Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship:
Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966
TOBIN MILLER SHEARER*
Abstract: This essay traces the Mennonite sojourn of African-American pastor, scholar and activist Vincent Harding and examines his position in between the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonite community. In 1963, the most intense of the years he spent among Mennonites, Harding became increasingly frustrated with the hesitancy of white Mennonites to join civil rights protests. His advocacy for a more overtly political witness to the state led to his departure from the Mennonite Church, but not before he had proven highly effective in moving Mennonites toward social protest even though many in the church raised objections based on their understanding of nonresistant doctrine. By focusing on Harding’s ability to straddle borders, the essay challenges charismatic-focused civil rights historiography, unifies historical treatments of white racism and opens a window into an understudied chapter of Mennonite race relations.
Four African-American men spoke at a hastily organized civil rights meeting at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana on September 14, 1963 before Vincent Harding ever said a word. Each of them called for action. Ed Riddick, a member of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, cajoled the assembled Midwestern Mennonite leaders to ?apply the gospel to the whole man . . . [including] civil rights.? Gerald Hughes, a Lee Heights Community Church leader from Cleveland, spoke of the ?agonies of the racial problem? that required ?action programs.? Following Hughes, Goshen College Biblical Seminary student and future Woodlawn pastor Curtis Burrell proposed interracial exchanges in order to bring about ?greater faithfulness.? Burrell’s fellow seminarian Warren Moore enthusiastically urged those assembled to ?get the church on the move.? All the participants at the Prairie Street gathering spoke with passion, fervor and clear vision. They were all, in a word, charismatic. Yet, it was only after African-American Mennonite pastor and activist Vincent Harding spoke, that the direction of the conversation shifted. Largely on the basis of Harding’s appeal, those attending the Prairie Street meeting agreed to break with the long-standing apoliticism of the (Old) Mennonite church and ?to influence legislation even as we do . . . the [military] draft.? Although the four other African-American speakers had also proposed action plans with energy and passion, in the end’as was the case in scores of other Mennonite settings in the late 1950s and early 1960s’it was Harding’s voice that prevailed.
This essay will explore the reasons for Harding’s unique influence on Mennonite attitudes toward political witness to the state during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement. Though he was a gifted and charismatic speaker, Harding’s influence ultimately derived from his ability to straddle the border between traditional Mennonite quietism and civil rights activism. More than his abilities as a charismatic itinerant preacher, Harding’s gift of negotiating boundary lines made him an effective reformer whose impact on the Mennonite church is still being felt. Working tirelessly at the precarious intersection of religious separatism and racial engagement, Harding helped to shape the Mennonite church’s response to the Second Reconstruction.
The true measure of Harding’s unique role at the border between the Mennonite and Civil Rights Movement communities became most apparent in 1963. During that year, every aspect of white and African-American Mennonite relations, as well as of their engagement with the broader issues of the day, became the focus of intense conversations. Mennonites debated what it meant to be nonconformed to the world in a time of social crisis. They explored the meaning of legislative advocacy for a more just society as cities erupted in racial tensions and violence. Discussions surfaced in church publications and denominational meetings about the sins of racism, the realities of Mennonite prejudice and the interpretation of biblical passages that allegedly supported African-American servitude.Church leaders issued statements to their congregants and national political leaders. Although the years leading up to and following the momentous events of 1963 were a crucial part of the story, the primary focus of this essay will be on Harding’s words and actions during that year of ?racial revolution? as he straddled the border between the white Mennonite community and African-American civil rights leaders.
Harding’s sojourn among the Mennonites, and his challenge to the church on issues of race, turned on his status as someone who could move with integrity among two very different communities. On the one hand, Harding brought sterling Mennonite credentials. He knew Mennonite history, he had served as a Mennonite pastor, and he had led a Mennonite voluntary service unit. Moreover, Harding embodied Mennonite virtues of humility, frugality, servanthood and integrity. Harding did not just talk about the need for racial reconciliation’he and his wife Rosemarie demonstrated it through the integrated ministry they led at Mennonite House in Atlanta. Harding also claimed full-fledged membership because he spoke like a Mennonite. His presentations appealed to love, long-suffering and nonconformity.In ways more forthright than Guy Hershberger, the leading Mennonite theologian and social ethicist of the time, Harding articulated a rationale for, and practical theology of, sustained social engagement, which he argued was necessary to the church’s very survival.In his service, speech, humility and theology, Harding thus could legitimately claim a Mennonite identity, even as he actively challenged Jim Crow practices, spent time in jail and earned the respect of Civil Rights Movement leaders. In the precarious posture of a carpenter straddling a roof crest, Harding kept one leg in the world of separation and another in that of engagement. Although his charisma prodded people to action, his ability to straddle two worlds got their attention and kept it.
The narrative of Harding’s straddling sojourn with the Mennonites challenges those historians who frequently debate Martin Luther King’s role in terms of Weberian charisma. Following this debate, historians have attempted to answer whether King created the Civil Rights Movement or the Movement created King. This essay suggests that our understanding of both King and Harding would be better served by shifting the focus from a debate over charisma to an analysis of border negotiations. For all his personal charisma and his arresting oratory, King did not fit the preconceptions of white people conditioned to expect a posture of servitude from African Americans, nor did he fit the expectations of African-American and white activists who anticipated calls to violence. Instead, like Harding, he commanded attention because of his unique ability to move freely between the African-American and white communities. This essay’s focus on Harding’s role as a ?border-dweller? suggests a new model that civil rights historians might profitably bring to their study of the Movement as a whole.
This essay likewise challenges the argument that white Christian consensus on race relations splintered in the face of civil rights initiatives.In his treatment of Catholic reaction to racial change in the urban north, for example, John T. McGreevy argues that white racism took multiple, even contradictory, forms over time. David Swartz has made a similar argument about the varied responses to the Civil Rights Movement among Mississippi Mennonites. Both historians offer convincing evidence for the stories they tell.Yet both overlook the fact that white leaders responded with remarkably consistency. Regardless of their theological or political leanings, white Mennonites grew defensive in response to Harding’s critique, objected to his methods and then’in the majority of cases’went on to implement his suggestions. For example, conservative Mennonite ministers from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and socially liberal General Conference mission workers based in Gulfport, Mississippi asked Harding to critique their respective mission programs. Members of both groups felt that Harding’s comments were too ?cutting? and yet implemented the majority of his proposals. Likewise, the director of Mennonite Central Committee’s voluntary service program, an unidentified ?wise old brother,? and a bishop from the Virginia Conference all objected to Harding’s ?approach? even though they later acted on his suggestions. Discrete Mennonite groups may have each engaged in particular ways with the Movement, but their discussions with Harding looked very similar in Goshen, Lancaster and Gulfport.
Harding’s charisma, as noted by Mennonite historians of the civil rights period, fails to explain such consistent response.Most notably, historians Perry Bush and Paul Toews have chronicled Harding’s charisma but fail to ask why Mennonites were so focused on Harding in an era when several charismatic African-American men had risen to prominence. In addition to the four men named above, charismatic African-American Mennonites at the time included Billy Curry, a deacon from Broad Street Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia; James Harris, an evangelist from the Lancaster Conference; and Bishop James Lark, a tenacious church planter and entrepreneur. All these men spoke at church meetings, called for revival and, especially in the case of Lark, asked provocative questions. Yet even Lark never reached the level of prominence in the Mennonite church as Harding. Although Lark moved between the church and the world, his was an evangelical mission lodged within the church. Harding, however, maintained equal footing in both church and movement. Whereas Lark worked from a church base to bring converts off the streets and into pews, Harding stood abreast both church and the Civil Rights Movement in his effort to get church members off pews and into the streets. This essay suggests that Harding achieved greater attention not because he was more charismatic than Lark but because he was more evenly divided between two worlds.
Alongside Harding’s story is that of his wife Rosemarie, which I mention here but will not pursue in this essay. For the first years of their Mennonite sojourn, the couple’s names often appeared together. From early 1963 forward, however, Rosemarie’s presence in Mennonite church sources dissipated. Even though she had been a Mennonite longer than her husband and rarely critiqued the church in as direct a manner, she became more identified with civil rights groups and less with Mennonites. As she moved closer to civil rights circles and further away from official Mennonite positions, she became less at ease constantly negotiating the border between the two groups and, as a result, church attention waned. Rosemarie thus appears as an early but then absent partner in Vincent’s story. In actuality, her voice remained influential outside the Mennonite world through the period of this study.
