Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries

Lee Roy Berry Jr.

The Conrad Grebel Review 30, no. 1 (Winter 2012)

Tobin Miller Shearer. Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

The Civil Rights Movement encompassed more than organized marches, sitins, boycotts, and freedom rides led by organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It also included protests by members of mostly white religious denominations who never joined demonstrators and marchers or wound up in jail. The latter displayed the same degree of courage and commitment, and contributed just as much to the struggle as participants in SCLC and SNCC. They did so by conducting “quiet demonstrations” in their homes, sanctuaries, and other “intimate settings” against racial prejudice. That is the message of this book, which recounts how that movement unfolded within mainly the Old Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite denominations. Tobin Miller Shearer believes his book is groundbreaking because it brings to light a major part of the civil rights movement, the pervasiveness and characteristics of which scholars have heretofore failed to recognize. It is, he says, “a new civil rights story” (231).

Shearer’s conclusions are based on evidence from cases that occurred mostly between 1935 and 1971, and that involved (1) protests by African- American Mennonite women and their white sisters; (2) Fresh Air programs; (3) the response to Vincent Harding’s effort to obtain Mennonites’ support for organized nonviolent protests; (4) interracial marriage; (5) conflict over integrated congregational worship; and (6) the influence of James Forman’s Black Manifesto.

Shearer maintains that his study supports at least two other important findings. First, because Mennonites behaved toward, and thought about, African-Americans no differently than did white non-Mennonite churchgoers, “[r]acial intolerance and overt oppression need to be framed as common practice rather than as exceptions,” among white Mennonites (235). Second, “These richly complex narratives also challenge Mennonite histories of the twentieth century by bringing African-American Mennonites from the margins to the center of historical inquiry” (xiii).

Four of the six cases – recounted in chapters 2, 4, 5 and 6 – appear to support Shearer’s thesis. However, his findings regarding the Black Manifesto and Fresh Air children, who “challenged racism in white homes during the 1950s and ’60s” and “brought the movement to communities untouched by adult organizers” (228), are both unconvincing. Shearer argues that these minors slew all the numerous white racist dragons they encountered, unaided by any direct assistance or advocacy from parents and guardians. But that claim strains one’s sense of logic in light of what our experiences teach us about the nature of such children.

As for the Manifesto, it is difficult to understand why that document was so necessary and critical in initiating and fostering “conversations” between African-American and white Mennonite leaders about economic justice and power sharing as Shearer suggests (219), given that the Mennonite church had a strong tradition of daily demonstrations led by Mennonites (including some he identifies in his narrative) who knew, or should have known, how to adequately address such issues without needing inspiration from Forman. In these two areas his conclusions appear, at least to me, to be buoyed by conviction rather than supported by adequate data.

Finally, the book is less an account of a new civil rights story than it is a 20th-century version of a much older one. Ever since whites established the system of slavery and racial tyranny in the United States, black people and their allies have protested against them. That protest included both direct confrontations such as those led by abolitionists, and quieter, subtler forms of protest by slaves, such as the deliberate destruction of work tools. The 20th-century civil rights protests such as demonstrations and marches are reminiscent of the former, while the actions of Lark and Swartzentruber, as described by the author, are suggestive of the latter. Though the historical record shows that the legalized systems of slavery and segregation were far more vulnerable to the first form of protest than the second, the latter nevertheless had and continues to have importance in the struggle against oppression. Shearer’s account is a strong and welcome confirmation of that fact.

Daily Demonstrators has considerable merit, despite the limitations noted above. It shows that the accomplishments of the civil rights movement cannot reasonably be attributed to a few charismatic individuals or a few mass-based nationwide organizations. And by using the stories of African- American Mennonites to convey that message, the author has helped bring that group from the margins to the center of historical inquiry. The book deserves a place in elementary, high school, college, and university libraries.

Lee Roy Berry, Jr., Attorney, former Associate Professor of Political Science, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana