Eastern Mennonite University

Fall 2006

Harry G. Lefever: Scholar-Activist at Spelman

Claude Good

Harry G. Lefever ’55 introduced me to the concept of "critical thinking," says Doug Hostetter ’66, a longtime peace activist and director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) United Nations Liaison Office in New York.

"He was responsible for my going to Vietnam (with MCC)." Hostetter’s tribute captures the essence of Lefever’s teaching, scholarship and service, not only in 963-66 when he taught sociology and ethics at EMU but also afterwards. Lefever, now professor emeritus of sociology at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., calls himself a "scholar-activist."

The two terms are not opposites, Lefever says, but are "complementary sides of one role." The two complementary sides of Lefever’s scholar-activism appear throughout his life and work. From '56-59 he worked as a conscientious objector with MCC in Vietnam.

His service included assisting a medical team in twice-weekly visits to rural villages, helping to build a hospital and organizing work camps and seminars with Saigon University students. Practicing what he calls "advocacy sociology," Lefever is not afraid to take sides on social issues.

Lefever has worked in his local Candler Park Neighborhood Organization as well as with International Habitat for Humanity and Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. Since 989, he has helped to coordinate the annual Pastors for Peace caravans that come through Atlanta carrying educational and medical supplies to Central America and Cuba.

Lefever’s involvement in civil rights and peace activities is attested to by his former student Don Bender ’64. A neighbor and fellow activist for 30 years, Bender says Lefever led him to "a new openness in my search for truth" and provided him with an "active example" of peace and social justice. Lefever received a number of awards while at Spelman, including a "Presidential Award for Scholarly Achievement," a "United Negro College Fund Distinguished Scholar Award" and the "Fannie Lou Hamer Achievement Award."

The latter, named in honor of civil rights activist Hamer, is given annually to a Spelman faculty or staff member in recognition of the individual’s "service, justice, love and progress." At Lefever’s retirement reception in May 2003, department chair Daryl White praised Lefever for "practicing what he preaches": "He tirelessly participates in peace and justice activities, writes letters and articles, attends rallies and marches and protests."

Lefever’s recent book, Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967 was featured in the winter 2005 issue of Crossroads. (See www.emu.edu/crossroads/winter2005.)

–Laura H. Weaver ’55
Weaver ’55 is professor emerita of English at the University of Evansville in Indiana. She taught at Belleville (Pa.) Mennonite High School (1955-57), EMU (1958-62), and Bluffton (Ohio) University (1962-66).

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