CHRONICLE OF A MENNONITE CIVIL RIGHTS SOJOURN
When Harding entered the Mennonite world in the late 1950s, he joined a church burdened with overt racism. In 1952, Guy F. Hershberger, the white Mennonite professor who would come to call Harding ?the expert? despite their differing views on political advocacy, attested that white Mennonites ?objected to the presence? of African Americans in church missions, refused African-American Mennonites the right of burial in church plots and even crowded African-American pedestrians off the roadside. Even as church leaders declared their opposition to such overtly racist action in 1955, African-American Mennonites continued to experience racial insensitivity. Church planter Rowena Lark, for example, testified that white Mennonites frequently asked to touch her hair. White Mennonites also commonly objected to interracial marriage, used racially offensive epithets and told jokes of the same kind. And numerous Mennonite congregations refused to integrate their worship services, communion celebrations or retirement communities. Harding thus joined a church where white members continued to treat African Americans as objects of curiosity, derision and exclusion.
Despite evidence of such racism, Harding felt drawn to Mennonites by the witness of the early Anabaptist community. Born in 1931, Harding was raised by his mother in the West Indian community of New York City, where his mother worked a variety of domestic jobs. In his youth, he attended the Victory Tabernacle Church in Harlem, ?an offshoot of the Black Seventh-Day Adventist denomination,? where his pastor made early reference to peace activists like Mahatma Ghandi but not to Mennonites. Although Harding served two years in the Army at Fort Dix in New Jersey from 1953 through 1955, his time in the armed service left him ?deeply disturbed? by the dehumanizing power of the military. Having fostered a love of history while earning his bachelor’s degree at City College of New York, he went on to pursue his master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago, where he began to encounter the writings of sixteenth-century Anabaptists. As he later wrote, ?Their discipline, self-sacrificing love . . . [and] willingness to accept death rather than inflict suffering,? appealed to him.
In Chicago, Harding encountered contemporary Mennonites at Woodlawn Mennonite Church on the south side of Chicago. There he also met Rosemarie Freeney, a teacher in the Chicago public schools who had earned her degree from Goshen College, a Mennonite liberal arts school in northern Indiana. By 1958, the Woodlawn congregation had called Harding to serve as its associate pastor while he worked toward a doctoral degree in American history. During those years, Harding and lead pastor Delton Franz received attention from the General Conference Mennonites for their integrated pastorate. Indeed, the two men captured the imagination of the church to such an extent that a Mennonite historian later referred to Woodlawn as a ?congregational Camelot? (see Figure 1).Never before had the General Conference denomination included an African-American leader.
In the summer of 1958, Harding, fellow African-American Mennonite Ed Riddick and three of their white co-congregants’Franz, Glen Boese, and Elmer Neufeld’traveled through the South in an effort to gain new insight into the ?Negro’s demands? and the ?white man’s fear? (see Figure 2). As was the case for much of the activity emerging from Woodlawn at that time, their trip received wide attention in the denominational press.
The five men also sought to connect Mennonite nonresistance with the nonviolent strategies then gaining visibility in the emerging Civil Rights Movement. At the time, many church leaders felt that the doctrine of nonresistance entailed an absolute rejection of all coercive force’including nonviolent public protest. Guy F. Hershberger, the most vocal
Figure 1: Vincent Harding and Delton Franz, 1957
(Elmer Neufeld, ?That the World Might Recognize Christ,? The Mennonite, Nov. 12, 1957, 709).
Figure 2: (from left) Delton Franz, Elmer Neufeld, Ed Riddick, Glen Boese and Vincent Harding
(Delton Franz, ?Islands of Hope in a Sea of Despair,? The Mennonite, Feb. 24, 1959, 119).
and informed proponent of a consistent Anabaptist approach to nonresistance at the time, applied that vision of noncoercive nonresistance to the civil rights agenda by promoting a middle road. Although Hershberger encouraged Mennonites to ?take an open stand against segregation,? advocated ?a ministry of concern, of sympathy, and of love? to African Americans, and called for a ?witness? to segregationist or unconcerned white people, he also criticized civil rights groups for promoting nonviolence as a tactic rather than a biblical principle. By contrast, the Woodlawn contingent called for direct action. Harding in particular urged Mennonites to protest publicly ?the inaction of Congress and the President on the segregation controversy in the schools.? He and his colleagues were supported by J. Lawrence Burkholder, a Princeton Theological Seminary doctoral student and future Goshen College president, who also challenged the validity of Hershberger’s position. Nonviolent measures like street marches, they maintained, were not coercive, and a principled separation from such tactics was not an option for Christians concerned about racial oppression.
In the aftermath of the group’s sojourn through the South, Harding increasingly challenged Mennonites on the principle of integrity. In an essay titled ?To My Fellow Christians: A Open Letter to Mennonites,? Harding called his readers to bring such cherished Mennonite values as discipleship, nonresistance and consistency of belief to bear on the urgent reality of racial oppression. ?Can the voices which once sounded so loudly in opposition to warfare,? Harding asked, ?. . . now be silent when men are destroying other men (and themselves) with hatred’? He enjoined his cobelievers to demonstrate the same integrity of ?words and deeds? they had shown when Mennonite men faced mandatory military training. And he called white Mennonites to leave secluded communities and align themselves with African-American struggles as an expression of ?the way of the disciple.? For the first time before a national Mennonite audience, Harding employed core Anabaptist concepts to support civil rights goals. He continued to focus the church’s attention on civil rights issues in dozens of articles, hundreds of speeches and countless conversations with white Mennonites through the next four years.
Eight months later, Harding and Franz hosted a seminar on race relations at which Harding stated his position squarely at the boundary between the Mennonite church and the Civil Rights Movement. Held at Woodlawn from April 17-19, 1959,the conference drew leaders from the General Conference denomination as well as from the Lancaster Conference, the Mennonite Brethren, and the (Old) Mennonite Church. In a departure from other Mennonite race relations meetings, nearly 30% of the approximately fifty participants were African Americans. Harding addressed this diverse audience as a Mennonite, but he also spoke out of his commitment as an activist in the Movement.In a plenary address, he questioned how Mennonites could profess nonconformity to a sinful world while ?slavishly and silently? acquiescing to racial segregation. Even as he called Mennonites to move forward into the world, he also pointed back to the Mennonite church itself. Having noted that ?the cultural stereotype of Mennonitism? excluded non-Europeans, he called his audience to bring African Americans ?into the deep places? of Mennonite fellowship. In his most direct challenge to Hershberger’s separatist nonresistance, Harding closed his speech with a series of laments that Mennonites had ?too long? remained separate. With an urgency tinged with frustration, Harding called on Mennonites to address problems inside and outside the church.
TOWARD ATLANTA AND THE MOVEMENT
Harding’s position at the boundary of the Mennonite church and the Civil Rights Movement stabilized in the following years as he moved increasingly into leadership in both circles. In 1960, the Hardings celebrated their marriage at the Woodlawn congregation and, within a year, started a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta under the auspices of Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section, the peace advocacy arm of the Mennonite family of churches. Rosemarie resigned from her teaching post and Vincent took a leave from his dissertation project in order to direct ?Mennonite House,? as the unit was dubbed, and which Vincent later described as ?a combination residence for an interracial team of local movement participants and social service volunteers, a house of refuge for field workers from the various movement organizations, an ecumenical community, and a base of operations for our own ministry of reconciliation.? The Hardings located Mennonite House only a block away from Martin and Coretta Scott King’s home.Harding had met King during his trip to the South three years earlier, and they soon developed a close friendship. By moving to Atlanta, he solidified his relationship with key civil rights leaders and established a base from which to become more engaged with the activism he called the church to embrace.
Soon after their arrival in Atlanta, King invited the Hardings to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s protest work in Albany, Georgia, to ?help keep this a Christian movement.? From December 1961 well into 1962, the Hardings repeatedly traveled to Albany to hold discussions with white and African-American community leaders about ?the way of reconciling love.? During one of their Albany sojourns in 1962, Vincent spent three days in jail for praying in public, an action that blurred the boundaries between Christian piety and social activism. King and Albany sheriff Laurie Pritchett then urged Harding to accept release so that he could help calm anger roused in the local African-American community after police officers beat a prominent black lawyer. Harding accepted their counsel and, once Pritchett signed Harding’s bond, he visited ?bars, pool halls, [and] barbershops? to call ?for a Christian response to violence.? Throughout 1962, the Hardings regularly hosted civil rights activists at Mennonite House and attended meetings to help craft Movement strategy. Through these and other actions, they gained the trust of civil rights leaders.
Harding brought the high drama of his Albany experiences to the Mennonite church. While in jail he considered his speaking assignment at Mennonite World Conference, scheduled in less than two weeks. Harding mulled over the possibility of forgoing his speaking responsibilities because he was ?weary . . . of talking and talking and talking about the church and race.? He instead considered sending ?a short, gracious note of invitation, urging? Mennonites to join him in Albany in his jail cell. Although he left his cell to maintain peace in Albany, Harding mentioned his weariness at the Mennonite World Conference and concluded his talk with one of his harshest indictments to date. Drawing on the prophetic imagery of the book of Revelation, he said, ?we . . . are insipidly lukewarm on the challenge of racial brotherhood and human justice.?
