Mennonite influence on King’s Vietnam stanceBy Andre Gingerich Stoner
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City.
That day he became the most prominent American to speak out publicly against America’s brutal and brutalizing military adventure in Southeast Asia.
He called on young men of draft age to declare themselves conscientious objectors to that war. The speech caused a storm of criticism in the press and among prominent white politicians and religious leaders who told him to stick to civil rights. Some black leaders, too, criticized him harshly. They feared he would hurt the cause of racial equality.
King said, “I cannot segregate my conscience.” With courage and conviction he persisted in his witness. One year later to the day, he was assassinated.
Most people — including Mennonites — don’t know that King’s perspectives on Vietnam were shaped by years of conversation with Vincent Harding, who had served as pastor of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, became friends and co-workers of the Kings when they moved to Atlanta in 1961 to start Mennonite House, a project of Mennonite Central Committee. (For detailed first-person accounts of this work, see the first two chapters of Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, edited by Joanna Shenk, published by Herald Press, 2011.)
The Hardings returned to the Chicago area in 1964 so that Vincent could complete his doctorate in history. Before returning to Atlanta, while they lived at Reba Place Fellowship during the summer of 1965, he immersed himself in the study of Vietnam. One of his key sources was reports from MCC workers.
Harding was an adviser to King while debate persisted among King’s staff about whether he should speak publicly against the war. When he decided he must do so, King asked Harding to write the draft of that pivotal speech.
According to David Jehnsen, the Southern Freedom Movement (often called the civil rights movement) should be considered a fourth historic peace church. The son of a Church of the Brethren pastor, Jehnsen worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Chicago in the 1960s and has been a trainer of Kingian nonviolence for more than 40 years. Deeply rooted in the biblical story and in the black church, the Southern Freedom Movement was committed to active nonviolence in the cause of justice.
Despite the kinship and some powerful personal relationships, most Mennonites of that period were deeply skeptical of King and the movement he led. A history of cultural assimilation, segregation and racism, as well as political quietism, all played a role. Few Mennonite leaders were personally engaged in the freedom struggle, and even fewer were on a first-name basis with movement leaders.
As Harding felt the need to stand more deeply in the heart of the black community, some Mennonites felt he was leaving them. After teaching at Spellman College, he became a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and continued as a mentor and advocate for justice.
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