Reflections About Vincent Harding
It was March 4, 1963. Vincent had come to Gulfport as a consultant to help us take a careful look at the Camp Landon Mennonite Mission program as we evaluated our work strategies and explored the future direction of our mission. He had been meeting with staff and community people in Gulfport, Mississippi for several days. And now to join us in our discussions, bringing in the perspectives of our sponsoring body, Vern Preheim from the General Conference Mennonite Church offices in Newton, Kansas, arrived at the Gulfport train station. Vincent joined us to pick him up at the station on our way to meet with Black ministers. There he saw the two waiting rooms, separating Whites from Colored. Aware that the Interstate Commerce Commission had ruled that interstate facilities be desegregated, Vincent’s automatic reaction was to go into the
White waiting room to report to the attendant this
news and that they were in violation of the ICC’s mandate. In Vincent’s calm, but with a clear voice resounding with authority, he attempted to engage the attendant in conversation, only to be rebuffed with a demand to leave the
White waiting room. In Vincent’s soft-spoken, but deliberate and insistent spirit, this encounter communicated as much, if not more, to those of us who observed his actions, than he was able to get through to the attendant. To us it was a mentoring of the importance, the necessity, the responsibility of using every opportunity possible to challenge the injustices, the humiliation, the discrimination of segregation.
During those turbulent ‘60s Rosella and I served most of that decade with the Camp Landon Mennonite Mission in Gulfport, Mississippi. Though our contacts with Vincent were minimal, the substantive exposure we had to his thinking and his challenges in that six-day visit to Camp Landon was a significant nudge to rethink some of the issues and strategies we were grappling with. His insightful questions and perspectives gave us pause to consider our role in a mission relating to people who lived under the injustices and prejudices of white enforced segregation called
The Southern Way of Life.
Vincent affirmed the work of Camp Landon, recognizing the good relationship the staff and volunteers had with the Black community. The programs were well received in the Black community and met many needs. He noted that Camp Landon programs did an excellent job of reaching children and young people through summer Bible schools, winter Bible Classes, a community recreation center, Fresh Air programs, youth retreats, etc. He saw that programs and services that provided opportunities that segregation and discrimination denied the Black community continued to expand, eventually including a community library, a swimming pool, and a variety of social activities that fostered friendships and interracial relationships.
While Vincent noted much good communication and acceptance in the Black community, he also recognized that significant lines of communication with the White community were lacking. He did not see the kind of contact in the larger White community that developed relationships through which Camp Landon’s influence could be a significant challenge in working for racial justice. Vincent also challenged Camp Landon’s mission strategy in the Black community in a number of areas. In his gentle but forthright way he had the gift of exposing some of the ways Camp’s mission could more fully reflect our Anabaptist theology and heritage.
Vincent questioned what he observed to be a
mission compound approach to missions. We lived in a White neighborhood, separated some three or four miles from the primary neighborhood in which we worked. What is the meaning of
community when distance and environment separate us from those we serve? Do we as workers critiquing segregation as wrong, at nightfall actually segregate ourselves from those we claim as our community? What message do we give by retreating from those we claim as brothers and sisters when we go to our own homes? Vincent challenged us to be neighbors with those we work with on a daily basis. He urged serious consideration of
Camp Landon relocating in the Black community.
Similarly, and perhaps even more seriously, he raised questions about our attendance and participation in the White Mennonite Church where Black people were not welcome to attend. The welcome we received in Black churches was not reciprocal with the church where we most frequently attended. If we continued attending the White Mennonite Church he saw it as our responsibility to strongly challenge the congregation to be open to the folks we served to be able to attend as well. Otherwise would it not be more consistent to worship in a church with those in the community in which we were most involved? Vincent was not one to avoid the tough questions, fully realizing the implications and risks and complexities of his probings.
Further, Vincent pointed out the need for an Anabaptist Church in the Black community. In his keen observation and critique of what he saw in the Black churches in the community, he offered a strong challenge to consider an Anabaptist Church plant! He included a most telling description of this need in his report of this Gulfport visit:
When children can be accepted into the church at six years of age without any suggestion of Catechism, when a church can exist primarily for the support of its pastor, when there is no serious thought given to the development of programs of Christian education, when there is no outreach in missions or service, either at home or overseas, when discipleship has no meaning at all for pastors or people, then we certainly have an obligation to let our light shine. Moreover, when one has a group of young persons like those who attend the Bible classes (at Camp Landon) and who have some real awareness of the lacks of the traditional Gulfport Negro churches, and some insight into what it really means to be a Christian. . . there is surely a need for an ongoing church fellowship. . .
And finally, Vincent challenged us to be much more aggressive in our involvement with what he called the
Racial Revolution. He urged us to speak clearly for racial justice and to be agents of reconciliation. He saw involvement in civil rights actions as part of God’s work and that we be part of that mission. He saw Camp Landon leadership as being very cautious about participating in protests or strong civil rights activism. He recognized that the family of our director included children in school and the concerns this raised for them. He sensed a reluctance to get too involved in political or civil rights activism. He seemed to wonder if Camp Landon understood that this kind of activism, including demonstrations and protests, could be part of the mission of the church and thus part of Camp Landon’s mission.