He and Rosemarie, however, had not left the Mennonite world. Early in 1963, they described their work among Mennonites as ?meaningful, frustrating, and rewarding.? Among the most meaningful activities, they noted, was the opportunity to act as ?sympathetic confessors? to white church leaders. In addition to writing for all the publications in both the General Conference and (Old) Mennonite Church denominations, the Hardings listened to the ?untold inner agonies? of white church leaders, tried to ?understand them? and called them to costly response. Although their calls for public action clearly troubled those committed to separatist nonresistance, the Hardings? personal engagement also appealed to the Mennonite commitment to maintaining right relationships.
At the same time, Harding’s impatience with the church was becoming increasingly evident. On February 5, 1963, for example, he published an article in the Gospel Herald which called on his readers to let go of their ?Swiss-German Mennonite? identity.Unlike other featured authors, Harding also pressed the church to move beyond good intentions to interracial ?church fellowship, neighborhood life, school comradery [sic], and job relationships.? Yet even here, Harding was writing as an insider. He used plural pronouns twenty times in the article, repeatedly referring to ?our problem,? ?our captivity,? ?our life in one body,? ?our thinking.? Concurrent with such strong claims of church membership, church news reporter Daniel Hertzler lauded the Hardings for their courageous action in Atlanta. Other editors had also heaped praise on them in the previous year (see Figure 3). In the end, Harding’s voice from within the church proved so influential that Mennonite leaders had to address the issues he raised if they were going to speak to the racial tumult of 1963.
Figure 3: Vincent and Rosemarie Harding
(Victor Stoltzfus, ?A Talk with Vincent Harding,? Christian Living, Oct. 1962, 11)
.At least one white Mennonite leader found Harding’s growing influence objectionable. Following a visit by the Hardings to Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Mahlon Blosser, a local Mennonite church executive, objected to Harding’s observation that Virginia Conference had acquiesced to Jim Crow practices. Blosser bristled at Harding’s proposal that the conference host a race relations meeting to better equip Virginia Mennonites to oppose segregation. ?Can one person go into a mennonite [sic] community of about 2000 members,? Blosser queried, ?and have one meeting with less than 200 present, then have a meeting with the student body at E.M.C. and then write an accurate evaluation of the race situation in the community’? He answered his own question by declaring that such a race relations gathering would prove harmful.
Other white Mennonite leaders found Harding’s words challenging but remained open to his activist message. For example, as Bishop Blosser penned his letter, Vincent, Rosemarie, and their infant daughter, Rachel, were spending time with the staff of Camp Landon in Gulfport, Mississippi, where General Conference church executives had asked them to assess the camp’s twenty-year-old program. Camp Landon began as a site for Mennonite young men to serve out their alternative service commitments during World War II. The young men’s work in constructing sanitary privies had garnered local respect. By 1950, church administrators built on that respect to create a ministry to African Americans in the form of public school religious education, recreational leadership and youth bible education. By 1963, the voluntary service workers also administered rural visitation programs, staffed a weekly radio broadcast, ran a lending library and served on a variety of local ministerial groups.
From all reports, long-term white staff members Edna and Orlo Kaufman and Harold and Rosella Regier nervously awaited the Hardings? visit. Orlo Kaufman had heard Harding speak at the 1959 conference in Chicago and knew firsthand of his ability to challenge the status quo. In response to a query about the Hardings coming to work at Camp Landon in 1960, Kaufman wrote that he would accept the idea only if they agreed to do ?personal work’?by which he meant service rather than civil rights activism. Explaining his objections, Kaufman stated, ?I’m not sure that Vincent fully understands [the southern reality], and being a Northerner could get into . . . serious difficulty.? In light of these prior exchanges, Edna Kaufman requested prayer that the Hardings? visit would be ?beneficial for all of us.?
Despite the collective nervousness and a full schedule’Orlo Kaufman scheduled Vincent to speak seven times and to visit numerous local leaders’the Hardings spent the majority of their four-day visit with Camp Landon members. In three extended sessions, they
Figure 4: An unnamed Voluntary Service worker at Camp Landon with young participants in a camp educational program
(?Mississippi’Gulfport, 1962,? photo collection, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kan.,)
discussed every aspect of the camp program.According to Kaufman, the exchanges made a profound impression.He later wrote that Vincent ?never leaves one the same.? No wonder then that Kaufman wrote to the national offices on April 30 expressing concern that the Hardings? report had not yet arrived. In the interim, Kaufman wrote an article in which he described Harding’s challenge to relate to white segregated churches, support civil rights activity and reconsider where staff lived and worshipped.
When Harding’s report did arrive, it gave Camp Landon administrators and staff much to consider. The recommendations touched on all of the issues Kaufman had named in his article, but with greater intensity. The Camp Landon group, Harding wrote, needs ?to resolve its schizophrenia of week day work with Negroes and Sunday worship where Negroes cannot go.? Although he recognized that Camp Landon staffers had mentored African-American children and young adults, Harding lamented the absence of a Mennonite church that would welcome them.The two Mennonite congregations in the area, Gulfport and Crossroads, practiced segregation and, in the latter case, did so vociferously. As in previous speeches and articles, Harding called the Camp Landon staff to pay attention to racial dynamics within their organization. Not surprisingly, he also called for greater involvement with civil rights groups outside the church. Admitting that the ?swirling, often confused patterns? of civil rights changes made it difficult to know exactly how to become involved, Harding urged staff to ?take our heritage seriously? and act on the belief that God would make it clear how to join in the racial ?revolution.? Such an invitation contrasted with the gradualist, relationship-centered approach advocated by Kaufman.
Yet the Hardings? visit clearly had an impact.On June 27, for example, Kaufman urged the Gulfport mayor to appoint a biracial committee as a proactive measure to avoid violence. In December of 1963, Kaufman and Harold Regier attended an NAACP banquet where a group of white protestors threw rocks and debris at the banquet hall. These and other new initiatives continued, so that by March of 1964 the interracial activities of the Camp Landon staff brought them under investigation by county and state officials. Such public engagement represented a significant shift for Kaufman and his staff as they considered joining Harding at the border between the Mennonite church and the Movement.
The Hardings paired this Mennonite encounter with another venture into civil rights activism. On the heels of their visit to Camp Landon, they traveled to the Mississippi delta to visit white and African-American community leaders. Working from the home of African-American activist Amzie Moore in Cleveland, the Hardings met with a plantation owner, a white businessman, an Episcopalian minister, an African-American businessman and several Franciscan monks. Even more notable than the breadth of their contacts was the manner of their initial invitation.The Hardings refrained from identifying themselves as African Americans when first requesting meetings over the phone.They explained, ?[W]e decided to move about and converse with individuals just as if Mississippi were well. . . .?
Occasionally during these grassroots ventures the two worlds that they were straddling overlapped. While on a similar trip to the Mississippi delta that same year, the Hardings arranged to meet Titus Bender, a white Mennonite pastor seeking to support civil rights activity in the town of Meridian. Given the racial tension in the region, Bender informed the Hardings not to ask locals where he lived since such a query could draw dangerous attention.Instead, they planned to rendezvous at a local gas station where, when he saw them, Bender would start driving and the Hardings would follow.When the Hardings approached the gas station, however, Bender got out of his car in front of the older white men gathered at the station and gave Vincent the holy kiss, a traditional Mennonite greeting.Harding later recalled Bender’s salutation as a bold ?kind of risk-taking? at the juncture of Mennonite identity and civil rights activism that encouraged him to continue the difficult work of mediating between the two worlds.
Such contact with grassroots civil rights activists influenced how Harding spoke when he returned to the Mennonite community. In April, following his travels during the previous month with Rosemarie and their infant daughter Rachel, he went to Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he was billed as an evangelist (see Figure 5). He did not, however, act like one. Speaking at this small church, the first racially integrated congregation in the Virginia Conference, Harding preached each evening for seven days on the topic ?The Challenge of the Cross.? Rather than direct his comments toward personal evangelism and end his sessions with an altar call, however,
Figure 5: Promotional materials for Harding’s Spiritual Life Conference presentations at Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia
(?Broad Street, 1936-1979,? uncat. box, ?Richard & Virginian Weaver, 1963,? Virginia Mennonite Archives, Harrisonburg, Va.,).
Harding concluded each evening’s service with open discussion, an unusual practice for an event billed as a ?spiritual life conference.? Once again, Harding was creating a new form of witness by standing at the intersection of two worlds.
