks, a black community leader and farmer, complained, ?If you own the land here in this county as citizens here in this county, then we can rule what’s going on in this county. But if we don’t own the land or own the business, you going to have to dance by the other man’s music. . . . The Mennonites is going to be our boss.? In sum, the consequence of the Mennonites? sudden arrival in Noxubee County was mixed for blacks: though Mennonites did not actively persecute blacks, their colonization effort shook the already tenuous economic position of the African-American community.
Whites held similarly ambivalent attitudes toward Mennonites. The white city fathers had encouraged the Mennonites to move into the area, excited about land development and new money. Banks felt secure lending money to them, and Mennonites were needed just enough to feel welcomed. Yet a significant level of resentment lay below the surface. Mennonites were different and maintained an uncomfortable level of separation. A black observer even felt that Mennonites? separation from the rest of the white community indicated that they were ?prejudiced against the white man.? Their refusal to vote or engage in politics infuriated white Noxubee County residents, and their nonresistance stance was unintelligible in a culture built upon martial honor.
For their part, Mennonites did not understand southern white culture any better than the culture of their black neighbors. Mennonite women, accustomed to cleaning neighbors? houses for pay in Indiana, tried to engage in ?black jobs? such as housecleaning. Most significantly, Mennonites treated blacks just differently enough to be seen by whites as a threat. In a southern milieu of the 1960s in which white power brokers felt under siege by much of the nation and by the federal government, the arrival of Mennonites was a significant disruption in the Noxubee County economy and society. A Magnolia pastor, Edwin Knepp, explained that ?some local people feel that northerners have come to force a change. . . . Businessmen say, ?We recognize that you folks feel differently, but don’t you make trouble for us by mixing in the churches and homes.??
Such pressure became commonplace as whites attempted to ?teach? Magnolia Mennonites segregationist Mississippi culture. For children, this happened in the Macon public schools, which were in many ways spiritually congenial; elementary teachers led ?morning devotions? and prayer before meals. It was distinctively southern as well. One young Mennonite child had her hands slapped with a ruler because she didn’t answer her second-grade teacher with a southern phrase of respect: ?Yes, Ma’am.? Calvin Schrock remembers that ?we soon found out that we were not to associate much with the black people, except have them work for us.? Knepp, as pastor of the Magnolia congregation, was a particularly attractive target for the Macon power brokers. Within a year of his arrival in the community, he was invited to speak at two Rotary Club meetings in Macon and Brooksville and at a meeting of the Methodist church youth group. Members of the Magnolia youth group were the supper guests of ?Lawyer? Brown, a prominent attorney, judge and segregationist in Macon. These low-pressure attempts to assimilate Mennonites into the prevailing racist culture were supplemented by the occasional cross burning in Magnolia Mennonites? yards. Such incidents were intended to threaten the newcomers into maintaining racial separation.
These tactics of socialization and intimidation worked. As Guy F. Hershberger was disturbed to discover during his 1963 trip to the South, the Magnolia congregation had acculturated to a significant degree within the course of just a few years. In his report Hershberger wrote:
There is more employment of Negroes on the Mennonite farms at present than there was at the beginning. But there is also a considerable amount of complaint about their slovenly ways, without a sympathetic understanding of what makes them that way. One brother has a conviction that the church should undertake a literature distribution program among the colored, but in casual conversation others refer to these people as Niggers, and in other ways suggest that within three years some of these people have unconsciously come to accept an attitude toward the Negro very similar to that which prevails among the native whites.
Evaluations by nearby Mennonites associated with different conferences matched Hershberger’s assessment. A member of nearby Mashulaville Mennonite Church heard of a Magnolia member who had beaten a black employee. A voluntary service worker in nearby Meridian remembered that some Magnolia Mennonites believed that blacks were inferior because of the shape of their skull, though they insisted they were not racially biased. ?But in such a short time, they were saying the same things as other whites: ?Society should be separate,? ?blacks lack intelligence,? ?That’s just the way they are,? ?You can’t trust them,? ?They’re not reliable,? ?Here today and gone tomorrow.?? Mark Peachey, administrator of the Conservative Mennonite Conference missions program, discovered that ?a brother in the Macon congregation made the comment to Art [a fellow Mennonite] that wherever there is a successful Negro, he has some white blood.? Moreover, in keeping with local tradition, most Mennonite employers had black employees eat on the back porch instead of at an inside table. This arrangement occurred only after threats by local whites; black employees of Mennonites had initially eaten inside with the employer’s family, which was customary up north. At church meetings, blacks were permitted to attend but had to sit in the back. Black attendance was rarely an issue though, because they were not invited and blacks did not insist on coming.
Not all Magnolia members, however, pushed for segregation. Some women of the church, for example, made initial attempts to hold classes for African-Americans on how to sew, but stopped when ?some whites cautioned them to wait a little before going ahead.? Whenever Mennonites tried to ?show the love of souls? to blacks, racist culture seemed to step up a notch. And Magnolia members, still driven by the ?evangelization by colonization? model and feeling that proselytizing whites would reap the most members, determined that they needed ?to after all respect local feeling? in regard to segregation. In general, Magnolia Mennonites displayed incongruous attitudes and practices in race relations in Noxubee County. Some preferred more interaction with blacks, but they were held back by fear and disengagement derived from a nonresistant ethos. Others were blatantly intolerant to a degree that did not resemble historical Mennonite patterns of racial egalitarian behavior.
It appears, then, to have been a combination of economic instability and immersion into southern culture that prompted these contradictory practices within the Magnolia congregation. Mennonites intended to stay in Noxubee County permanently, and so their adaptation to a new climate and soil as well as economic and social structures was critical to survival as they experienced economic instability for the first five years. Initial and continuing contacts with city officials and banks as well as speaking engagements with civic groups indicate that they needed the cooperation of the white community.
This appeal, ironically enough, did not work, as the peculiar appearance, separation and theology of Magnolia members instead provoked resentment and irritation. In fact, later Noxubeeans, when describing the social and political contours of the county, talked of ?whites, blacks, and Mennonites.? Mennonites in a sense lost their ?whiteness? through separation and their refusal to wield political muscle; by the late 1960s they had chiseled out their own social category. The evangelization-by-colonization model required such a category; the model demanded a fully functioning community that was bound to be disruptive to local social and economic patterns if it worked.
As it turned out, after the initial difficult years of settlement, the colonization proved more successful than the evangelism. This combination proved to be particularly disruptive. Increasing rates of migration from the Midwest to Noxubee County and economic success by Mennonites (as well as the resulting hardships to locals, especially blacks), all without religious or cultural converts to the Mennonite way of life, virtually guaranteed local resentment. Despite this resentment, the appeal by Magnolia Mennonites for social acceptance resulted instead in racial prejudice taught to Mennonites by native Noxubeeans. Tragically, Magnolia sharply broke from an initial egalitarian outlook while trying to remain culturally and theologically Mennonite.
