Brighter dawn

Bringing ‘sundown towns’ out of the shadows

Jan 20, 2014 by

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The term “sundown town” once applied to thousands of places throughout the U.S. where African-Americans weren’t welcome to live — or even to stay overnight. The fact that Goshen, Ind., was one of them reminds us that racism is a sin Mennonites bear.

Dan Shenk’s article in this issue on Goshen’s history as a sundown town raises awareness of racial discrimination in the not-so-distant past. It challenges us to build racially inclusive communities today.

Goshen might have been the sundown town with the largest number of Mennonites, but it was hardly unique. The racial mood in Goshen in the 1950s was similar to that of Harrisonburg, Va., says retired Goshen College professor C. Norman Kraus, as quoted by Shenk. Newton, Kan., was a segregated town. The point is not to disparage a particular community but to present an example that Shenk has researched and knows personally.

As we observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Shenk’s article adds to our understanding of Mennonites in the civil rights era. In the 1950s and ’60s, Mennonites’ views of King were mixed. Shenk quotes Kraus as saying that many northern Indiana Mennonites thought King was a communist and that those who sympathized with him were suspect too. Yet others were drawn to his nonviolent methods of confronting racist oppression. In his speeches and writings, King talked about putting love into practice in ways that fit Mennonite activists’ understanding of pacifism.

Agape [love] is not a weak, passive love,” King wrote in 1958. “It is love in action… . Agape is a willingness to sacrifice… . It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times but 70 times seven, to restore community.”

Some Mennonites were civil rights trail­blaz­ers. In Newton, James Rutschman and J. Winfield Fretz, owners of the Guest House Restaurant, broke segregation customs and served African-Americans. Members of Bethel College Mennonite Church helped integrate the Newton swimming pool. In Goshen, Eighth Street Mennonite Church took leadership in race relations with cross-cultural events and discussions about racial issues. In 1961 Mennonite Central Committee began a Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta to work for racial justice.

But many pacifists passively accepted racial discrimination. Vincent Harding, an African-American Mennonite who led the Atlanta VS unit with his wife, Rosemarie, warned in 1959 that Mennonites were tempted to make nonresistance “synonymous with sitting on our hands and closing our eyes and turning our backs on injustice.” A 1955 Mennonite Church statement confessed: “Often we have been silent when others showed race prejudice and practiced discrimination.” Today each of us can ask whether we should make the same confession.

North American Mennonite denominations today are blessed with a growing number of vibrant racial-ethnic congregations. Bolstered by an influx of immigrants, racial diversity brightens a scene otherwise marked by membership decline. We walk a sometimes rocky path to justice and equality together. There are many miles yet to go. Knowing the dark places we have come from helps us seek the light ahead.


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