Harrisonburg Mennonites continued to discuss Harding’s challenges after he left the area, especially the idea of hosting a meeting on race relations.Thus, on March 31, 1964, a year after the Broad Street meetings, ministers and lay members from the Virginia Conference gathered at Chicago Avenue Church in Harrisonburg to discuss ?The Christian and Race.? Significantly, however, the meeting was dominated by whites, despite the fact that a number of gifted African-American speakers were active within the Virginia Conference, including Billy Curry, an ordained deacon at Broad Street, and Leslie Francisco, pastor of the Virginia Conference congregation in Newport News. Both men had significant speaking experience within and beyond their congregation and regularly
spoke to large audiences. Yet rather than invite either of these local charismatic African-American leaders, the Conference brought in Paul G. Landis, a white bishop from the Lancaster Conference.Ironically, Landis was the only public speaker to mention Harding. The Virginia Conference leaders? refusal to invite or even refer to Harding’despite the fact that the meeting was a direct outcome of his earlier visit’suggests a fear that Harding would further disrupt their internally focused and nonconfrontational approach to racial integration. It also suggests that even those who opposed Harding’s call for more involvement in social activism could not ignore his challenges.
Rather than wait for the Virginia Conference to discuss race relations, the Hardings continued to deepen their civil rights work. With responsibilities complete in Harrisonburg, the Hardings returned to Atlanta on April 7 to attend a baptismal service led by King at Ebenezer Baptist, King’s home congregation.At the end of the service, King contacted Rosemarie and requested that she and Vincent travel to Birmingham to act as intermediaries between civil rights demonstrators and white community leaders. After spending several days considering the request, the Harding family drove to Birmingham on April 10, where they played a critical mediating role with white ?clergymen, lawyers, businessmen, political leaders.?
In accepting this assignment, Vincent and Rosemarie drew on skills honed through their work at the border with the Mennonite Church. In these engagements, however, they did not display the weariness that had begun to creep into their work with white Mennonites. Here the drama and deep sense of engagement with matters of historical import proved invigorating. Due to the sensitive nature of the contacts, for example, they often attended secret meetings and private negotiations. And they willingly refrained from participating in the actual demonstrations in the Montgomery campaign in order to better facilitate the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the white leaders and civil rights demonstrators, which lasted well past Easter. 
These intense civil rights negotiations, in turn, led to new speaking engagements in the Mennonite church and beyond. After returning to Atlanta on April 20, Harding left for a speaking engagement in Connecticut followed by additional meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and Akron, Pennsylvania, headquarters of the Mennonite Central Committee.He returned to Atlanta on April 25 and, by order of his doctor, went on bed rest from April 28 through May 5.The second day back on his feet, Harding traveled to Birmingham with Mennonite minister Paul Peachey, staff member for Church Peace Mission, an organization of Protestant peace groups. Peachey had come to Atlanta to meet with Harding, King and other Movement leaders but, upon his arrival, received the message that he should go to Birmingham and meet with committee members there. Harding traveled with Peachey to participate in the ad hoc peace meeting but was quickly drawn into negotiations between demonstrators and city officials. At one point he went directly into the streets to ?help stop the battle between the fire hoses and the Negro crowd’?an act of nonviolence that drew peace-minded Mennonites? attention even more to Harding’s ministry.
In events at Birmingham, Harding played a role that affected the nation. As reporters broadcast images of fire hoses, police dogs, and batons battering civil rights marchers, the rhetoric of democracy was no long credible. President Kennedy expressed public outrage at the brutality and growing concern over increasing levels of violence. In a nationally televised broadcast on June 11, Kennedy appealed to the nation’s moral sensibility and asked American citizens to accept changes to the racial order. The skills and experience Harding had gained working at the border between white Mennonites and civil rights leaders allowed him to play a significant role in this broader shift in national perception.
MENNONITE ATTENTION INTENSIFIED
As the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham continued, Mennonites across the church began to pay new attention to the racial oppression within their own community.Incidents of overt racial discrimination became public more frequently and were accompanied by a new sense of outrage. For example, Mae Schrag, a white staff member at Camp Landon, reported conversations she had with five African-American girls who had attended Mennonite colleges.In May, she informed Camp Landon supporters that white Mennonites had used offensive racial epithets in front of the girls, denied the young women associate membership status in local congregations and housed the girls in separate rooms by race. News of these incidents spread far beyond Gulfport and eventually entered the national Mennonite press. Mennonite claims of racial egalitarianism weakened in the face of such reports and brought renewed attention to Harding’s increasingly high-profile ministry.
At the same time, the growing visibility of national civil rights activism increasingly inclined Mennonite church officials to promote the Hardings? work. Mennonite leaders noted the rising intensity of racial struggle that was marked on June 23 by the murder of civil rights activist and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. Five days later, Ed Metzler, executive secretary of M.C.C.?s Peace Section and the Hardings? supervisor, contacted every Mennonite peace committee in the country to inform them of the Hardings? work in Atlanta and to encourage civil rights lobbying. Although he stopped short of calling for mass street action, Metzler nonetheless moved away from Guy Hershberger’s separatist nonresistance, thanks largely to the influence of the Hardings. Metzler knew his audience. Before suggesting a new departure, he had to demonstrate the Hardings? integrity in word and deed. Thus, in his appeals,Metzler first described how the couple served ?as a reconciling bridge between the white and Negro communities.? Only after establishing their credibility in traditional Mennonite language did he advocate for ?witness to government on civil rights legislation.?
As the year progressed, Harding spent less energy on Mennonite contacts while simultaneously moving ever closer to an embattled civil rights community. The summer of 1963 saw 1,122 civil rights demonstrations throughout the country and some 20,000 arrests in the South. White southerners responded by incarcerating and beating demonstrators. Police officials and other segregationists attacked women in the Movement with particular intensity. For example, Mississippi state police arrested Fannie Lou Hamer’the voting rights activist who would later captivate the attention of the nation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention’and a group of her coworkers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when they were on their way home from a June voter registration workshop. While holding her in jail, the police officers forced African-American inmates to beat Hamer with a blackjack. After her release, Hamer traveled to Atlanta, where she stayed at Mennonite House so that she could recover from the brutal beatings while staff members from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference interviewed her. During her stay, she spoke and laughed long with the Hardings. Through such encounters, Vincent’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement grew stronger.
Harding’s increasing civil rights involvement drew even more attention from Mennonite church leaders as the summer months progressed.As part of a tour of the South, Guy F. Hershberger met with Harding in late July. The two men spent less time on their theological differences and more on the ?urgency of the [civil rights] situation.? Harding felt that the ?integrity of the church? would be irreparably damaged if Mennonites did not act soon. Once again, he advocated for interracial bible schools and summer camps, vocal stands against public school segregation and direct nonviolent action in support of civil rights. Although Hershberger’s own subsequent recommendations focused on matters of education, missions and personal reconciliation rather than the public advocacy proposed by Harding, he nonetheless quoted Harding at length. Goshen College professor and theologian C. Norman Kraus also spent three weeks in Atlanta from mid-July through early August. Harding put Kraus in touch with a broad range of civil rights activists, including Southern Christian Leadership Conference executive Ralph Abernathy, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee communications director Julian Bond, Koinonia Farms founder and author Clarence Jordan, and leaders of the White Citizens Council. Thanks to Harding’s contacts, Kraus enjoyed a level of access unusual for a white northerner.
Ironically, the more Harding turned his face toward civil rights activism, the more leaders from both the General Conference and the (Old) Mennonite Church denominations regarded Harding as the church’s spokesperson on race relations. By August of 1963, denominational officials regularly called on Harding to attend their meetings and to challenge Mennonite listeners. Early that same month, David Augsburger, the host of a nationally broadcast radio program known as the Mennonite Hour, interviewed Harding. And several weeks later, (Old) Mennonite Church delegates passed a resolution on ?reconciliation? at a national assembly where leaders challenged their constituents to follow the Hardings? example. In correspondence with Guy Hershberger following the assembly, home missions secretary Nelson Kauffman proposed a meeting with African Americans, ?in addition to Vince Harding,? to instruct white church leaders how to relate to civil rights groups. Kauffman underlined Harding’s prominence by referring to him repeatedly. Hershberger followed suit. When he sent out a report of his southern trip to more than thirty groups and individuals, Harding was the only African American to receive it.
Harding’s profile rose even higher in the Mennonite press. On August 6, 1963, editors of The Mennonite and The Gospel Herald’the weekly national publications of the General Conference and the (Old) Mennonite Church denominations, respectively’both referred to Harding.On the General Conference side, Maynard Shelly quoted Harding’s 1962 Mennonite World Conference speech that challenged his audience to engage in civil disobedience. Gospel Herald editor John M. Drescher noted that Harding had influenced his thoughts on segregation. Drescher also printed an article by Harding challenging the church to be true to its calling of nonconformity to ?prejudice and discrimination.? In the following five months, the editors included appeals to legislative action no less than five times, a significant departure from the relationally based efforts promoted by Hershberger and other supporters of a less politically engaged Anabaptism. Once again, Harding’s agenda guided the church’s response.