The story, however, is more complicated than one of Mennonites simply drinking deeply from the southern well. Some of their theological and ecclesiastical traditions’specifically, the doctrine of nonresistance’were particularly well-suited to tolerating segregationist practices and kept Magnolia Mennonites from meaningful contact with the Noxubee County black community. For conservative Mennonites, nonresistance meant much more than merely a rejection of military service. It also implied a passive civic lifestyle that rejected civil suits, labor unions and personal defense, and made them extremely reluctant to criticize the state. Nurtured in the pluralistic context of a tolerant American nation where Mennonites lived as ?the quiet in the land,? this principle kept some Mennonites from speaking out against war, though they would have refused to fight themselves. Nonresistance worked similarly in the question of civil rights. Mennonites might behave tolerantly toward blacks, but they were not inclined to agitate or vote on their behalf or to condemn those who maintained institutions of segregation.
Magnolia Mennonites, with the heritage and theological assumptions of the Conservative Mennonite Conference, epitomized this orientation. Though not trying to oppress minorities, Magnolia Mennonites were critical of Guy Hershberger for addressing racial strife and they resisted participation in the civil rights movement. Magnolia’s pastor captured the essence of this doctrine when much later he wrote, ?At first we could not socialize with the colored, but gradually this was broken down, so that today there is a mission for them.? Unwilling to challenge the power structure, but at the same time willing to do missions as soon as conditions permitted, Magnolia remained largely aloof from the swirling winds of civil rights around them.
At the same time that nonresistance mandated political inaction, other Anabaptist values such as nonconformity and separation from the world seem to have further reinforced Magnolia’s antagonism toward civil rights. In 1964 Elmer S. Yoder, editor of the Conservative Mennonite Conference’s Missionary Bulletin, issued a call for balance in the Mennonite approach to race relations: ?We dare not let the world squeeze us into its mold or way of thinking on this subject, whether it be liberal humanitarianism or radical conservatism.? Although Yoder himself opposed segregation, some members of the Magnolia congregation used the language of nonconformity to defend segregation while lashing out at ?liberal humanitarianism.? To them, liberalism (and the civil rights movement that accompanied it) was the dominant force in American society that necessitated nonconformity.
The ideal of social separation carried from the Amish-Mennonite tradition of Magnolia members also reinforced their sense of cultural identity and distance from the world, especially given the Amish-Mennonite determination to keep marriage within the faith. One Magnolia member stressed the importance of generational Mennonite faith like this:
In reviewing the past 25 years, they have been blessed years. We have see our children grow up here, get converted and give their hearts to the Lord, get married and establish Christian homes, the grandchildren getting converted, and all together trying to live a faithful Christian life. What more could we ask for? Are not our sons and daughters the most important crop that we can raise and the only possession we can take with us to our eternal home in Heaven’
Some Magnolia Mennonites seem to have taken a rhetorical leap from separation from the world to the separation of races. Yoder hinted at this possibility in the Missionary Bulletin: ?I have heard some ?nonconformed? people declare and practically swear that Negroes are inferior physically and mentally, that they are ?all right in their place.?? For Christian segregationists (including some Mennonites), Scripture prescribed racial separation. The logic, roughly sketched in a letter written to Guy Hershberger, went like this: ?For God gave some more talents than others, and never under heaven has he claimed that all are equal. . . . And to prove that Christ is the most profound and strict nationalist and segregator the world ever beheld, he later took twelve sons of one man of one of those races (or bloods) and made twelve nations of them (tribes) and segregated them severely forbidding the crossing [of] those national lines and mixing and marrying with their own kind and kin in an adjoining nation.? Likely confusing the conservative-looking Magnolia Amish Mennonites with the Amish, a Mennonite Central Committee administrator, J. Harold Sherk, wrote, ?It seemed that our Amish brethren were sharing the usual idea of the deep South that the Negro is good only ?in his place? and that it is dangerous to tamper with his status.? The theology of separation and the language of segregation were close enough that Magnolia Mennonites could easily borrow from the rhetoric of separation to justify segregation. While Anabaptist antecedents may not have directly caused Magnolia’s toleration of segregation, the similarity in language at the very least made racial segregationist thought palatable.
Magnolia Mennonites, in fact, seem to have helped perpetuate institutional segregation at a critical moment in Noxubee County history. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded in the summer of 1969 that the Noxubee County School District was failing to comply with desegregation, the white student population dropped from 829 to 71. Most left for Central Academy, the local Christian private school, which experienced explosive growth in the course of only one weekend. Later that year, Noxubee’s Mennonites also pulled out of the public schools: ?Conviction arose within the hearts of our brethren for the need of our own school, where Bible doctrine and principles could be included in their educational curriculum.? That such a conviction coincided so directly with the desegregation of the public schools was, at the very least, unfortunate. The launch of Magnolia Mennonite School in the fall of 1970 left the high school with just two white members of the senior class and a more segregated school system than before desegregation. Clear to all observers was that Mennonites, by erecting yet another exclusively white institution, were more interested in perpetuating their own insularity than in encouraging interracial cohesion. Their white neighbors had taught them well.
Noxubee County Mennonites, it seems, simultaneously resisted and acculturated. As foreigners with much land in a culture not their own, they needed the help of the white power structure. Officially egalitarian upon their arrival, significant portions of the Magnolia Conservative Mennonite Church adopted the practices and rhetoric of the native white population. For Noxubee County Mennonites, a commitment to long-term settlement in the area, combined with the legacy of Anabaptist traditions of separation, nonresistance and community loyalty, often overshadowed their progressive ideals of racial sensitivity and equality. Blatantly racist attitudes of some Magnolia Mennonites coexisted with a genuine desire for missions; but the impulse to outreach seemed to quickly fade when confronted with hostility from the local white community. This combination fostered inaction for nearly a decade’an impasse, though, that was ultimately consistent with their self-understanding as a nonresistant congregation, separated from the world. To the politicized Mennonite activists who followed the Magnolia colony to Mississippi, this ideal was inherently flawed.
LOUD DEMONSTRATIONS: NORTHERN MENNONITE INTERLOPERS
Most American Mennonites, safely ensconced in rural northern enclaves far from the world of Magnolia Conservative Mennonite Church, nonetheless heard about horrifying abuses of blacks in the South. Although disturbed by news reports, most in the North saw their role in the distant struggle as irrelevant or, at most, limited. Socialized to nonresistance and a posture of being ?the quiet in the land,? most Mennonites talked little about segregation and bus boycotts, and did even less. But a cadre of Mennonite leaders and scholars, educated in America’s most prestigious universities and animated by a theology of human love and equality, were moving beyond the boundaries of passive ?nonresistance? to embrace community development and in many cases direct action. In addition to Guy Hershberger, hundreds went South as missionaries, summer workers and demonstrators to make right what Baptists’and Mennonites in Noxubee County’had, in their judgment, gotten terribly wrong.
In the late 1950s these leaders and scholars embarked on a series of tours to see for themselves the abuses regularly chronicled in northern newspapers. They usually found what they were looking for in their three-week trips, returning to tell tales of discrimination, violence and ?Negroes in shacks.? Delton Franz, for example, a General Conference Mennonite pastor of an interracial church in Chicago, returning from a trip to the South in 1958 with five scholars (two of whom were black), was incredulous at the pervasive nature of segregation and violence, even in high levels of state government. In an article to his Mennonite constituency he wrote, ?What about law enforcement? Why haven’t the lawbreakers been arrested? The sheriff himself encourages and participates in the violence!? During his trip to Mississippi in 1963, Guy Hershberger stationed himself in a Macon hardware store to gauge the level of racism. ?He asked to talk with people who walked in,? remembers an observer, ?but this lasted for only five minutes until he asked one good ol? boy if he heard about Martin Luther King Jr.?s demonstration scheduled that day in a nearby town. The man responded, ?I hope they stomp that son of a bitch into the ground.??
Tours in the 1960s, which often included several of the few African-American Mennonites, continued earlier attempts to encounter and to expose racism firsthand. Northern Mennonite activists also began to strengthen ecumenical ties with civil rights organizations. For example, in 1960, Elmer Neufeld, director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section, took several trips that included stops at Vanderbilt University, Fisk University, Tuskegee Institute, the National Council of Church’s Department of Racial and Cultural Relations, African-American churches and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters. In Mississippi, Neufeld visited Martin Luther King Jr. In Alabama, he talked with Rev. S.S. Seay, who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott. Seay told Neufeld that agitation and protest were necessary if more than ?token integration? was to be achieved. Neufeld also visited Prentiss Institute, a large, private, black secondary school operated by blacks, and the city of Jackson where he met with the conservative editor of the Jackson Advocate. The editor told Neufeld that ?the NAACP was engaged in a money racket? and that he ?believed as deeply in segregation as he believed in God!? In 1957 J. Harold Sherk met with Asa Carter of the White Citizen’s Council who told Sherk that integrationists are mostly ?communists and subversives? and that while ?segregation cannot last forever, integration could only come over my dead body.? Mennonites listened widely among the southern populace, to blacks and whites as well as integrationists and segregationists.
These touring Mennonites saw a range of actions among their own people nearly as extreme as those of the civil rights agitators and segregationists they met from other traditions. In Atlanta, Georgia, Neufeld commended a small interracial Mennonite church. However, in Gulfport, Mississippi, he found that the pastor of Crossroads Mennonite Church preached racial equality and seemed to ?prepare the congregation for the acceptance of Negro members,? but hadn’t ?attempted any actual moves toward bringing Negroes into the congregation.? This gap between rhetoric and practice bothered Neufeld, who wrote that ?maybe even the observation that outreach would be hindered by interracial activities is a satanic deception. From the experience of the early church in the Book of Acts, it seems rather that we are called to simple obedience in faith, without such calculations.?
Three years later Hershberger again critiqued the Crossroads congregation in Gulfport, registering disapproval when some members declared that ?integration cannot be forced. It is being forced on the south by ?the Kennedys.?? When other members voiced similar pleas that integration would damage the church’s witness to whites, Hershberger wrote, ?It is obvious that there are deep seated prejudices in spite of the insistence that they love the Negroes.? He was especially offended when a group of young men with ?Mennonite heritage’?one of whom had recently attended Goshen College, the same college at which Hershberger taught’insisted that ?a Negro, if a Christian, would not want to attend a white church if he knew that this would cause offense.? Whenever Hershberger encountered opposition, he tried to teach and reason. Seldom was he successful in changing minds (at least immediately), although he often wrote after such discussions that ?it was good that this was discussed.? Upon returning home to Goshen, Indiana, he often initiated correspondence with those whose minds he was trying to change.
In their efforts to convince their brethren, northern Mennonites typically appealed to the common language of nonconformity. Southern Mennonites’like those from Magnolia Mennonite Church’might imitate Carl McIntire’s rhetoric that obsessed about communist-inspired civil rights agitators to argue that nonconformity meant seeing civil rights and integration as worldly constructs. But Hershberger, Neufeld and others turned that logic on its head, arguing that true nonconformists should transcend the hate of a racist society. Hershberger wrote that ?we have failed to see that acceptance of the social patterns of segregation and discrimination is a violation of the command to be ?not conformed to this world.?? Similarly, Elmer S. Yoder, a Conservative Conference Mennonite from Ohio wrote, ?When we oppose racial equality for the same reasons that many conservative fundamentalists or non-Christian neighbors do, we are not Biblical, rather we are permitting ourselves to be forced into the world’s mold.?
Expanding the principle of nonconformity beyond the centuries-long, traditional focus on dress and entertainment to include views on race prompted some Mennonites to revisit their Anabaptist past. When they did, they found a striking parallel between their own legacy of martyrdom in Europe and the reality of discrimination against African-Americans in the United States. Hershberger wrote that Mennonites ought to
assume a special mission of love toward and identification with the American Negro, too long a victim of discrimination and persecution by those who erroneously regard themselves superior to him. For this mission, the Mennonites, with their four centuries of testimony to the way of love, and their own experience in persecution and suffering, would seem to have a unique and special calling.
For many Mennonite scholars and activists, this special calling meant persecution along with their Anabaptist predecessors and blacks’not because of their race or their peculiar notions of baptism, but because of their nonconformity in race relations. In an analysis of the Montgomery bus boycott, Hershberger wrote, ?The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. Mennonites have always thrived on persecution. Are we ready to face persecution for taking a forthright position on the race question today’? Hershberger and other Mennonite community development workers in black Mississippi thus appealed to a common heritage of persecution’Anabaptist martyrdom and African-American slavery’as motivation for their activism.