So how did Vincent’s visit to Gulfport influence our work following his Gulfport visit? The questions he raised with us were not necessarily new to us. But to hear and experience Vincent’s counsel and presence indeed put these questions into clearer focus with a greater sense of urgency in our ongoing search for direction in charting a course for the Camp Landon Mission. Though not fully realized, the influence of Vincent’s visit was evident.
However, it would be accurate to say that to a great extent Camp Landon retained it’s image of being what David Haury titled his history of the Gulfport work,
The Quiet Demonstration. (Published in 1979 by Faith and Life Press, Newton, Kansas). Camp Landon also fit into Miller Tobin Shearer’s description of valid civil rights work in the title of his work,
Daily Demonstrations: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries. (Published in 2010 by Johns Hopkins University Press). Yet there was an increasing touch of the more visible contribution to the civil rights movement and response to the recommendations Vincent suggested for the future of the Camp Landon mission following his 1963 visit.
In the years that followed, some of the Camp Landon staff took up residency in the Black community. In a few cases volunteers elected to stay and work in Gulfport, while living in the Black neighborhood and volunteering with Camp Landon programs. While Orlo Kaufman, Camp Landon Director would elect to stay living at Camp Landon, as Associate Director, I together with Rosella decided to purchase a lot in North Gulfport to possibly build and move there. This, however, did not happen. But Camp Landon did rent office space in the heart of the North Gulfport Black community which gave us a visible and accessible presence in the community.
We also saw some benefits of retaining the Camp Landon location. It afforded temporary retreats from the crowded and other negative aspects of life in the community. The frequent presence of Black people in a
White community was a demonstration that integration into the
White community is not only possible, but is welcome. That this was noted can well be illustrated with an incident when a picnic for Headstart children took place at Camp Landon. A White
visitor drove on the yard with the question,
Is this the place where they teach those damn gorillas to be civilized? He then threatened,
I’ll be back. He returned later, but quickly fled. That night a message came to Camp Landon,
Did you know that a bomb is planted at Camp Landon?
The frequent use of Camp Landon in a White community was, as in Shearer’s words, a
daily demonstration of civil rights actions. Hosting Blacks in our homes for social occasions in addition to the more formal activities of Bible Classes, Headstart Classes, Shop and Sewing Classes, workshops, etc. was activity that was clearly out of line with the accepted norm.
One of our goals, very difficult to maintain, was for us to keep lines of communication as open as possible with both races. Kaufman and I were participating members of both the White Ministerial Association and the Black Ministerial Alliances. We made efforts to initiate some joint meetings. These efforts, strongly resisted by many of the White ministers while strongly encouraged by the Black ministers, were only minimally successful.
In these ways Camp Landon’s identity with the Black community was strengthened with some of our physical presence moved into the community while at the same time retaining some of the benefits of a setting (
Mission Compound?) outside of that community.
And so we at Camp Landon lived with the tension of identity. Though most strongly we wanted to be sensitive to Vincent’s counsel and fully identify with the Black community, we also made efforts to stay in conversation with the White community.
Camp Landon struggled long and often with this tension. The question of a possible Anabaptist Church in the Black community took on serious considerations after Vincent’s visit.
For many years Camp Landon’s stated goal regarding starting a Mennonite church, was to strengthen the ministry of local Black churches, not to start a new church. To do this, Camp Landon, with the cooperation and help of local churches introduced summer Bible Schools as well as Retreat programs which prior to Camp Landon were non-existent in the local churches. Our focus was to facilitate a strong Bible teaching program, particularly among children and youth, some summers enrolling nearly a thousand children conducted in schools and churches in surrounding Black communities. This was followed by teaching numerous Bible classes, bussing youth from the Black communities to Camp Landon in the winter as well. In addition to Bible teaching, Camp worked hard to provide services like a recreation center and library that were lacking in the community – one of the many tragic consequences of a segregated, racist society where such facilities were available to Whites only. Local churches were not geared up to work at providing this kind of activity, so Camp could fill some of this void. We involved and worked with ministers in the community as much as possible in making these programs possible, thus hopefully strengthening the witness of the local churches.
But Vincent’s challenge for the need of an Anabaptist Church in the Black community did not go unheeded. It was clear to us and also from Vincent’s visit that Black leadership was needed in the Camp Landon program. And certainly for a new church start to be successful, Black leadership would be essential. For several years, the search for Black leadership to facilitate this kind of church plant was sought. That search was not successful.
The issue of Camp Landon personnel attending and participating in a White segregated Mennonite church continued to be a thorny issue. We were a constant challenge to the church regarding their rejection of welcoming Blacks. Obviously an open door policy in any White church at that time would have serious risks and implications. Yet we continued to confront our brothers and sisters with this challenge. We never pushed the point to a
demonstration. And the congregation continued to welcome
us and use us in their worship and Sunday School programs. The question of us identifying or joining a Black church was also difficult. Vincent’s critique of the Black churches in the community was so true and perhaps as Mennonite workers it was too big a leap to fully identify with any particular congregation. Rather, we visited Black churches in the area occasionally. Always, we were welcome. I continue to feel tension and discomfort about the issue of our church relationships during that tumultuous, tension-filled time.
