Joanna Shenk, The Movement Makes Us Human: An Interview with Dr. Vincent Harding on Mennonites, Vietnam, and MLK, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR, 2018. 109 pp. $18.00. ISBN: 978-1-5326-3529-8.
In the 1960s some US Mennonites began to shed their tradition’s historic hesitations about social involvement and joined movements agitating for peace, racial justice, and women’s rights. Their decision shook the church and shaped the direction of mainline Mennonite denominational institutions, churches, and theology for the past fifty years. At the same time, progress toward peace, racial and gender equality, and related goals remains uneven within and outside the church. As social movements spring up again in the United States and around the world, it is worth revisiting the origins of Mennonite social activism and inquiring about its nature, potential, and limitations. Joanna Shenk’s fascinating interview with veteran activist and former Mennonite pastor Vincent Harding is a necessary resource for this work of remembering and reevaluation.
Shenk, currently a Mennonite pastor in San Francisco, interviewed Harding in 2011 as part of her work with Mennonite Church USA’s Interchurch Relations department; the interview was part of a larger project funded by Mennonite Education Agency. These origins reinforce the sense of US Mennonites’ investment at an institutional level in the questions raised by Harding’s activism. As for Harding, he was in the midst of research for a memoir (unfinished before his death in 2014) and was available for questions about his past engagement with Mennonites. Harding’s availability is noteworthy insofar as he previously had declined a Mennonite researcher’s invitations to discuss the topic.1
Understanding why Mennonites would want to know and understand Harding’s story and why Harding might have been initially reluctant to discuss it requires telling some of that story. Shenk’s book helps us do so in more detail than was previously possible.
Harding was born in 1931 in New York City. An excellent student and budding church leader, he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees before being drafted by the US Army. Although his black Seventh-Day Christian church traditionally required its military men to adopt noncombatant status, Harding was interested in a career in military intelligence; his church’s emphasis on the Old Testament, especially the Ten Commandments, had not prepared him to think critically about military participation (57).
His church’s devotion to Scripture, however, did make an impact—eventually. During his two years of military service, Harding began to wrestle with the contrast between the training in violence he was receiving and his growing understandings of the life and teachings of Jesus. When he left the military for pastoral work and graduate studies in Chicago in 1955, he was internally (not officially) a conscientious objector (60).
While in Chicago he met Mennonites whose understanding of Jesus and violence resonated with his own; he began pastoring among them after Woodlawn Mennonite Church invited him to help provide leadership for an intentionally interracial congregation. While at Woodlawn—part of the (Old) Mennonite Church denomination—he was introduced to Rosemarie Florence Freeney, a young African American member of Bethel Mennonite Church, a General Conference congregation also in Chicago. Vincent and Rosemarie married in 1960 and partnered in church and political endeavors until Rosemarie’s death in 2004.
Harding was also introduced by Chicago Mennonites to a heightened concern for social justice and an understanding of the church’s transformative role in its surrounding community (33, 38, 43, 49). He credits Mennonites with leading him to “take a deeper look at what Martin [Luther King] was doing” (23). This “deeper look” led Harding and others from Woodlawn to form an interracial delegation to tour the American South in 1958. Harding met King in Atlanta for the first time on that trip, an encounter that would bear much fruit. Taking up an assignment from Mennonite Central Committee, Vincent and Rosemarie moved into King’s Atlanta neighborhood in 1961 and started Mennonite House, an interracial guest house where Mennonite volunteers mixed with luminaries of the Southern Freedom Movement. Harding worked closely with King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during these years. Perhaps Harding’s most visible contribution to the movement—a contribution visibly shaped by his Mennonite connections (14, 17)—was his drafting of King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech of 1967, in which King came out against the Vietnam War.