Looking back at their Anabaptist past also inspired many northern Mennonites to highlight the activist legacy and prophetic voices of their ancestral forefathers rather than the quietism of their fathers. These Anabaptist forefathers had denounced the pope and engaged magisterial reformers in contentious debates about rebaptism, war and separation of church and state. In his seminal work The Way of the Cross in Human Relations, Hershberger noted that ?the Anabaptists were the Elijahs, the Isaiahs, and the Jeremiahs of their time.? The Mennonite who advocated these the Anabaptist claims most energetically, however, was Vincent Harding, a renowned black scholar and activist. Holder of a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and associate pastor of the Mennonite church at Woodlawn in Chicago, Harding was captivated by the radical ideals and behavior of the early Anabaptists. He became the most eloquent spokesman of Mennonites? racial conscience throughout the civil rights movement, strategically emphasizing the radical heritage of the very group he was trying to wake. In a speech to a Mennonite group, Harding stated:
They [members of the Black Power movement] ask me, ?Vincent, why do you go in that [Mennonite] direction when you see the condition of the world around you: the poor in our cities, the poor and underprivileged of the world who have been stepped on by the white, middle-class Christian world? . . . Then I try to talk to them about the Anabaptist Vision. And I try to tell them what caught me when I first read about the Anabaptists and about the tremendous heroism of this persecuted and suffering people. And I tell them the story that came out of Basel and Zurich and Strasbourg and the Palatinate and Baden and all over the Netherlands. And I tell them that these were the things that drew me to the church, that drew me to seek some way of encompassing and living out the Anabaptist Vision in the midst of a suffering and hopeless world.
Most of his Mennonite listeners did not respond with what he had in mind’namely, doing more than just visiting, contributing money for evangelism, encouraging existing missions and issuing educational materials from the presses in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, and Newton, Kansas, (though between 1957 and 1969 more than 114 articles about racism appeared in the Gospel Herald alone). But some did, and many of them went to Mississippi.
As the 1960s dawned, some Mennonites began to jettison what the historian Perry Bush describes as their ?quietly progressive? attitude toward race relations. In language similar to what Martin Luther King Jr. would use in ?Letter from Birmingham Jail? three years later in 1963, Elmer Neufeld of M.C.C. wrote, ?It is sobering to consider that perhaps the major stronghold of segregation is not among the vile and radical groups like the Ku Klux Klan, but rather among the ?good, respectable? citizens who claim both political and religious sanction for their position.? To prove that they were not merely good and respectable, but were living in line with the spirit of their activist Anabaptist heritage, several prominent Mennonites began a campaign of direct action on behalf of southern blacks.
First, Mennonites initiated relief efforts to assist African-American churches burned by segregationists in Mississippi. They gave so much money that William Davis, chair of the interfaith Committee of Concern, told a reporter, ?I don’t know what we would have done without the Mennonites and Quakers.? Mennonites also came in person in 1964 from Ohio and Pennsylvania to help rebuild Christian Union Baptist Church (Tougaloo, Miss.), Pleasant Grove Baptist Church (Brandon, Miss.), and Cedar Grove Baptist Church (Canton, Miss.). Usually organized by Mennonite denominational leaders, these rebuilding efforts were structured in ways that attempted to demonstrate sharp sensitivity to southern culture, ?recognizing that we are justified in giving considerable thought to the advice of this southern churchman who seems to understand the situation in the south.? One missions executive wrote, ?I feel people from Florida, from Louisiana and Mississippi should be involved first, and I would even go further and say that if workers came from the North it would be better for them to take the place of southern people on their farms and let the southern people go and be involved in the church building.? Concerned that southern whites might interpret their efforts as ?Yankee imperialism,? many northern Mennonites worked hard not to alienate southerners unnecessarily.
Second, Mennonites began discussions with nonviolent civil rights leaders, most notably King himself. King long had been receptive to such conversations, saying in 1956 that he ?would like very much to have this kind of discussion with some Mennonites who have similarly gone through persecution experiences.? Mennonite leaders began regular visits to King in Atlanta in the late 1950s. This courtship culminated in a speech by King at Goshen College in 1960. Interaction also began with the Southern Christian Leadership Council, an organization led by King that advocated an immediate, but nonviolent, end to segregation. Talks with S.C.L.C. led to a bit of civil rights experimentation by Mennonite leaders while on a trip to an S.C.L.C. meeting in Atlanta in 1959. Hershberger, Neufeld and several others heard that King and his wife had been refused service at the Dobbs House restaurant. Along with several black traveling companions and scholars, the group decided to test the situation themselves. When told that their black friend would have to eat in a remote corner behind a screen, the group cajoled the waitress into letting the black men sit with them while the whites ate. In a straightforward defiance of Georgia’s segregation laws, Hershberger and Neufeld shared their cherry pie la mode with their companions. A few years later, J. Lawrence Burkholder, Harvard Divinity School faculty member and future Goshen College president, joined the activism. On vacation in Florida in 1964, Burkholder was ?caught up in the emotional fervor of the movement.? Within hours ?he had broken a desegregation law in a hotel restaurant, and he spent the next three days in jail.? A year later, in 1965, Burkholder marched in Selma with King. These instances of civil rights protests by Mennonite scholars and churchmen, however, were exceptional. More often denominational leaders were content to give verbal support to the civil rights cause.
With the exception of Hershberger and Burkholder, it was mostly a younger set of Mennonites that engaged in direct, sometimes illegal, participation in civil rights activity. Dozens of young Mennonites, most of them from Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite College, went to Mississippi to register voters. In symbolic expressions of solidarity with African-Americans, these students worked by day at community development, coordinating summer recreation and nutrition programs. By night, they registered black voters, ran Freedom Schools and sometimes protested. In Macon, for example, E.M.C. students went to town on Saturday evenings, traditionally a time when only blacks went shopping and socialized downtown. A nearby Mennonite remembers that they just ?strode down the middle of the street,? the only white faces around. Two other young Mennonites, Larry Miller and Dennis Miller, who worked at the Noxubee General Hospital, regularly went to Amy’s Caf in the black section of Macon despite harassment from the police chief.
Other Mennonite students freelanced in Mississippi independent from the constraints of denominational control. A typical case was Paul Miller of a Conservative Mennonite Conference congregation near Holmesville, Ohio, and a student at Eastern Mennonite College. Miller applied to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to teach in their Freedom Schools. Another student, Eli Hochstedler, from Nashville, Indiana, went south because he had been ?a part of the church which too long has been follower rather than leader of social reform.? He attended predominately black Tougaloo College, making local headlines through small acts of nonviolent protest against segregation. Hochstedler was arrested at the Mississippi Coliseum when he and ?a Negro student attempted to sit in the all-white section for a performance of ?Holiday on Ice.?? Both were charged with breach of the peace and jailed under $500 bond. Hochstedler paid an additional price for his demonstration when he was savagely beaten by a white inmate during his night in jail. Another Mennonite college student instigated a show marriage with a black woman to challenge Mississippi law. Phil Mininger, a student from E.M.C., and Charlene McNeese, a local black friend of Mininger, approached the registrar at the Noxubee County courthouse requesting a marriage license. The registrar, accustomed to entering marriage licenses in either a ?White Marriages? or a ?Colored Marriages? book was ?aghast? and refused their request. Rumors quickly spread of the latest outrage in civil rights agitation, and one local conservative Mennonite minister wrote Myron Augsburger, president of E.M.C., asking him not to send more students to Mississippi. College students continued to spend summers in Mississippi through the 1970s, however, often hosted by Larry Miller and his family, who became deeply involved with the African-American community after they moved to Mississippi in the late 1960s.
