By Teo Soler – Horizon Business Manager and Contributing Writer
While studying America in my English class back in France, we went through the history of segregation and the consequences it had on the American society. Last week as we celebrated Martin Luther King’s dream of equality and love, I was curious about how those with privilege can contribute to the movement. This led me to explore the role of Mennonites in the civil rights movement and other contributors to this social change.
It was hard for me back then to conceptualize the idea that racism could be widely accepted and part of Southern American culture. While segregation was sometimes justified with interpretation of Bible verses I was surprised to discover that certain religious groups would reject and condemn this practice.
As a matter of fact groups such as the Mennonites shared progressive ideas of equality and equal opportunities. Driven by the belief that God created everybody equal, Mennonites refused to follow those rules and protested in favor of civil rights.
I was surprised to discover that some Mennonites would refuse to be incarcerated in segregated prisons. As David J. Ulbrich and Matthew S. Muehlbauer describe in their book “Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century.” “Mennonites were unwilling to support the American war effort and fell victim to harsh penalties.”
Guided by their beliefs of peace, white Mennonites ended up doing jail sentences. While in jail, they would insist to be incarcerated with African Americans, whose quarters were segregated. It ended up having a positive impact.
Carlota Ponds, Director of International Student Services described the significance of that gesture:
“Because African American were incarcerated with white Mennonites, they had access to better treatment.” This action improved the quality of life for incarcerated African Americans. Having access to blankets and renovated facilities substantially improved conditions.
Mennonites also supported the civil rights movement in other ways. In 1960, Bethel College had the privilege of hosting Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke at Memorial Hall, raising awareness and making his voice heard here in Kansas.
Ponds says that many Mennonites may wish they did more.
“Looking back at it, they would have probably wished they had been more outspoken about it,” Ponds says, but since the early 1950’s some predominantly white Mennonites and Anabaptists churches were open to black members. Mennonites, among other religious groups, took part in the protests that triggered social change.
Due to the history of discrimination and oppression Mennonites faced in Europe, they refused to be part of similar acts. Guided by their beliefs, they did what was right at the time.
Those very progressive acts are the footsteps of what Christianity should stand for. United together under the belief that God created us equal and as an optic of social progress. Historically, even though religion has been a cause of war and oppression, a true follower of Christ ought to embody the message of peace, equality and love the Bible preaches. In times of division it’s our duty as Christians to come together and help.