Harding ended the summer at the center of national civil rights activity. On August 28, he joined a quarter of a million civil rights demonstrators at the ?March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,? the event where King gave his ?I Have a Dream? speech. In subsequent weeks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups built on the success of the nonviolent national protest by conducting voter registration drives in Mississippi and throughout the South. The nonviolent discipline of the activists offered an implicit critique of Mennonites? quiet withdrawal.
In the face of such critique, Mennonite officials who had previously given scant notice to civil rights activity began to pay attention.On September 14, two weeks after the ?March on Washington,? Harding attended the hastily organized meeting on civil rights at the Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, described at the opening of this essay. The meeting, originally proposed by Kauffman and supported by Hershberger, purported to ?inquire of our colored brethren what in their mind should be the role of the Mennonite churches in the current racial revolution.? Twenty-five leaders gathered on that Saturday. All but two were men. At least seven of the twenty-five people gathered were African Americans. And five of the ?colored brethren,? not including Harding, opened the meeting with statements of concern.Their comments encouraged dialogue, love, educational initiatives, interracial church fellowship, church-based evangelism, and interracial visitor and pulpit exchanges.Although the men spoke with passion and fluency akin to Harding’s own, none of them advocated involvement in civil rights demonstrations.
Harding, by contrast, insisted on a more activist approach. Once the other speakers had concluded, Harding called for immediate, concrete political action.Rather than focusing on pulpit exchanges or generic admonitions to love, Harding turned his attention to employment, housing and equality, topics central to the March on Washington. ?It may be that God is ready to use revolution as a prelude to resurrection,? he proclaimed; ?. . . most of our people will never be ready for the requirements of the hour, and we cannot longer wait for them.? The frustration already evident in Harding’s comments at the Woodlawn conference in 1959 had increased. Harding seemed to be on the verge of leaving Mennonites if they could not join him in public demonstration at a time when he and his civil rights colleagues considered even more revolutionary measures.
Ironically, even as Harding’s frustration with Mennonite disengagement was reaching a breaking point, white Mennonites had begun to take tentative action. In northern Indiana Mennonites mobilized to write letters, lobby representatives and distribute the church’s race relations statement to every member of Congress. Congressman John Brademas later said that Elkhart Mennonites gave more support to the 1964 Civil Rights Act than any other religious group. Although they did not take to the streets, their legislative initiatives signaled a more profound shift toward engagement than Harding realized. As Harding himself had often noted, white Mennonites had previously lobbied only for conscientious objector status in the military. By September of 1963, however, some church members had followed Harding across the boundary of Mennonite quietism toward civil rights activism.
The group gathered at the September 14 meeting at Prairie Street also moved closer to active engagement than perhaps even Harding had anticipated. Despite the participation of Guy Hershberger and other leaders who had opposed organized street protest, those present called for action that went beyond the standard emphasis on church constituent education and recorded their support of limited but definitive involvement in civil rights marches. An anonymous quotation from the day’s proceedings stated, ?[T]he disciple must be on the side of the oppressed, and this may have many ramifications, possibly even marching, sitting-in, and jail.? This succinct encapsulation of a position long advocated by Harding suggested an openness to new tactics. Later on that year, Hershberger drafted a widely distributed pamphlet on race relations in which he encouraged Mennonites to consider becoming involved with civil rights organizations, a significant shift in his position. Although he stopped short of advocating for direct street action, Hershberger joined other white Mennonite leaders who moved closer to activism as a result of conversations with Harding.
In the wake of the Prairie Street shift toward public and confrontational forms of protest, Harding pressed his activist message throughout the church with even more zeal. A week after the event, Harding attended a regional gathering of the Indiana-Michigan Conference where, once again, he was virtually the only African American in a setting dominated by whites. Guy F. Hershberger noted that ?we had Vincent Harding there for these people to see and talk to.? Yet despite the awkward mix of deference and paternalism surrounding the event, Harding continued to challenge Mennonites with direct, uncompromising and increasingly stark language.
Eventually, Harding’s high profile itineration elicited special scrutiny from church officials on the Mennonite Central Committee board responsible for Harding’s work. From January through the end of September 1963, Harding had written or been cited in seventeen separate items in the national Mennonite church press in a spate of articles that looked surprisingly similar across both General Conference and (Old) Mennonite publications. Amid this attention, M.C.C. Peace Section board members asked for more detail about Harding’s day-to-day activity. Given that other M.C.C. administrators, like voluntary service director Edgar Stoesz, had already passed on constituent concerns about Harding’s civil rights involvement, it is likely that board members also had begun to hear criticisms about Harding’s activism. Although Harding’s supervisor Ed Metzler did not explain why board members made their request, Metzler’s requirement that Harding keep a journal for the last three months of 1963 demonstrates an uncommon level of scrutiny of Harding’s activity. From October through December, Harding met with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Southern Christian Leadership Conference associates such as Andrew Young and Fred Shuttlesworth, hosted Ella Baker from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, spent a day talking with author James Baldwin and visited with white civil rights activist and Baptist pastor Will Campbell.During the same period, Harding met with representatives from at least twelve additional groups, including the Georgia and Alabama councils on human relations, the National Council of Churches, the Anti-Defamation League and a local White Citizen’s Council. This period of intense activity also included a keynote address at a national conference on race and religion. If the board members were concerned that Harding had stepped over too far into civil rights territory, the report he offered on this high profile straddling of church and secular contacts did little to assuage their concerns.
Despite an increasingly demanding schedule, Harding continued to speak with a broad range of Mennonites. On October 12, only a month after he had declared his deep impatience with Mennonite passivity on the question of racial justice, Harding agreed to meet with the leaders of a Mennonite voluntary service unit in Atlanta based in Berea Mennonite Church, a congregation whose pastor had explicitly stated that they were ?not engaged in a crusade for individual rights for the Negro.? Unit leaders John and Beth Miller asked to discuss their relationship with Mennonite House, the M.C.C. service unit led by the Hardings, where unit members, by contrast, regularly participated in civil rights organizing and tested extant segregation laws. The Millers? request to meet with Harding and his subsequent consultations with them show the extent of Harding’s influence within the church’both those who found his activist message suspect and those who embraced it sought his counsel.
Harding’s energetic and persistent appeal to the church gradually began to show results. As the year progressed, Mennonite church leaders increasingly acknowledged the political, as well as the personal, dimension of the racial problems inside the church and throughout American society. Within the General Conference denomination, for example, a November 1, 1963 staff report by administrator Vern Preheim summarized meetings held ?to discuss Mennonite involvement in the social and racial revolution.? Toward the end of the year, members of M.C.C.?s Peace Section approved Hershberger’s civil rights pamphlet, ?From Words to Deeds in Race Relations,? which listed twenty-eight concrete actions church members could take in ?response to the challenge of the racial revolution.? Harding, of course, had long used such politically charged terms and continued to do so even with the most conservative of Mennonite church leaders. Now, in the South and across the church, a few Mennonite leaders were taking up political language strikingly similar to Harding’s own.
A BREAKING POINT
Harding’s tireless efforts to shape the church’s racial agenda, however, came at a cost. During 1963, he spent much of his time away from Rosemarie and their daughter. In the month of December alone, Harding attended fifteen conferences and gave four plenary addresses, enjoying only four days free of meetings or speeches. The strain of his schedule and ongoing frustration that the Mennonite church as a whole was not interested in his plea for a more visible and confrontational witness began to show itself in Harding’s growing impatience. On December 4, leaders from the General Conference Board of Christian Service gathered in Newton, Kansas for conversation with Harding and Hershberger. Harding sat yet again through a meeting in which he was the only African American. With growing impatience he listened to another round of talk about racial intermarriage, education and the tension between nonresistance and demonstration.By the end of the afternoon, Harding had had enough.After Guy Hershberger described plans for yet another series of educational meetings on race, he let loose. In his longest speech of the day, Harding pled with his fellow Mennonites to speak to him directly, to even get ?angry as hell? with him.He admitted to being angry that Mennonites played ?games with this issue so often.? That anger then turned into biting critique as he lamented that God had to bring about change through the Supreme Court, the Communist Manifesto and the NAACP rather than the church.In the depth of his lament, he asked his cobelievers to become the ?front light? to the world rather than the ?rear light.? Even amid his passion, however, Harding chose his closing words carefully. As in his February essay in the Gospel Herald, he consistently used plural pronouns when he spoke of Mennonites. ?We,? ?our,? ?us? and ?ourselves? appear more than one hundred times in his recorded comments. Clearly, Harding still considered himself a Mennonite. The relationship was, however, weakening. Although he clarified that he was ?not quite? ready to leave the Mennonite community, he nonetheless was ?tempted pretty much when I hear us talking about so many things that seem so important to us and yet in terms of the living and the dying of the people in the world it seems so unimportant to me.? With that sobering comment still ringing in the room, Harding then challenged the church to embrace all people rather than give ?preference to whites.? The Mennonite community, in Harding’s mind, had a particular responsibility to step into the racial revolution with the same kind of selfless courage shown by Mennonite martyrs in the sixteenth century. The Mennonite theological commitment to nonconformity, love and selfless sacrifice, he argued, lost all its integrity if church members held back from a forceful engagement with the civil rights struggle. From his perspective, he was simply calling on his white cobelievers to live out their professed commitment to integrity of word and deed.Harding concluded with a challenge to the white male church leaders in the room: ?this revolution will never be complete until the church does what it was called upon to do in the first place.?
