Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries.
At first glance this study seems a counterintuitive combination. Why view the civil rights movement through the lens of a small, quietist, and overwhelmingly Germanic Church that was based in the north and had relatively few African American members? Tobin Miller Shearer presents a persuasive case for his uncommon focus, and for re-envisioning a civil rights narrative that takes the Church seriously, not only as a base from which a movement went out into the streets, but also as a site in which real civil rights struggles took place. "By shifting attention to less public but no less significant environs, I show how racial change unfolded as co-believers took communion, sat down to dinner, and discussed marriages," Shearer writes. "Rather than sites of escape from the civil rights movement, living rooms and sanctuaries become arenas of racial agitation." Following the approach of historian Robin D. G. Kelly, who took everyday actions for racial justice as seriously as political demonstrations, Shearer offers a "church history of the civil rights era [that] brings together home and congregation to show how religious practice in intimate environments interacted with higher-profile movements" (ix).
The first African Americans joined the Mennonite Church in the 1880s, but such converts were few until the 1940s. Thereafter, numbers remained modest, but Shearer documents the significant influence of such individuals in shaping white Mennonite ideas and actions from then until the early 1970s, when his study concludes.
Precisely because the (Old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church--the two bodies on which Shearer focuses--were small, it is possible to track with uncommon clarity their internal debates and the precise, practical outcomes of those debates. This rich detail is one of the book's most appealing features. Shearer seems to have undertaken exhaustive archival research, and he conducted some forty oral history interviews. Not surprisingly, the book is painfully frank in its disclosure of racism in mid-century Mennonite circles.
Like historian John McGreevy, whose study of white Catholics took seriously the way doctrine informed Catholic racism and egalitarianism, Shearer examines the role of Mennonite "nonconformity" (sectarian separation from "the world") and "nonresistance" (pacifism that eschewed political activism). Beliefs could cut more than one way. Nonconformity, for example, could embolden a critique of the worldly sin of racism and also engender a suspicion of outsider civil rights "agitators." Shearer alludes to the way white Mennonites' rural distrust of cities shaped understandings of race and injustice as urban problems, and one wishes he had developed this theme further.
The six chapters that form the book's core are structured as stand-alone case studies, each of which might be used individually as a supplemental reading in a course on the Church and the civil rights movement or on religion and race. One chapter details African American Mennonite women converts appropriating distinctive Mennonite garb. Shearer explores the women's choices as multivalent expression of agency, on the one hand, and dissects white Mennonite responses to plain-dressed black members, on the other. Here and elsewhere, Shearer makes creative use of photographic records. One wishes the publisher had included even more visual images.
A particularly fascinating chapter focuses on African American children who participated in Mennonite-sponsored Fresh Air programs--similar to those of the well-known Herald-Tribune Fresh Air Fund--in which urban children of color spent one or two summer weeks living with white Mennonite farm families in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and South Dakota. Although prejudice and paternalism framed the encounters, Shearer's narrative reveals that the children effectively "disrupted the lives of thousands of adults across the church community." As such, the children were civil rights activists on their own terms: "Every time they confounded their hosts' preconceptions, the children forced the adults to move beyond their racial naivete and enter an unfamiliar world" (94).
Shearer also explores the "dual demonstration" (98) of Vincent Harding, one of Martin Luther King's lieutenants and, until 1966, a Mennonite minister. Harding's activity "on the border" illustrates Shearer's thesis of the connection between the public and private sides of the movement. Harding's Mennonite sensibilities shaped his role as a mediator in Birmingham, while what he learned "in the streets ... shaped how he demonstrated in the sanctuary" (128). Unfortunately, in a work otherwise attentive to women, Shearer neglects the critical role of Vincent's spouse, Rosemarie Freeney Harding.
Other chapters focus on interracial marriage, and the way such couples in Mennonites' midst pushed the Church to act differently; interracial congregations in the greater Chicago area, including one whose pastor embraced black power rhetoric and lost denominational financial support; and white and black Mennonite responses to James Forman's 1969 "Black Manifesto to the White Christian Church and the Jewish Synagogues." In the latter case, Shearer argues that Forman's manifesto did not universally alienate whites and end conversation across racial lines, as the secondary literature on the manifesto assumes. At least among Mennonites, Forman sparked an "intense and previously rare conversation about racism" (191). In the end, the outcome of the conversation was disappointing to the African American-led Mennonite Urban-Racial Council, but Shearer finds it significant that "the conversation initiated by the Black Manifesto lasted longer within the Mennonite church than in most secular settings" (219).
In his concluding chapter, Shearer returns to the theme of recasting the civil rights movement in terms of daily demonstrations that recognize the role of domestic life and Sunday morning worship as much as street protests and legislative action. As "an occasional activist" himself, Shearer admits concern that elevating the experiences of those "who care[d] about racial justice but refrain[d] from marching" might "undermine" the important witness of street protests (xx). We can be thankful that Shearer set those misgivings aside and brought us the stories of Rowena Lark, Roberta Webb, Curtiss Burrell, John Powell, and other daily demonstrators "to tell a story that deepens our understanding of the Second Reconstruction" (249).
Steven M. Nolt
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|Author:||Nolt, Steven M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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