Such public displays of nonviolent resistance by Mennonites punctuated what was otherwise a fairly quiet Mennonite response to race issues in Mississippi. Very few Mennonites residing in the state participated in marches or flouted segregation laws as Eli Hochstedler did. Most, in fact, condemned such actions, refusing to allow Mennonite interlopers from the North to stay in their homes. In response to such refusals came accusations of compromise from the northerners. Vincent Harding spoke for many when he said, ?The striking fact is we have not yet tested the grace of God, what it can do in the South, by standing for what is right rather than what is expedient.? Through direct action in the civil rights movement, Harding, Hochstedler and Hershberger made an attempt to test the grace of God and do right in Mississippi, even if only in two-week or semester-long intervals.
QUIET DEMONSTRATIONS: MERIDIAN, JACKSON AND GULFPORT
If Mennonites from the Magnolia congregation in Macon represented the most insular, sometimes overtly racist, Mennonite perspective and those from the North represented the most progressive, activist segment, then Mennonites in Meridian, Jackson and Gulfport occupied a middle, somewhat ambivalent, position. These locations generally represented long-term service and missions ventures. Mennonite workers from these cities tended to have equally biting critiques of both of the first two groups. To the insular Magnolia members, some of whom believed that blacks were intellectually inferior, the critique went like this: ?Negroes have been oppressed and cultivate a different culture from yours. They are our equals intellectually and spiritually and deserve our help and support, whether or not racists like it.? To the young activists like Eli Hochstedler, a Gulfport worker might have countered, ?Your motives are right, but your actions are nave and misguided. You come from the North insisting on certain behavior that is unhelpful and destructive in this environment, not to mention a betrayal of Mennonite nonresistance. Go back home and let us, Mennonites who have invested time down here, work to gradually lessen tensions.? The holders of this moderate opinion composed the bulk of Mennonites in 1960s Mississippi. These communities carried on ?quiet demonstrations,? in the words of the historian David Haury, working diligently with racial minorities in community development, yet trying hard to escape the ire of white segregationists around them.
In Gulfport, mission work to African-Americans began with sanitation improvements during World War II. Sixty-eight Mennonites from the Mennonite Church, General Conference, Conservative Conference and Amish background worked at Civilian Public Service Camp #141 in Gulfport as an alternative to military service. The primary duties of these men (classified as I-W workers by the federal government) were health related: eradicating hookworms, installing toilets and poisoning rats. After the war the remnant camp (now named Camp Landon) and many workers remained to form a voluntary service unit, which continued sanitation work and initiated explicit religious instruction to local residents. Camp Landon workers taught more than 13,000 black children in Gulfport through the Religious Education Program in the local public schools from 1947 to 1966. During the summers of those years, over 15,000 children were bused from the city to the camp for Bible school. The camp also established a community center, which in 1954 housed the first library in North Gulfport available to blacks. Harold Regier and Orlo Kaufman, administrators of Camp Landon, maintained that their mission was to strengthen existing black churches, not to form new ones. Thus, the Mennonite churches in Gulfport where most of the I-W workers worshipped’Wayside Mission, Crossroads and Gulfhaven’remained exclusively white. When Crossroads decided to integrate in 1968, several families left, and the church closed just three years later. Similar tactics were used in Jackson where Erwin Wedel operated a Bible camp for black children and Jacob Unruh, an unaffiliated Mennonite minister, conducted Bible classes in black churches. In none of these locations were integrated churches initiated.
The focus instead was primarily evangelistic, and pains were taken to comply with Mississippi law. Still, their work with blacks triggered the suspicions of state officials. Each pastor was subject to substantial investigations by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency founded in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and intended to strengthen racial separation in the state. Commission officials investigating ?communist activities? interviewed Harold Regier and Orlo Kaufman of Gulfport, and Wedel and Unruh in Jackson. Each was forthright about his desire for integration, but equally forceful in his denial of racial agitation. Unruh went further than the others when he told an investigator that he did ?not believe in racial integration for Mississippi Negroes at the present time.? Regier, Kaufman and Wedel were also careful to avoid agitating neighbors and state officials. Hershberger wrote, ?Wedel loves the colored people, and feels it is almost hopeless to change the prejudicial attitudes of the whites. He therefore goes his own way, carrying on a strictly evangelistic program, and avoiding as much as possible any action that might arouse antagonism on the part of the white community.? For Wedel, Kaufman, Regier and Unruh, compliance with the law provided more potential for ending racial strife than immediate, forced integration.
Where Mississippi law did not reach, however, Mennonites in Gulfport pushed for immediate integration. They sent promising African-Americans to Mennonite colleges in the North. By 1962 eight Gulfport natives were attending college in Bluffton, Ohio; Hesston, Kansas; and Goshen, Indiana. The Fresh Air program sent black children to the North for several weeks at a time during the summer to live with Mennonite families. As they observed young blacks attend white churches and swim in a public pool for the first time, Regier and Kaufman noted that ?this is a tremendous experience in learning to know a member of another race intimately.?
A complementary approach of targeting racist whites for spiritual and social conversion was also underway in these communities. Regier and Kaufman joined the Gulfport Ministerial Association, which was exclusively white, as well as the African-American equivalent, called the Ministerial Alliance. Regier began radio broadcasts in which he regularly denounced racial prejudice. Elsewhere, new churches and missions started by the Conservative Mennonite Conference in Meridian and Jackson in the early 1960s focused almost exclusively on the white population. Their intent was to heal racial strife and promote integration not by force or resistance, but more indirectly, by running boys? clubs, remodeling homes and proselytizing poor whites.
To do so effectively they felt they needed to observe cultural protocols. A I-W worker in Macon was ordered to sort and wash laundry items by race. Another I-W worker in Meridian remembers being reprimanded at a hospital for calling a black ?sir.? But the very nature of their jobs’hospital maintenance and surgery aides’often pushed racial boundaries. They were white men doing a black man’s job. One worker remembers that ?people couldn’t stand to see whites mopping floors, and the staff told [the I-W workers] to quit.? Friendships with blacks were pursued, but usually only through ?short chats so people wouldn’t get suspicious.? Just being around blacks was enough to arouse suspicion in most contexts. Camp Landon, for instance, despite its efforts not to push protocol too far, was listed in 1964 as a potential target for bombing by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A report by a traveling missions administrator about the Meridian congregation captures the stance of their pastor, Titus Bender, and his fellow quiet demonstrators:
Titus will probably continue to work primarily among the Southern whites, rather than among the Negro population of the South, although continuing to be active in various programs of racial reconciliation. It would not appear to be feasible to work on both sides of the Southern racial barrier, and Titus has evidently come to the same conclusion as Vincent Harding: that Mennonites can most effectively work at bridging the wall from the white side.