The response to Harding’s impassioned plea was disheartening. Chair Robert Kreider sidestepped Harding’s criticisms and returned the discussion to educational initiatives by asking, ?what about the joint secretariat idea’? The meeting concluded with a tentative commitment to appoint church staff to educate Mennonites on racial issues. Among this group of General Conference leaders’some of whom had personally lobbied politicians to obtain conscientious objector status for young white men’Harding’s call for political advocacy on behalf of the needs of African-Americans received no immediate response.
Other Mennonites less entrenched in the structures of church institutions did move toward active political engagement by year’s end. In fact, Harding’s last formal interaction with Mennonites in 1963 was an all-day planning meeting on December 17 at Mennonite House to prepare for a ?Conference on Race and the Mennonite Churches of the South? that would be held in Atlanta in the coming year. The initiative for the 1964 conference emerged from conversations the Hardings had with Orlo Kaufman during their visit to Camp Landon in March. Although Harding was again the only African-American Mennonite to speak at the February 25-26 conference, local African-American leaders, including C. T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Charles Demere, an African Methodist Episcopal minister in Atlanta, also addressed the assembly. The Atlanta meeting opened up space, perhaps for the first time among southern Mennonites, for members within the church to support a more activist response to the racial revolution.
The race-focused gathering in Atlanta marked the end of Harding’s long effort to straddle the border between Mennonite nonresistant separatism and nonviolent political activism. Following a trip to visit European Mennonites during the summer of 1964, the Hardings returned to Atlanta in August and requested a six-month leave of absence. At the end of the leave in early 1965, Harding gave frank witness to what he called ?sexual undiscipline and lack of honesty,? claimed cleansing and renewal, resigned his post with Mennonite Central Committee and accepted a teaching assignment at Spellman College. Having cut institutional ties with the Mennonite church, Harding moved to distance himself further from the Mennonite community. He signaled his departure in 1966 by quoting colleagues who asked him, ?Are you going to stay with those nice white Mennonites, Anabaptists, Christians? Are any of them going to join the fight, Vince? Where do they stand, Vince? Where do they stand’? With the exception of a controversial address Harding gave at the Mennonite World Conference in 1967 and a few equally provocative articles he published in the Mennonite press that same year, Harding had left the Mennonite world.
BEHIND THE BOUNDARY CROSSING
Harding’s abrupt departure reveals the principal dynamics present in his position as a leader who worked at the boundary. He resigned from his work at Mennonite House for a combination of reasons. Most apparently, he was frustrated with the church’s hesitant, half-hearted and unenthusiastic response to his plea to join him in the Movement. But behind the obvious frustrations with the church’s response were other, more personal, reasons. The physical demands of peripatetic schedule left him exhausted. He and Rosemarie requested their six-month leave of absence ?for purposes of personal spiritual rehabilitation and family reasons.? During the time away from civil rights activism and intensive church work, Harding also confronted his own unfaithfulness to ?God, the church and my wife, in thoughts, words and deeds? and determined that he needed ?to make as clear a break as possible with the duplicity of the past.? Rather than follow a process of ?confession and forgiveness? within the church, he chose to move away from the church to implement a new beginning. The language Harding used to explain his abrupt departure drew on a principle he learned from Mennonites. In his resignation statement, he confessed to inconsistency of ?words and deeds’ and expressed a desire for personal integrity. Although he did not include details of his ?sinful past,? he felt that he had ?betrayed? his religious community by not showing integrity in his personal and professional life. In the end, regardless of his frustration with the apparent lack of integrity among white Mennonites in their response to the racial revolution, Harding could no longer tolerate personal inconsistencies in his own life. The desire for integrity that had attracted him to Mennonites had truly become his own.
Harding had proved attractive to Mennonites precisely because of that commitment to integrity. He called for sacrificial service while leading a voluntary service unit. He spoke about the values of nonviolence after personally helping to calm angry mobs in the streets. He demanded that Mennonites love their enemies at the same time that he counted a southern, white, pro-segregationist sheriff as a ?a personal friend.? Given the high profile of these activities, it is no surprise that Mennonites paid attention to Harding.
Yet that same concern for integrity, when joined to the lessons he had learned from the civil rights community, kept Harding at the church’s border. The civil rights community had taught him to embrace activism, exercise leadership and claim his racial identity. Those lessons made Harding hard to describe. He was a Mennonite minister, but he marched and spent time in jail. Neither birthright Mennonite nor child convert, he nonetheless spoke like other Mennonite leaders. Unlike other African Americans active within the Mennonite community in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harding had not come into the church as a recipient of Mennonite missions or service outreach. Instead, he called Mennonites to include activism in their service to remain true to the Anabaptist values of discipleship and peacemaking. Thus, Mennonites at the church’s center could claim Harding as their own, even as his activist leadership and racial identity moved him to the periphery.
Most crucially, Harding challenged the categories Mennonites relied upon to articulate their relationship with the world. Traditionally, white Mennonites marked their separation from the world through distinctive dress and a life focused on the doctrines of nonconformity and nonresistance. White Mennonite leaders during this period continued to demand that converts declare exclusive allegiance to the church. Harding, however, maintained that he belonged both to the church and to secular groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Every day that he stepped back and forth between these two worlds, Harding created a new category defined by dual citizenship rather than separation. In so doing, he undermined the traditional rhetoric of separatism by questioning the idea of absolute allegiance to one realm or the other and by refusing to paint the outside world with one brush.
Through his actions and writing, Harding also attempted to transform the way Mennonites applied their core theological values. In crisis moments such as those precipitated by the racial rebellions of 1963, Harding felt that the church put concern for doctrine’narrowly defined in terms of dress, lifestyle choices and separation from all coercive activities’before human suffering. Without jettisoning traditional Mennonite values, Harding called his cobelievers to transform the principles of nonconformity and nonresistance into active service to the world, especially in the cause of racial injustice. From Harding’s perspective, nonconformity could lead to holy engagement, and nonresistance to political action.
In the end, white Mennonites found Harding so attractive and so troublesome precisely because he insisted that church doctrine would inevitably lead to political engagement. More than his charisma, it was this position as both Mennonite and African-American, both insider and outsider, and both church leader and civil rights activist that gained him an audience. Harding challenged the false divisions between church members and outsiders, between withdrawal and engagement, and between whites and blacks precisely because he himself straddled two communities. In some cases his actions and words successfully transcended these divisions in ways that led to new forms of action. Intense contact with Harding led Mennonite leaders like church theologian Guy Hershberger and Lancaster Conference bishop Paul Landis to change their perspectives and to promote new strategies of social engagement. In other instances, Harding’s actions unnerved his fellow Mennonites. White leaders like Mahlon Blosser of the Virginia Conference and Orlo Kaufman of Camp Landon initially found Harding’s activism threatening. As southerners, Blosser and Kaufman feared shifts in the social order to a greater degree than did Hershberger and Landis in the North. Nonetheless, encounters with Harding unquestionably shaped Blosser’s and Kaufman’s responses. Although they disagreed with his new application of church doctrine, they could not ignore him. And, ironically enough, they often enacted the initiatives Harding proposed.
Harding never entirely gave up his position at the border. He continued to contribute to the struggle for racial justice and, periodically, to the Mennonite church. In addition to holding a variety of teaching assignments, Harding went on to write an influential history of antebellum African-American resistance, to serve as senior advisor to the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary series, and, along with Rosemarie, to continue to move freely between the academic and activist communities by leading workshops and giving speeches. White and African-American Mennonites continued to seek out Harding for advice and counsel well into the 1970s and beyond. In 1996, the Hardings and their daughter returned to Atlanta to celebrate thirty-five years of Mennonite Central Committee’s work in the city and to mark the formal closing of the service unit, a termination stirred in part by the same tensions between activism and withdrawal, the opposing values that Harding had brought together. At the gathering, Harding offered words both pastoral and prophetic to the gathered administrators and former volunteers. His sojourn with the Mennonites had come full circle.
[*]Tobin Miller Shearer recently completed his Ph.D. in history and religion at Northwestern University and is an incomingassistant professor in African-American history at the University of Montana.
1. ?Record of the Meeting of Church Leaders for a Discussion on Racial and Civil Rights Problems to Discover Which Course Should Be Followed by the Mennonite Church in This Time of Social Revolution,? Sept. 14, 1963, 2, MCC Peace Section, Conjoint and Related Minutes, Box I, File 1, ?Reports, 1952-68,? Archives of the Mennonite Church’Goshen [hereafter cited as AMC-G].