Vincent challenged us to be ready to participate in the civil rights movement. He predicted demonstrations would eventually happen in Gulfport. Gulfport was always seen as
more liberal than the rest of the state, especially the more rural areas. The presence of an Air Force Base as well as the Seabees, may well have been the reason for this. Nevertheless Gulfport was very much part of the South and the patterns of segregation were strongly adhered to. I recall only one major demonstration on the Gulf Coast. Gulfport is in the middle of what is claimed to be the
longest man-made beach in the world. The
man-made stems from the 300 foot sand beach being dredged from out of the gulf, thus creating a beach rather than simply a sea-wall. But the beach – 28 miles long – was available to Whites only. Thus a
Wade-In demonstration by Blacks protested this discrimination. Some 71 persons were arrested in the event. Camp Landon did not participate, nor do I recall if or how Camp Landon responded to it.
Then there would be the question of participating in demonstrations away from Gulfport, joining Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in significant protests. Many of these protests included people from around the country. I can hear movement people, with Vincent among them, ask,
Where are the Mennonites? Obviously, Vincent wanted us to think about how we would respond should further demonstrations occur in our community. During my time in Gulfport, there was one additional demonstration, which was really a
Sympathy March remembering the death of James Reeb (originally from Wichita) and Jimmie Jackson during the 1965 voter registration march from Selma to Montgomery. I decided to participate in that demonstration. I confess this was a difficult decision for me, not so much that I questioned the rightness to participate, but because in discussing this with my Mennonite colleagues and church family, no one approved my decision. So, though I was fully welcomed by the Black community, I felt I had to go it alone in terms of my relationship with my church family. This experience gave me a small sense of what it’s like to absorb the sneers and name-calling of those on the sidelines not friendly with civil rights demonstrations and their goals. I’m not sure how much Vincent’s visit influenced my decision to march, but I know my affinity with his emphasis that we must identify with the cause of justice as part of our Anabaptist witness was a motivation for my decision.
For most of the 10 years Rosella and I were in Gulfport, I was the speaker for a 15-minute Sunday morning radio broadcast,
The Sunday School Class of the Air. This was sponsored by Camp Landon and the Black Ministerial Alliance. Though the broadcast contained an exposition of the International Sunday School Series text, there were plenty of opportunities to challenge the church and community to address issues of segregation and racial injustice. Again, in keeping with Vincent’s critique that we challenge prejudices and White Christian’s support of segregation and racial injustices, this was another opportunity for Camp Landon to speak publically to these important issues. Though strongly supported by the Black community, it is evident that the program also included White listeners. Critics called in from time to time. A White minister bought a 15-minute radio segment to give a rebuttal to one of the broadcasts, defending segregation and the
Southern Way of Life.
Letters to the editor, communication with civic leaders, calling for the city to appoint a bi-racial committee to address racial issues, were all parts of a civil rights activism that increasingly became a part of the Camp Landon Mennonite Mission. However, relatively speaking, I sense that Vincent would have encouraged us to be even more courageous. I feel strongly indebted to him, however, for the challenge to see working vigorously for justice through non-violent action as part of the church’s mission. Certainly it needed to be that for the Camp Landon Mennonite Mission as we served through that volatile civil rights era.
Vincent, in addition to challenging us in the Mennonite Church to practice our Anabaptist theology as it related to the
racial revolution of the ‘60s, understandably became very impatient with us. We at Camp Landon did not receive any further direct counsel from Vincent. He didn’t
check up on us to encourage us or further challenge us. Perhaps his work in relation to Camp Landon’s on-going program was complete. It was up to us to find our way. Or it was up to us to request his further counsel. Obviously both he and we found ourselves busily and deeply involved in our own particular efforts to be about our
missions neglecting further contact and communication with each other.
No doubt Vincent’s challenges to us were a constant reminder to consider what it meant and what it still means to be an Anabaptist Christian involved in
missions. in a Black community. It is significant that he so often invoked the call to be true to our Anabaptist heritage and theology in an unjust and often violent social context. Our Mennonite understanding of the way of peace and reconciliation was being tested. Vincent did not accept non-resistance as a viable strategy for peacemaking. He challenged us and the Mennonite Church to be agents of change for a more just and peaceful world. He taught us meekness and humbleness in manner and spirit. But he also taught us the necessity of confronting wrongs vigorously, as he illustrated at that Gulfport train station in March of 1963. Of course, Vincent understood the risks involved. Risks of being misunderstood, even by our friends. Risks of failure. Risks of violent responses. But as Vincent stood beside Martin Luther King, Jr. in his stubborn commitment to non-violent resistance, his voice and actions still challenge us as Mennonites to be ACTIVE, sometimes resistant, demonstrative peacemakers.