Marie Regier wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., a little over six months after his death. She recalled a conversation in which yet another acquaintance had suggested that King’s efforts had gone “too fast.” In response, this long-time white missionary to China said she grew so angry that she saw “red.”
Regier was hardly the first Mennonite to have written about King. In the space of the twelve years between 1956 and King’s death in 1968, at least ninety articles appeared in the Mennonite press that either mentioned King or were written by him. Following his assassination, Mennonites eulogized him in the pages of Christian Living, The Mennonite, Gospel Herald, Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and – perhaps most surprisingly – the conservative publication The Sword and Trumpet.
Representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Committee on Peace and Social Concerns attended King’s funeral and submitted reports about the event. In the year of his death, thirty-one articles appeared, almost all penned by Mennonite authors who claimed some kind of direct, personal connection with King.
In the dozen years that Mennonites engaged with King – indeed for the decade that followed and beyond – no single individual from outside the Mennonite community had more impact on the Mennonite peace position than did King. In comparison to other historically white denominations, Mennonites referred to, discussed, and connected with King to a greater and far more influential degree. Despite some who voiced concerns about King’s purported connections with communism, King loomed large among Mennonites at mid-century and served as a catalyst to substantive re-evaluation of white Mennonites’ commitment to nonresistance.
King’s Mennonite Connections
Mennonites’ connection with King was already well developed by 1956. In the pages of Christian Living readers encountered a report on the Montgomery bus boycott that emphasized the values of “love and nonviolence” at “the heart of their protest.” The following year readers encountered additional reporting emphasized his ongoing commitment to nonviolence, and Mennonite Paul Peachey called for Mennonite to act as “consultants” to ministers who were for the first time considering nonviolence after listening to King discuss the theology of repudiating “all force, war included” as part of their Christian witness.
The connection between Martin and the Mennonites only solidified in the years that followed. In 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1960 tour groups sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee traveled through the South and often met with King. Following one such trip, minister Delton Franz, who later served as director of MCC’s Washington Office, couldn’t stop thinking about King’s challenge to eschew religion devoid of action, “the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.” At the 1959 Race Relations Conference in Chicago attended by Mennonite leaders from across the country, participants referenced King’s writings, his activism, and his witness.
By 1960, African-American Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding had developed a relationship with both Martin and Coretta King and put plans in motion to relocate to Atlanta to found an integrated community of black and white Mennonites – Mennonite House – that was realized the following year. In the subsequent months, the Hardings reported on Mennonite Houses’ close proximity to the King residence, frequent consultations with King, and special assignments from King asking them to meet behind the scenes and negotiate with white moderates and segregationists alike at conflict sites such as Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama.
King and Guy Hershberger
College professor and peace advocate Guy Hershberger particularly promoted King to the Mennonite world. He not only wrote about him in the church press on numerous occasions, but also hosted him at Goshen College in 1960 and attended meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In response to a request from Mennonite Stanley Kreider for clarification as to whether King exemplified “good Biblical nonresistance,” Hershberger revealed the high regard in which he held King and how central he felt he was to the church’s peace witness. Hershberger wrote, “However short King’s nonviolence may be of what the New Testament requires, I would need to say that as far as public figures are concerned, King was closer to it than anyone which American history has so far produced.”
But a statement by Hershberger just prior to his assessment of King’s historic witness drives home the point of King’s relevance specifically to the Mennonite community. Hershberger wrote, “One thing which King should cause us Mennonites to do is to take a thorough look at what we mean by nonresistance.”
He also relayed an anecdote passed on to him by long-time civil rights activist and educator Septima Clark about a time that King refused to strike back at an attacker who had just hit him in the face and asked his associates to also refrain from retaliating, saying, “Don’t hurt him; he doesn’t know what he is doing; we must overcome with love.”
Mennonites understood such stories. They were the very stock in trade of many a sermon and household morality tale that formed Anabaptist youth and adults alike. While marching in the street gave most white Mennonites pause, turning the other cheek was familiar.
Of course, Hershberger wasn’t always so sanguine about King. Back in 1959, he and MCC representative Elmer Neufeld – who would go on to serve as president of Bluffton College – attended the First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation in Atlanta. In their report, the two men compared the Atlanta conference to one run by King and his lieutenant Ralph Abernathy, noting that the two men were “not strong in administration” and therefore vulnerable to take over by stronger administrators who were “secular and no more Christian than the N.A.A.C.P.”