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. Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Harding, ?Visit to Camp Landon, March 1 to March 6, 1963,? Apr. 18, 1963, 4, VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 1, Folder 7, Correspondence’General Conf., 1963, Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas [hereafter cited as MLA].
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. See, for example, Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987). Fairclough resolves the debate by suggesting that organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference influenced King as much as King influenced those organizations and the entire Civil Rights Movement.
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. Bipolar charisma-centered debate occludes the contributions of women, local communities and faith-based change efforts. Rather than focus on these aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, however, this essay centers on borderers because a group of scholars has already done an excellent job of expanding civil rights scholarship into previously occluded fields.For a treatment of gender, see Peter J. Ling and Sharon Monteith, ?Gender and the Civil Rights Movement,? in Gender in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Peter J. Ling and Sharon Monteith, (New York: Garland, 1999); and Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001). For an exploration of Christian belief within the Civil Rights Movement, see Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005); and Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997). For a particularly engaging treatment of grassroots organizing, see Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
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. David R. Swartz, ??Mista Mid-Nights’: Mennonites and Race in Mississippi,? MQR 78 (Oct. 2004), 469-502. I am particularly grateful for Swartz’s treatment of the varied and contested responses of Mennonites to the Civil Rights Movement. He successfully argues for a reconsideration of Leo Driedger’s and Donald Kraybill’s thesis that Mennonites in North America became increasingly engaged in activist pursuits and left behind a more quietist withdrawal in the course of the twentieth century.While I agree with Swartz that Driedger, Kraybill and to a degree Perry Bush focus on church leadership at the expense of highly contested and often turbulent congregational-level engagement with race relations questions, the story I tell in this essay demonstrates that an individual like Vincent Harding had far-reaching influence among various Mennonite communities and at multiple levels of church life. In short, Harding was influential in circles far wider than the church intelligentsia and bureaucracy. His prolific writing, multiple meetings and connection with even the most conservative Mennonite communities in Mississippi and elsewhere suggest that all groups, from the grassroots to the executive level, had to negotiate or respond to the critique raised by Harding.
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. Edna Kaufman, ?When You Pray,? The Gulfbreeze, Jan.-Feb. 1963, 1; Paul G. Landis, interview with author, Apr. 28, 2005; Edgar Metzler and Vincent Harding, ?Race Relations Project,? (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1963), IX-7-12, #2 Box 6, entitled ?Race Relations 1955-70,? AMC-G.
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. Correspondence of Mahlon L. Blosser to Nelson E. Kauffman, March 4 1963, Harrisonburg, Va., CESR papers I-3-7, Box 7, Folder 7, AMC-G; Edgar Stoesz, ?Vince Harding Visit to Akron,? August 14 (Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service, 1962), MCC Correspondence, IX-6-3, “Inter-Office Peace Section,” PS 1962, AMC-G.
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. Note in particular Toews? description of Harding’s 1967 Mennonite World Conference speech as ?riveting.? See Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1996), 259-261. For evidence of other African-American males with charismatic presence, see Hubert L. Brown, ?The Larks: Mission Workers,? in 1991 Mennonite Yearbook and Directory (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991), 8-9; Vincent Harding et al., ?Church and Race in 6 Cities,? The Mennonite, Feb. 12, 1963, 98-101; ?Record of the Meeting of Church Leaders for a Discussion on Racial and Civil Rights Problems ?,? Sept. 14, 1963. Mennonite historian Perry Bush also notes the preeminent role that Harding played and writes of him, ?Indeed, the leadership had begun to digest the not entirely comfortable knowledge that having inaugurated a prophet in their midst, they could not always contain the direction of his fire.For Harding also functioned in an equally energetic capacity in calling the church to activity in the racial struggle and in puncturing inflated Mennonite estimations of their own moral purity.??Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 215. Note that Bush describes Harding in terms of his charismatic capacity expressed in prophetic pronouncement. While I reposition Harding in this essay, Bush’s work stands in its own right as an excellent summary of the wide-ranging impact Harding had on white Mennonite orientation to the Civil Rights Movement.
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. Despite evident patriarchy and sexism among groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress on Racial Equality, Rosemarie Harding found more ways to exercise leadership among civil rights groups than in the Mennonite community. For a discussion of patriarchy and sexism in the Civil Rights Movement, see Dorothy I. Height, ??We Wanted the Voice of a Woman to Be Heard’: Black Women and the 1963 March on Washington,? in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
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. Annabelle Hughes and Gerald Hughes, interview with author, Aug. 29, 2006; Luke Stoltzfus et al., ?Understanding Racial Difficulties,? Missionary Messenger, Jan. 1960, 6; Ralph K. Weber, ?Of One Blood,? The Mennonite, June 25, 1957, 404, 414-415.
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. Orlo Kaufman, ?Hershberger Meeting at Crossroads Confidential Report by Orlo Kaufman,? August 16 (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1963), MLA.VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 1, Folder 7, Correspondence – General Conf. 1963, MLA; Harold Reed, ?A History of Steelton Mennonite Gospel Mission? (Eastern Mennonite College, 1961), 1st Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Third Drawer: Home Ministries, Locations New York City, City Wisconsin 1964-1975 (1961), ?Pennsylvania Steelton,? Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room, Salunga, Pa. [hereafter cited as EMM]; ?Christian Race Relations,? April 22-24 (Committee on Economic and Social Relations of the Mennonite Church, Mennonite Community Association, 1955), 172, IX-7-12, #2 Box 6, entitled “Race Relations 1955-70,” AMC-G.
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. Vincent Harding, ?Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,? in Peace-Makers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement, ed. Jim Wallis (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), 88; ?Harding, Vincent Gordon (1931- ),? King Encyclopedia, http://www.stan-ford.edu/group/King/about_king/encyclopedia/harding_vincent.html (accessed Jan. 22, 2008).
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. Rose Marie Berger, ??I’ve Known Rivers’: The Story of Freedom Movement Leaders Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding? (Sojourners, 2004: available from http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm’action=news.display_archives&mode=current_opinion&article=CO_040311_berger (accessed Feb.27, 2008).
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. Misc. correspondence from and to Camp Landon 1958, VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 2, Folder 30, MLA; Correspondence of Delton Franz to Orlo Kaufman, Sept. 4 1958, Chicago, Ill., VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 2, Folder 30, MLA.
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. I here suggest that, contrary to Paul Toews? position, Harding’s challenge to Hershberger emerged alongside rather than subsequent to J. Lawrence Burkholder’s articulation of a more socially engaged pacifism. Toews misses that Harding had been advocating for greater social involvement from 1958 through his 1967 Mennonite World Conference speech. See Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 261-263.
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. Documents reporting on the event list the names of forty-nine participants, eleven of them African-American. See ?Seminar on Race Relations Representation,? Apr. 17-19 (Woodlawn Mennonite Church, 1959), IX-12-3, PS, Folder ?Race Relations: Christ, the Mennonite Churches & Race, Seminar,? AMC-G. Three other African Americans, Charles Flowers, Gerald Hughes and Warner Jackson, were quoted in a report by Guy F. Hershberger as also having been present. See Guy F. Hershberger, ?Report of the Chicago Race Relations Seminar,? July 16 (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1959), CESR papers I-3-7, Box 7, Folder 58, AMC-G.
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. Vincent Harding, ?The Task of the Mennonite Church in Establishing Racial Unity,? 29.? Hist. Mss. 1-48, box 60, John H. Yoder (1927-1997) Collection Race/Urban issues, file 60/1, AMC-G.
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. Rachel E. Harding, ?Biography, Democracy and Spirit: An Interview with Vincent Harding,? Callaloo 20, (1998), 689; Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213; Harding, ?Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,? 89.
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. Mahlon L. Blosser to Nelson E. Kauffman, Mar. 4 1963, Harrisonburg, Va. Interestingly, thirteen months later, the Virginia Conference proudly promoted a ?Conference on the Christian and Race.? As noted below, only white Mennonite men spoke in the conference sessions. See ?Conference on the Christian and Race at Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church,? Mar. 31, 1964 (Virginia Mennonite Conference), box: ?Broad Street 1936-1979 Richard & Virginia Weaver,? Virginia Mennonite Archives, Harrisonburg, Va.
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. Orlo Kaufman, ?The Gulfport Story: Accent on Challenge,? February, 1966 (Camp Landon), VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 6, Folder 214, Reports, misc., MLA.
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. Orlo Kaufman to Vincent Harding, Feb. 20, 1963, Gulfport, Miss., VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 1, Folder 7, Correspondence – General Conf. 1963, MLA; Orlo Kaufman, ?Camp Landon General Report #25 First Quarter, 1963,? (Camp Landon), VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 6, Folder 215, Reports, quarterly, MLA.