By the mid-1960s the church in Meridian consisted of about fifty white members, most of whom were not from a Mennonite background. For these quiet demonstrators, immediate, forced integration would not result in their desired goal: a lasting integration rooted in mutual respect.
For Mennonites in Gulfport, Meridian and Jackson, the tasks of church building, evangelism and racial reconciliation were particularly difficult because of their Mennonite beliefs and northern heritage. They were hounded by state officials irritated by their refusal to salute the flag, their nonresistant stance and their outreach to blacks. Periodic studies of Mennonite history and theology on the part of Meridian and Jackson service units reinforced these distinctives, and their self-conscious identification with this tradition shaped much of how they worked toward racial reconciliation.
To make matters worse, locals frequently misidentified northern and southern Mennonites. Titus Bender of Meridian wrote in 1964 that ?the Northern criticism of our corn bread and beans, our ?lack of efficiency,? etc., make our preachments of love in race relations more suspect than would otherwise be the case.? Not surprisingly, these quiet demonstrators combined the theological presuppositions and ecclesiastical tendencies at work in the Macon Mennonite community with the quite different orientation of northern Mennonite visitors.
Compared with Mennonites in Macon, Mennonites in Meridian and Gulfport displayed a more progressive racial sensitivity in their behavior and rhetoric. In the main, they were staunch supporters of integration, willing to speak out to defend minorities: ?As God’s children we will neither hate nor despise persons of another background, but will actively love them. Every person who is a child of God is my brother or sister in God’s family, regardless of social, economic or racial background.? In articulating that stance, the Meridian church was recalling the Mennonite Church’s egalitarian past. In speaking of ?the prophetic voice and dynamic love? that should not ?be dulled in its relationship to war and class strife,? Bender was using rhetoric in the tradition of Anabaptist activism.
Still, that prophetic voice had limits. Some temporary workers, mostly in Gulfport, were disappointed by the deliberate, careful methods of these quiet demonstrators who were unwilling to integrate their churches. One Gulfport voluntary service worker in 1963 wrote, ?I came to the South with somewhat of an expectancy of being a part of direct action. Demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins seemed to offer the best resources.? Vincent Harding, who visited Gulfport in 1963, appealed to their Anabaptist heritage of inclusion and the priesthood of all believers when he asked, ?Can we really keep telling our baptized brothers that we cannot worship together in the same church’? But these workers had been shaped by a nonresistant faith that stressed the primacy of hard work, humility and a quiet life of faith. It was a tradition, according to a Conservative Mennonite Conference leader, Elmer S. Yoder, that argued that:
the waving of documents may even develop into an unwholesome battle of comparing ourselves among denominations and result in an ?I am more militant than thou? attitude. The ultimate effectiveness of any official pronouncement must be measured by its ability to become a moving force on the local level’the personal level. And it is here that the real and final victory in race relations will be won.
For Orlo Kaufman and the hundreds of other moderate Mennonites living amidst the racial tension in tense, sometimes-violent, Mississippi, Anabaptist history and theology provided a foundation upon which to construct a social theology. They might gloss over their Mennonite heritage publicly: ?It is not our purpose to make Mennonites out of people, but to strengthen them in their Christian lives.? But Kaufman revealed the essence of their egalitarian, yet nonresistant orientation when he wrote this about a prospective Gulfport worker: ?I believe Albert ought not to identify with any Civil rights group. He ought to be able to say I’m not a member of NAACP, CORE, etc., but simply as a member of a Christian church.? Symbolically (and literally in the case of Magnolia), Mennonites continued to speak their native Pennsylvania Dutch, but in Meridian and Gulfport they began to speak it with a southern accent.
A TRADITION IN TRANSITION
Scholars in recent years seem to agree that the Mennonite tradition in North America underwent dramatic change in the mid-twentieth century. The sociologists Donald Kraybill and Leo Driedger have described this transition as a shift ?from quietism to activism? within the broader context of modernization. Keith Graber Miller has traced the beginnings and subsequent development of a permanent Mennonite lobby in Washington as a significant symbol of this transformation. And in his book Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, historian Perry Bush chronicles a decisive shift among Mennonites in the second half of the twentieth century from a dualistic, nonresistant understanding of peace to one best described as activist pacifism.
The diverse approaches by Mennonites to a racialized South described in the case studies above complicate this sweeping trajectory. In addition to its narrow focus on progressive elites, the Kraybill-Driedger formula, in particular, lacks the nuance necessary for meaningful historical inquiry. The Mennonite response to race in Mississippi demonstrates that the shift from quietism to activism was never uniform and often contested.
Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that attitudes among Mennonites in the 1950s and 1960s were undergoing a remarkable transformation. Even the divergent rhetoric and behavior of such people as Guy Hershberger, a Mennonite scholar and activist; Edwin Knepp, the Magnolia pastor; and Orlo Kaufman, the director of the Gulfport voluntary service center, confirm the general consensus of a growing posture of social and political engagement, fragmented though it was. Each of these men were at different points along an activist trajectory in the early 1960s, but they were all headed the same direction. What followed in the rest of the decade in Mississippi further confirms this broad shift in Mennonite attitudes. As the 1960s progressed, even Mennonites in Macon, Meridian, Jackson and Gulfport became more vocal and demonstrative regarding race relations.
In Macon, Mennonite interaction with blacks swelled as segregation lost its legal and cultural stranglehold on Noxubee County. Voter registration in Mississippi rose from 7 percent in 1964 to 77 percent in 1968, and Noxubee County’s first black supervisor since post-Civil War Reconstruction was elected in 1971. At the same time, Mennonites in the region increasingly hired blacks to bale hay and haul milk. Elmer Mast recalls, ?As the next several years rolled by, we became more and more involved with the black people. . . . They began to call me ?Mista Mid-night,? meaning, Mr. Mennonite.? They were told by a black woman to ?make my face Black like hers and follow her around just one day in order to understand better how they are treated by public whites.? By the late 1960s fear of retribution by native whites had receded, and the Magnolia chorus sang and preachers spoke at half a dozen black churches. Most significantly, Magnolia broadened its scope of ministry from primarily soul-saving to social and economic work. By 1970 the Magnolia congregation in conjunction with the Conservative Mennonite Church was running Prairie Cooperative Associates, a machinery cooperative that helped blacks acquire equipment to farm their land. Magnolia’s astounding shift was lauded by Mennonite northerners, though in some quarters of the church Magnolia still displayed elements of paternalism and opposed interracial marriage.
