Nonresistance, Civil Rights & Mennonite Identity

Dr. Vincent G. Harding (left) with professor Mark Metzler Sawin (right).

Dr. Vincent G. Harding (left) with professor Mark Metzler Sawin (right).

Vincent G. Harding, Ph.D. was an unlikely Mennonite. As an African American army veteran in the late 1950s, he and three friends traveled to the Deep South and met with Dr. Martin Luther King. King spoke with the young men from his bed, where he was recovering from a stabbing. Several weeks ago, Harding spoke on the record with history professor Dr. Mark Metzler Sawin about a range of topics of interest to the Mennonite community.

As he related to Sawin, one of the first things that Harding told King about was his Anabaptist beliefs. Harding said, “we were specifically identifying ourselves as Mennonites, part of the following of Jesus.” King said to Harding in response, “you are Mennonite, you should know about nonviolence, what we’re trying to do down here. So you are to come and spend time with us helping us to do this work.”

This opened a relationship between King and Harding that would last until King’s death a decade later.

Mennonites should know about nonviolence, King said. The underlying message, which Harding and King saw Mennonites projecting to the outside world, was that Mennonites have experiential knowledge of what it means to engage in nonviolence.

Because of the centrality of historic trauma to the Anabaptist identity, Mennonite institutions – including EMU – carry the seeds of an experiential awareness of the way of nonviolence.

Another underlying theme is that Mennonite institutions don’t have an ideological monopoly on religious non-violence. According to Harding, King was well aware of Mennonite ideas when he invited them to participate in the movement.

Because of the chemistry between Harding and King, the world was able to learn things about nonviolence from Anabaptism that it might not otherwise have had exposure to. The pacifistic principles are a prominent part of

Harding’s draft of King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, a famous historical piece of writing, which according to many Anabaptist historians, continues to speak prophetically on issues of war, injustice, racism and economic inequality, and which stands as a high point in both their careers and in the narrative of social justice in US history.

Interviewing Harding, Sawin points out the ideological tension surrounding Mennonite identity and the Anabaptist principle of Gelassenheit–non-resistance – as interpreted in the context of the civil rights movement. “By 1963,” Sawin tells Harding, “many of your writings and your speeches back to the Mennonite community were becoming certainly more insistent.

“There was a large discussion with [Mennonite theologian and leader Guy F.] Hershberger … about a great fear of being overly coercive. [The concern was that] nonresistance didn’t include the things that were happening in the movement. By 1963 you and others had started to change [Hershberger’s] mind and others’ minds about this.”

After Harding asked for more clari- fication, Sawin speculated that many American Mennonites were concerned in the post-war years about their own ability to practice Gelassenheit, a lesson drawn from Anabaptist military participation during the Second World

WarB.ecause of their reaction to the perceived impurity of their ideology, Mennonites were somewhat unreceptive to the kinds of strategies being utilized by King.

The question Sawin put to Harding was – “how did you deal with these tensions?”

Harding responded: “I know that there were folks in Mennonite institutions, churches and schools especially, who felt very strongly about this matter of nonresistance, however it was defined, as being the way that they would like to see Mennonites being represented. But we didn’t feel that there was a call.

As we understood it, [the calling was] the way of resisting evil without being overcome by evil and standing

especially with those who were being beaten up and overcome; to stand with them and encourage them, to find ways of moving to a better kind of society. Of changing the society in which they lived and opening new possibilities for us. All of these were part of nonviolent action. All of these could lead us to what Martin would like to call ‘the Beloved Community.’”

Harding continued, “There was a sense sometimes, I remember, of being concerned that too often, too much Mennonite thought was being given as to how to have the cleanest hands, personally, and not how to do the largest work that needed to be done.

And there was a temptation to want to make sure that a certain purity was available.

Everything as an American historian and as an African-American that I knew about this country made it very clear to me that there were no pure ways of transforming the country. [This kind of purity ethic was] never an issue that I felt any great need to respond to, if indeed, I heard it very much.”

Harding then challenged Sawin’s depiction of Guy Hershberger as unresponsive to the immediacy of the civil rights movement: “Hershberger was from my memory,” Harding said, “one of the persons who most clearly wanted to encourage us.

To be in the midst of that messy situation, and to work in as full a way as possible the spirit of Jesus, and not in the spirit of keeping your hands clean.”

Through both the civil rights movement and the Anabaptist community Harding encourages Mennonites “to engage the evil in the world, without being overco me by that evil.”

In our previous issue, our front page article on Vincent Harding said that he had not been on EMU’s campus since 1962. In fact, Harding visited in the late 1970s, and again in 1995.
-Evan Knappenberger, Contributing Writer; photo provided by EMU Marketing

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