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. Orlo Kaufman, ?Meeting at Tougaloo,? The Gulfbreeze, Jan.-Feb. 1963, 4; Orlo Kaufman to Herman Dueck, May 14, 1963, Reedley, California, VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 2, Folder 34, Correspondence – non-conf, Jan.-July 1963, MLA.
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. Orlo Kaufman to Daniel Guice, June 27, 1963, Gulfport, Miss., VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 2, Folder 34, Correspondence – non-conf, Jan.-July 1963, MLA.
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. Harold Regier to Board of Christian Service, Mar. 24 1964, Gulfport, Miss., VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 1, Folder 8, Correspondence – General Conf. 1964, MLA.
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. Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, ?Mississippi Delta Trip March 6-11 (Confidential),? Apr. 25 (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1963), 10, CESR papers I-3-7, Box 7, Folder 18, AMC-G.
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. ?Conference on the Christian and Race at Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church,? March 31 (Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1964), ?Broad Street 1936-1979,? uncat. box, ?Richard & Virginia Weaver,? Virginia Mennonite Archives.
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. Vincent Harding, ?Birmingham, Alabama,? May 30 (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Executive Committee, 1963), Box ?Clarence E. Lutz, MCC Peace Section, 1963-1969,? Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Archives, Lancaster, Pa. [hereafter cited as LMHS].
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. John F. Kennedy, ?Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, June 11, 1963,? John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03CivilRights06111963.htm (accessed January 26, 2008).
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. Gary Stenson and Elsie Stenson to Harold Regier, Apr. 3 1963, Pawnee Rock, Kan., VII.R GC Voluntary Service, Series 11 Gulfport VS Unit, Box 2, Folder 34, Correspondence – non-conf, Jan.-July 1963, MLA; Esther Groves, ?Gulfport at the Crossroads,? The Mennonite, Nov. 19, 1963, 699.
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. Chana Kai Lee, ?Anger, Memory, and Personal Power: Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights Leadership,? in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 151; Nicholas Targ, ?Human Rights Hero: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917?1977),? American Bar Association Human Rights Magazine, Spring 2005, available from http://www.abanet.org/irr/hr/spring05/hero.html (accessed Feb. 27, 2008).
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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,? Sept. 10, 1963 (Committee on Economic and Social Relations of the Mennonite Church), 11, author’s personal collection.
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. ?Mennonite Hour to Interview Harding? [News Release] (Mennonite Central Committee/Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee, Aug. 7, 1963, available from http://www.mcusa-archives.org/plowshares/atlanta/8.7. 1963.html (accessed Feb. 27, 2008).
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. Edgar Metzler, ?The Mennonite Churches and the Current Race Crisis,? Gospel Herald, Aug. 6, 1963, 683-684; ?Schoolmen Aid Race Witness,? The Mennonite, Aug. 6, 1963, 492-493; Guy F. Hershberger, ?Letter to the United States Congress on Civil Rights,? Gospel Herald, Aug. 13 1963, 705; John D. Unruh, Jr. and Esko Loewen, ?Is This Our Revolution,? The Mennonite, Sept. 10, 1963, 534-536; James Reston, ?The First Significant Test of the Freedom March,? Gospel Herald, Oct. 8, 1963, 889.
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. ?Meeting of Church Leaders for a Discussion of the Course Which Should Be Followed in This Time of Social Revolution,? Sept. 14 (1963), 2, CESR papers I-3-7, Box 5, Folder 165, AMC-G.
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. According to later reports, Rosemarie was the only woman to have spoken. Although Rosemarie’s name does not appear on the official meeting roster of the day, a later report quotes her observation about the need for reconciliation in the name of love such as that demonstrated by Clarence Jordan at Koinonia Farms. See ?Record of the Meeting of Church Leaders for a Discussion on Racial and Civil Rights Problems. . . ,? Sept. 14, 1963, 1; Dyck, ?Dialogue on Race,? 685. A third report, in which the speakers? identities were replaced by alphabetized labels, attributes her comment anonymously to ?Brother V.? In interest of anonymity, the editors made Harding’s gender invisible.?C. J. Dyck, ?Pronouncements – Then What’? Gospel Herald, Oct. 22, 1963, 939, 949.
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. Jan Bender Shetler, ?A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations’: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries? Paper, Goshen College, 1977, 35, I-3-3.5 John Horsch Mennonite History Essay contest 1977-78 23/17, AMC-G.
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. ?From Words to Deeds in Race Relations (Tentative Draft),? (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1963), Hist. Mss. 1-48 Box 60, John H. Yoder (1927-1997) Collection Race/Urban issues, file 60/2, Peace Section binder noted ?63, AMC-G; Guy F. Hershberger ?From Words to Deeds in Race Relations,? Gospel Herald, Feb. 16, 1965, 121, 130.
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. Items (i.e., reports, feature articles, and editorials) referring to or written by Vincent appeared in the Gospel Herald on February 5, March 26 and August 6 (three times) and in The Mennonite on January 22 (two times), February 12 and 26, March 5 and 26, June 25, July 9 (two times), and August 6 (two times) in addition to appearing once in Christian Living magazine in February. In general, the Gospel Herald focused more on Vincent’s critique of the church and The Mennonite on Vincent’s civil rights activities. Other than the Gospel Herald editor’s preference to write about racism as a theological problem and The Mennonite editor’s focus on legislative response, the two publications? coverage of race and civil rights is surprisingly similar, given an expectation of greater interest in worldly affairs on the part of Mennonites from the General Conference.In the course of the year, both magazines included resounding denunciation of those who used the Genesis passage known as the ?curse of Ham? to support racial discrimination, argued for involvement with civil rights as a means to maintain integrity for overseas mission, included a similar number of items on race-related matters (approximately thirty-one for the Gospel Herald and thirty-four for The Mennonite) and featured articles by white pastors chastising Mennonites for their participation in racial discrimination. See Hubert Swartzentruber, ?Where Do We Stand’? Gospel Herald, July 23, 1963, 631; ?Birmingham Troubles Mennonite Conscience,? The Mennonite, Oct. 8, 1963, 604-605. In terms of their printed publications, white Mennonite response again looked very similar across the community.
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. Edgar Stoesz, ?Vince Harding Visit to Akron,? Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service, 1962), MCC Correspondence, IX – 6 – 3, ?Inter-Office Peace Section’, PS 1962, AMC-G. Meanwhile, informal criticisms had begun to mount about Harding.?Paul G. Landis, interview with author, Apr. 28, 2005.
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. Vern Preheim, ?Staff Report,? Nov. 1 (General Conference Mennonite Church Board of Christian Service, 1963), B-23, ?1963 Report and Materials for the [General Conference Mennonite Church] Board of Christian Service [meeting] held at Newton, Kansas, December 4-6, 1963,? in bound volume shelved with serials, MLA.
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. For instance, on November 22?the day of President Kennedy’s assassination’Harding met with Lancaster Conference bishops, and pastors from congregations in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, to discuss ?our churches and the racial revolution.?? Edgar Metzler and Vincent Harding, ?Race Relations Project,? (Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1963), IX-7-12, #2 Box 6, entitled ?Race Relations 1955-70,? AMC-G.
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. Vincent Harding, ?Do We Have an Answer for Black Power’? The Mennonite, Feb. 7, 1967, 82-83; Vincent Harding, ?Voices of Revolution,? The Mennonite, Oct. 3 1967, 590-593; Vincent Harding, ?Where Have All the Lovers Gone’? Mennonite Life, Jan. 1967, 5-13; Vincent Harding, ?The Beggars Are Rising . . . Where Are the Saints’? Mennonite Life, October 1967, 152-53; Vincent Harding, ?The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,? Mennonite Life, October 1967, 161-65.
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. Harding, ?The Christian and the Race Question,? 2. His commitment to integrity also explains why church leaders invited Harding to speak to the 1967 Mennonite World Conference even though he had cut official ties two years earlier.
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. Albert J. Meyer to Guy Hershberger, et al., March 5, 1970, Guy F. Hershberger Hist. Mss. 1-171, Box 14, Folder 3, AMC-G; Guy F. Hershberger to Vincent Harding, Dec. 29, 1971, Arizona, Guy F. Hershberger Hist. Mss. 1-171, Box 14, Folder 6, AMC-G; John Powell to Vincent Harding, July 9, 1971, IV-21-4 Box 1, MBM, Minority Ministries Council, Data Files #1, A-K, Folder: General Correspondence 1969-72, AMC-G.
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. Rachel J. Lapp and Sarah E. Phend, ?God’s Table: A Precious Piece of Furniture? (MPress on the Net, Friday, July 4 2003, available from https://www.goshen.edu/mpress/ 07-04-2003/story_table.php (accessed Feb. 27, 2008).
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The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites
MQR 82 (April 2008)