In Meridian, a Conservative Mennonite pastor, Titus Bender, became much more active and forthright in extending an egalitarian witness. Almost single-handedly he founded Pine Lake Mennonite Camp, which by the late 1960s integrated white and black children. Working part time with Mennonite Central Committee, Bender organized work teams (often from northern colleges such as the University of Notre Dame and Queen’s College) to rebuild bombed black churches. His efforts frequently found their way into the headlines, and by 1967 the Mennonite congregation in Meridian felt pressure from the white community on two major fronts: their peace position and their ?stand on the race issue.? From a focus on white outreach and moderation in civil rights activity, Meridian Mennonites shifted to explicitly integrative patterns as the civil rights movement climaxed in the late 1960s.
In Jackson, the Conservative Mennonite Conference’s presence expanded to include a congregation, a voluntary service house and talks with the black leaders about a community center. As the community was rocked by racial violence and riots in 1967, the Mennonite community purchased a house between a white neighborhood and ?large Negro ghetto,? just thirty feet from a street on which the Meredith March took place. This strategic choice of location for the voluntary service unit was intended to facilitate racial reconciliation between the neighborhoods. Within a year, however, the focus of outreach had shifted. A black family exercised a new federal housing law that barred sellers from discrimination based on race. Two weeks after the family moved in, thirteen white families had their homes for sale and had warned the voluntary service workers that they were ?crazy not to move like everyone else? because ?it won’t be safe to live there when the block is all colored.? Unit workers were not disappointed with the development, though, because their sudden, inadvertent position squarely in a black neighborhood appeared to be a natural development to whites and blacks alike.
In Gulfport, workers also became bolder in their attempts to end racial segregation. For several weeks in 1964 the Regiers housed a worker for the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella organization for several civil rights groups in Mississippi. Later that year, Camp Landon hosted a one-day Council workshop. Cooperation with civil rights organizations, however, was contested at Camp Landon. Intense, regular discussions among workers revealed a rift between those who stressed evangelism and those who emphasized that evangelism mandated social action. In 1965, for example, Regier marched in Selma, Alabama, in support of Pastor James Reeb, who was killed by a white mob while on a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. Orlo Kaufman, on the other hand, declined to participate in the march in an effort not to outrage local whites. Regier and Kaufman did reach a consensus on less controversial actions. As desegregation took hold Camp Landon gradually began to host integrated events. This was a noteworthy shift from their history of quiet demonstrations, given the fury of locals that still existed. On a day in 1968 that Camp Landon hosted an integrated Head Start dinner, a stranger arrived at the camp and asked, ?Is this where you teach those gorillas to read’? After the dinner, the camp received a bomb threat. Gulfport Mennonites never crusaded for civil rights, but they worked hard on the local level to reconcile races. And as white opposition decreased, they did all they could to promote integration.
The rapid pace of acculturation and activism experienced by Mennonites in the twentieth century was staggering given the three previous centuries of quietism. Mennonites in Mississippi are a microcosm of this reality. They arrived as mission-minded Conservative Mennonites working as persecuted farmers in the 1920s delta region, outward-minded General Conference in places like Gulfport and Meridian, and as agitated protesters in cities during the civil rights era. Observation of racial strife and inequality from decades of Mennonite service in Mississippi pressed on ?the disintegrating spatial boundaries of the Mennonite community? and ?considerably enlarged the Mennonite field of responsibility.? When denominational and national pressure exerted its moral authority in regard to race relations, Mennonites of all stripes in Mississippi tentatively, then purposefully, joined in the cause for reform.
For many Mennonites in Mississippi, the concerns of the present shaped their attitudes and actions at least as much as their theological convictions inherited from the past. Magnolia Mennonites, for example, who had settled permanently in the state, were much more susceptible to the influence of local pressures than were Mennonite college students visiting the state for only a few weeks. Their economic livelihood required the assistance of local white power-brokers who controlled the grain elevators, banks and supply stores; not surprisingly, they were quick to accommodate the historic Anabaptist language of nonresistance and nonconformity to fit the realities of segregation. In a relatively short period of time, some in the congregation transformed from ostensible egalitarians to blatant racists’and they appear to have selected particular traditions from their Mennonite heritage to justify their attitudes. Other Mennonites negotiated the chasm between Anabaptism and Mississippi culture differently. Those from the North and in the state only for several weeks to protest or for several years for voluntary community service felt relatively little social or economic pressure to accommodate to southern traditions of segregation. They tended to welcome persecution and used their Anabaptist tradition as a resource for their radical activism and defiance of state and cultural authority. Each group, no matter their views on race or the socioeconomic forces that shaped their views, selected from an array of Anabaptist/American Mennonite cultural practices and religious beliefs’nonresistance, defiance of state mandates, egalitarian social thinking and non-conformity’to fit their context and goals. And each claimed that God’and Menno Simons’was on their side.
To be sure, compared with the sacrifices, creative energy and financial investments of many other denominations, the Mennonite contribution to desegregation was negligible. Though Mississippi Mennonites eventually embraced the civil rights cause, during the early 1960s they had difficulty transcending their traditions of political quietism and communitarian separatism. Their genuine’if inconsistent and untested’intentions for racial egalitarianism too often failed Mennonites in Mississippi in the face of radically different and complex notions of race.
By the early 1970s, however, new programs and relationships with African-Americans in Mississippi suggested that Mennonites had recovered a measure of their egalitarian tradition and had entered a new era in terms of their openness to political involvement. Indeed, once participation by the Mennonite leadership in race relations became acceptable, other forms of political activity suddenly seemed possible as well. In the decades following, segments of the Mennonite church became increasingly active in wide range of new political arenas’environmentalism, feminism and nuclear disarmament on the political left, and abortion and school prayer on the right.
These new patterns of commitment point to a secondary, somewhat contradictory, process at work in the American Mennonite community. Even as Conservative Conference Mennonites, General Conference Mennonites and (Old) Mennonites followed a similar trajectory toward political activism, they did so at different speeds and around different issues. As a result, the various groups ended up further apart from each other than before. Following the trend of mainstream Protestant denominations articulated by Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion, Mennonites in the post-civil rights era were similarly fragmenting. Though not all under one ecclesiastical structure in the early 1960s, Mennonites in Mississippi with General Conference, Mennonite Church and Conservative Mennonite Conferece roots were nonetheless all very self-consciously Mennonite; each group made significant efforts to fraternize with one other. But by the 1970s diverging standards of dress and entertainment, as well as differing views of race and politics, increasingly split them apart. In the place of Mennonite fellowship, for example, the Miller family of Mashulaville began to relate primarily with blacks. Members of the Magnolia congregation decreased interaction with their sister Conservative Mennonite Conference congregation at Meridian and eventually dropped out of the conference altogether. Mennonites from the North began relating with Martin Luther King Jr. and with progressive southern seminaries more than their fellow Mennonites. At the other extreme, some conservative Mennonites began identifying with fundamentalists like Carl McIntire.