In 1967 Harding also preached and gave a speech at the Eighth Assembly of Mennonite World Conference, in Amsterdam. Both statements are included in Shenk’s book as appendices, along with a later autobiographical reflection. At Amsterdam Harding called Mennonites to see that their peace witness and pursuit of justice must extend beyond their own communities to active solidarity with global nonviolent revolutionary movements.
According to Tobin Miller Shearer, Harding’s comments were largely well received as a necessary prophetic call, though he did meet some resistance.2 This resistance had been building for years, especially after Harding’s arrest for civil disobedience in Albany, Georgia, in 1962. Many Mennonites saw Harding’s activism and language of nonviolent revolution as a betrayal of their historic stance of nonresistance. In Miller Shearer’s telling, Harding had, in response, largely disengaged from Mennonites by the time he spoke in Amsterdam and would subsequently work entirely outside of Mennonite circles—he was a “prophet pushed out.” Harding had already stopped his work at Mennonite House in 1964 and, after a year at Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago finishing his doctoral studies, had taken up a professorship in history at the historically black Spelman College in 1965. In 1968 he helped found the King Center and under its auspices began the Institute of the Black World in 1969, a think tank that contributed to the emerging Black Studies movement in the United States.
Harding tells Shenk a different, softer version of his “movement” (he rejects the language of a “shift” [48–49]) from the Mennonite church to activism and scholarship centered in the black community. Putting his personal movement in the context of burgeoning Black Power and Black Consciousness movements in the late 1960s, Harding says that he followed “the same God who had led me deep into Christian faith . . . deep into blackness” (48). Harding’s version of the story highlights his own agency as well as the continuity between his early work with Mennonites and his later work based in black institutions. This continuity is ripe for exploration by Mennonite theologians seeking an antiracist construal of historic Anabaptist convictions.
Yet, Harding does not flinch from describing the resistance he faced from white Mennonites. As he puts it to Shenk, his identification as a Mennonite “was a conscious choice to identify myself with those who did not always know how to identify with me” (43). In Harding’s view, Mennonites did not know how to identify with him, because his witness triggered their fear of persecution, because some Mennonite were racists, and because of the “terrible temptation white Mennonites had to hide behind their whiteness, and to thereby keep themselves separated from the sufferings of those who were not white in America” (6; see also 36).
Harding thus invites Mennonites to “really wrestle with how long they want to hide in this cloak of whiteness” (71), and—perhaps controversially—to see how their whiteness might be a “gift in the struggle to overcome white dominance” (72). Specifically, white Mennonites can examine their privileges and see how they might be put to use in and for the struggle. Mennonites as well as other US Christians can also recall their own histories of persecution, “their own experience of ‘underdogness,’” and seek solidarity with today’s underdogs (68–69).
Throughout the interview, Harding shares practical advice and inspiration for white Mennonites seeking to throw off the cloak of whiteness and embrace integrated community. For instance, he counsels white communities to educate themselves and seek counsel from outside mentors before attempting integration (77–78), and reminds those starting new initiatives that they need to include from the beginning all those they hope to be involved; asking later “How do we get them?” is a much harder task (81).
Harding’s reflections and story, ably summarized and placed in historical context by Shenk in brief introductory and concluding essays, continue to speak to Mennonites today, even in our somewhat changed context. US Mennonites are now less homogenous, in part because of the work of Mennonites of color who stayed in the church in spite of resistance and discrimination. More broadly, North American and European Mennonites are also beginning to grapple with Christianity’s historic numerical shift to the global South; Africa, Asia, and Latin America are now the population centers of the global Mennonite body. These demographic shifts, moreover, occur in an era of global ecological catastrophe that was barely on the horizon during the activism of the 1960s. In spite of the changes, or even because of the changes, Harding’s encouragement and challenge to white Mennonites remains of utmost importance.
Jamie Pitts is associate professor of Anabaptist Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, director of Institute of Mennonite Studies, and editor of Anabaptist Witness.
Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015), accessed March 11, 2019, https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-69/article/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno/.
Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out.”