Daily Demonstrators

Paul Harvey

Here's an unexpected and interesting new work that came to my attention lately: Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

The civil rights movement, as Shearer shows in minute detail in this volume, took place not just on the streets of the well-known campaigns, but in homes and church sanctuaries, where Mennonite “daily demonstrators” “strode through sanctuaries and loped through living rooms.” A series of narrative chapters cover topics as diverse as Mennonite “fresh air” programs to provide experiences in the countryside to black kids, interracial marriages among black-white Mennonite couples and the trials they faced from suspicious co-religionists, attempts to create interracial Mennonite congregations and the struggles those churches encountered, and the work of the well-known black historian Vincent Harding, a Mennonite convert who sought to guide the church towards more worldly “engagement” and less separation from sin so as to confront apartheid in America directly (but who eventually moved out of the Mennonite church in frustration). Throughout the book, the author usefully explores the paradox of separation and nonconformity to the world, which made some churchpeople unwilling to confront discrimination in their own religious world while pushing others to confront discrimination directly and forcefully. Mennonite separation thus had a “conflicted history,” explored in loving detail in this book. Overall, the work provides a most compelling look at how this particular Anabaptist tradition confronted the most central moral issue of American history within its own confines and traditions but at the same time engaging, tentatively and times and robustly at other times, the larger social world. The civil rights movement for Mennonites was defined by "inside agitators," and the struggles within homes and sanctuaries should take as central a place as those outside of them, Shearer concludes.

Here's some more on the book from the JHU website:

The Mennonites, with their long tradition of peaceful protest and commitment to equality, were castigated by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for not showing up on the streets to support the civil rights movement. Daily Demonstrators shows how the civil rights movement played out in Mennonite homes and churches from the 1940s through the 1960s.

In the first book to bring together Mennonite religious history and civil rights movement history, Tobin Miller Shearer discusses how the civil rights movement challenged Mennonites to explore whether they, within their own church, were truly as committed to racial tolerance and equality as they might like to believe. Shearer shows the surprising role of children in overcoming the racial stereotypes of white adults. Reflecting the transformation taking place in the nation as a whole, Mennonites had to go through their own civil rights struggle before they came to accept interracial marriages and integrated congregations.

Based on oral history interviews, photographs, letters, minutes, diaries, and journals of white and African—American Mennonites, this fascinating book further illuminates the role of race in modern American religion


Anonymous said…
Hi Paul,
I had the privilege of reading this in manuscript form and I responded to Tobin's paper recently at the AAR. This is going to a very important work, especially the emphasis on church as locus of interracial conflict and change, rather than street demonstrations and protests. It shows another side of what we might call the long civil rights movement.

Curtis J. Evans
Paul Harvey said…
Curtis -- thanks, would love to hear more about that session.

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