The restructuring of religion from denominationalism to special-interest groups and theologically/socially ?liberal? and ?conservative? categories occurred among Mennonites in Mississippi’just as it did to Baptists, Presbyterians and other denominations. As with these other groups, there ceased to be a distinctively ?Mennonite? position (to the degree that there ever was one) on race. As moral authority within Mennonite denominations fragmented, outside sources grew in attractiveness and potency. That restructuring, some seeds of which were clearly planted in the 1960s, continues today.
[*]David R. Swartz is a doctoral student in American history at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.
1. Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 331.
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. Guy F. Hershberger, ?Mennonites and the Current Race Issue: Observations, reflections, and recommendations following a visitation to southern Mennonite churches, July-August, 1963, with a review of historical background,? pp. 9-10, CESR papers, 1-3-7, Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind.
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. Despite Mennonite rejection of racial prejudice, segregation and opposition to interracial marriage on paper by the civil rights era, there were examples of blatant Mennonite racism (such as segregation of blacks and whites by the Virginia Mennonite Conference during foot washing services). Moreover, interaction with African-Americans was minimal; Mennonites expressed little concern for those outside their ethnic and religious boundaries. Comparatively, though, Mennonites were exceptionally egalitarian given the era. See Theron Schlabach, Gospel Versus Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1979). See Le Roy Bechler, Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986). Also see ?The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations: The Position of the Mennonite Church as Adopted by Mennonite General Conference at Hesston, Kansas, August 24, 1955? (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955).
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. As a study of the character of Mennonites in the South during this era, this paper follows the model provided by the historian John McGreevy, who analyzed the ethno-religious character of Catholics and race in northern urban centers in his book Parish Boundaries. See John McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
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. For an earlier encounter between evangelicals and the South, see Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Also see Robert M. Calhoon, Evangelicals and Conservatives in the Early South, 1740-1861 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). For civil rights clashes between Christians in the 1960s, see Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
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. David L. Miller, ?Report of Colonization Questionnaire #2,? file folder, ?Colonization,? Conservative Mennonite Conference Archives, Irwin, Ohio. On C.M.C., see Ivan J. Miller, History of the Conservative Mennonite Conference (Grantsville, Md.: self-published, 1985).
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. See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of the Population, Vol. 2, Characteristics of the Population: 1950. Part 24: Mississippi, 8. Also see Characteristics of the Population: 1970. Part 26: Mississippi, 348.
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. U.S. Bureau of the Census. U.S. Census of Agriculture: 1964, vol. 1, part 33: Mississippi, 265. Also see U.S. Census of Agriculture: 1969, vol. 1, part 33, section 2: Mississippi, 417.
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. Elmer and Marie Mast, ?Oak Grove Mission,? Magnolia Mennonite Church, 45. Also see Henry Yoder, ?Some Reasons for Moving,? Magnolia Mennonite Church, 12. Also see interview with Tom Miller, July 2, 2003, as well as interview with Charles Richard Barge, Nov. 13, 1999, COHCH.
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. Interview with Percy Brooks, Dec. 12, 1999, COHCH. In an Aug. 18, 2003, interview, Tom Miller said that currently there are no white officeholders in the Macon area, partly because many blacks vote now and partly because conservative Mennonites and Holdeman Mennonites refuse to vote. This phenomenon is precisely what whites feared in the 1960s.
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. Edwin Knepp, ?Some Experiences,? Magnolia Mennonite Church, 16. Brown, a lawyer for the local public school board, met with the white members of the board through the 1960s in a ?meeting before the official meeting? to thwart the initiatives of the single black member of the board. See interview with Reecy L. Dickson, Sept. 24, 1999, COHCH.
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. See John A. Hostetler, Amish Society (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), 50-51. For Amish Mennonite views of separation in the nineteenth century, see Paton Yoder, Tradition and Transition: Amish Mennonites and Old Order Amish, 1800-1900 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 92-94
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. See MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood, 191. Christian Burkholder, a Mennonite writing in the eighteenth century, cited God’s command to the Old Testament Israelites to marry within their own tribes.
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. It is an account similar to the one Noel Ignatiev tells about the Irish who immigrated to the United States in the eighteenth century. These Irish-Americans allied with white unions and turned against African-Americans in order to gain cultural and economic capital’the process of ?becoming white,? to use Ignatiev’s idiom. Mennonites similarly appealed to the wishes of the white community of Noxubee County.?Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995).
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. See Keith Graber Miller, ?From Engaged Social Activists to Disengaged Academicians? Purported Generational Shifts among Teaching Faculties at U.S. Mennonite Colleges,? MQR 76 (Jan. 2002), 72-104.
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. See Raymond Byler, ?Two Days in Atlanta,? Missionary Bulletin 13, no. 4 (April 1964), 1-2. Byler, a C.M.C. pastor in the panhandle of Florida, wrote, ?It is most distressing to know that some Mennonites are devotees of the right-wing line of American politics . . . which labels the civil rights movement as communist inspired.? In a Nov. 22, 1962, letter to Mark Peachey, Byler wrote disapprovingly, ?I have a growing feeling that many of our people start the day with Carl McIntire’s radio message.??See file folder, ?Mississippi, Meridian (1962),? CMC Archives.
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. ?The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,? Statement adopted by the 1955 Mennonite [Church] General Conference, General Conference Minutes and Reports, n.p., pp. 20-26, April 22-24, 1955, AMC.
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. See Guy Hershberger, ?Lessons from Anabaptist History for the Church Today,? papers presented at the Conference on Race Relations, Atlanta, Feb. 25-26, 1964, file folder, IX-12-3, ?Race Relations,? AMC.
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. Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994), 127. Also see J. Harold Sherk, ?MCC New Feature,? June 4, 1957, file folder, IX-12-3, ?Race Relations,? AMC.
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. ?The Camp Landon Mission Program, September 1962,? Sept. 28, 1962, file folder #14, ?Mississippi, Gulfport, 1961-64,? G.C. Board of Missions, Box 35, Mennonite Library and Archives, N. Newton, Kan.
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. An Amish couple even moved to Gulfport, Miss., to participate in voluntary service. See Steve Nolt, ?The Amish ?Mission Movement? and the Reformulation of Amish Identity in the Twentieth Century,? MQR 74 (Jan. 2001), 6, 10.
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. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
Mennonites and Race in Mississippi
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
MQR 78 (October 2004)