Hershberger expressed wariness about anyone who engaged in nonviolence for purely tactical reasons. He wanted King to succeed as a civil rights leader because, as Hershberger wrote a year later, King was “a Christian pacifist who sincerely seeks to follow Christ.”
Many others from the Mennonite community joined Hershberger in seeking out positive connections with King. Lancaster Conference bishop Paul Landis reported that one of the first things King said to him was, “Where have you Mennonites been?” adding, “I’ve read your Anabaptist history and theology… at the time when we needed you most you weren’t there.” Landis said King concluded by saying, “I believe a lot of what you believe … you’ve showed us the way hundreds of years ago but we need your help now.” Those kinds of conversations helped pave the way for the Hardings’ eventual work in Atlanta.
King also took time to meet with urban Mennonite church leaders in Chicago and Cleveland, visits that stayed with those involved for years to come.
Some Mennonites made more negative connections. The white leaders of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in New York City took exception to King’s methods in a 1965 self-study. They stated, “A church of largely white members located in a Negro community in contemporary America offers potentially greater gains for the claims of Christ than does ten civil-rights marches led by Rev. M. L. King, Jr.”
Likewise, that same year, Pamela Mueller, a Mennonite from Arizona, wrote a letter to the editor in the pages of the Mennonite Weekly Review in which she berated the “so-called reverend or doctor,” found his actions “inexcusable,” and claimed that he was “well-known in communist circles.” Like the Seventh Avenue congregants, Mueller also found King’s street marching the most objectionable. In a letter written two years later, she continued to rail against King, this time calling him an “agitator.”
King’s Legacy for Mennonites and Beyond
It was exactly this kind of reaction that had caused Marie Regier to grow so frustrated. By 1968, she followed the news. She knew that, in her words, “angry black men” had grown tired of waiting for change in the aftermath of King’s assassination. She most certainly would have read Vincent Harding’s essay describing the wall of racial separation in the U.S. behind which African Americans had asked King, “Why? Why do we have to love, even after beatings and rejections and deaths? Why?”
She might have recalled the article by black Mennonite pastor Curtis Burrell who criticized King for failing to “offer the black man an identity.” Her writing indicates that she knew just how profound an impact King had had on the black community, the country as a whole, and Mennonites in particular. She cautioned, “It may be too late even now to stem the tide” of racial rebellion. King had called for action much earlier.
In the decades that followed, King continued to prove influential. Mennonite Minority Ministries Council leader John Powell wrote that King’s death prompted him to enter the pastorate and go on to serve the church. In 1978, a group of black Mennonites in Philadelphia marked their reflections on their experience with racism in the church by referring to the time before and after King’s death. During oral history interviews conducted in the first decade of the twenty-first century, numerous Mennonite leaders brought up King’s influence about their work on racism in the church.
The story I have described here of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Mennonites offers three insights for those seeking to bear witness to King’s legacy today.
First, this history reminds us that King was controversial because he challenged the status quo. Both those who praised and those who pilloried him in the Mennonite community did so for essentially the same reason: he asked the community to do things differently. He was not satisfied with a society – or a church, whether Mennonite or otherwise – that supported and maintained white supremacy. Those involved in challenging those racist systems today should expect to encounter similar controversy.
Secondly, King found both strategic and ethical reasons to pursue nonviolence. Although new scholarship has emphasized that armed self-defense was an equally important element of the mid-century black freedom struggle, King worked hard to hold those around him to high standards of nonviolence. Even though he held far fewer virtuous values around other matters of ethical conduct such as marital fidelity and gender equity, on the point of nonviolence he had integrity worth modeling.
Finally, Mennonites found in King an example of the cherished narrative of selfless martyrdom. The eulogies that poured out after his death make that evident. But I don’t offer this element of King’s engagement with Mennonites as a historical exemplar. Although King was exhausted and depressed at the time of his death, he didn’t actively seek out martyrdom. At the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, he was getting ready for an evening of feasting and fellowship with his friends and co-workers. On this last point, we can remind ourselves that the work of anti-racism is demanding and calls not only for persistence but also for all the practices of self-care and celebration along the way that we can muster.
Taking time to remember the full breadth of King’s legacy within and without the Mennonite community offers one place to begin that process of resistance and reflection.
This article originally appeared in Anabaptist Historians on January 20, 2020. Republished with permission.
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