In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, John D. Yoder, the former director of Mennonite Mission Network's communication department, reflects on the impact of living in a Black community in Atlanta, Georgia, at the end of the 1960s.
My wife, June, and I were members of Mennonite Central Committee's Voluntary Service (VS) unit in Atlanta, Georgia, from June 1968 to June 1970. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and this was my alternative service assignment. Our unit included 6-10 White VSers, who lived in a rented two-story house in a predominantly Black neighborhood on Atlanta's east side. We, VSers, came to Atlanta to learn about race relations and how to be White allies in a society, where racism, though illegal, was still pervasive. Did White people have any role to play? If so, what was it?
Having been started in 1960, "Mennonite House" was the base from which Rosemary and Vincent Harding, among others, participated in the civil rights activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other organizations with a similar purpose. Mennonite House also provided a meeting place and overnight lodging for Black and White civil-rights workers in an era of sundown towns.
By the time, June and I arrived in Atlanta, the civil-rights landscape had changed significantly. In 1964, Congress outlawed discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race and religion. Laws prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, workplaces and all public accommodations. And in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which attempted to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.
Of course, these laws didn't end discrimination or eliminate racism. In the 1968 presidential election, George Wallace, who ran on a racist platform, in support of segregation, won Georgia with 42.83% of the vote; only 30.4 % of voters cast their ballot for Richard Nixon and 26.75% voted for Hubert Humphrey.
So what was the work of White people who were living in a Black community, in a society where discrimination was illegal but racism was pervasive? Did we, as White people, have any role to play? The consensus that emerged is illustrated in the comments of Don Bender, who was part of the Atlanta VS unit for the two years before we arrived:
- "White people who work in the Black community should be under Black supervision.
- "White people do the greatest service to the Black community when they fight racism in the White community.
- "White people must be in communication with Black people."
Bender concluded that it was time for Black people to control their own communities, while White people's primary responsibility was to combat racism within themselves and other White people.
This created tension for us, as White people. We were to battle racism in the White community and keep in touch with the Black community. It seemed to us that the best way to keep in touch with Black communities was to live in them but without being paternalistic or hindering the development of Black leadership there. In the language of the time, Bender said, "Don't be your brother's keeper; be your brother's brother."
Because Mennonite House was in the Black community, we could keep in touch with people in that community. We were present when a young woman needed refuge from an angry boyfriend. A newly released inmate knocked on our door because he'd heard we found jobs for people. Another couple came to me for help collecting on life insurance policies, because they heard I could write quickly. None of those actions would have happened had we lived in the suburbs.
June was one of three White faculty members at Morris Brown College, one of the four predominantly Black colleges that were part of the Atlanta University complex. The other two White faculty lived in White neighborhoods and commuted to their teaching jobs. Our location helped us understand the transportation, health and employment issues that the Black community faced.
We worked hard at placing volunteers under Black supervision. Marilyn Schertz Horrisberger worked at the Bethlehem Community Center, which had a White director, but half of the staff was Black, including her supervisor. Bill Horrisberger taught at Parks Elementary School, where the principal was Black. June taught speech and drama at Morris Brown College, where she was supervised by a Black department chair. Later, we placed additional teachers and teacher's aides in predominantly Black schools.
Our task of educating the White community about racism and poverty was far more difficult than living and working in the Black community. I edited a monthly newsletter where we printed articles about our work, the community and the causes of poverty. We sent the newsletter to friends and family up north with the hope that since they knew us, they would be open to hearing our analysis on race-related issues. We also helped to produce a movie about our neighborhood. I wrote a script and Burton Buller, an Anabaptist cinematographer, came to Atlanta to shoot it. We hoped this movie would help White audiences understand the dynamics of our neighborhood.
Perhaps the most telling message we communicated about racism to White society came through how we lived our lives after we left VS. Our lives and attitudes were changed. We understood that paternalism, power dynamics and racism pervade our society. Several VSers remained in Atlanta after their terms were over, and they continued to work in Black institutions. When I went to graduate school, I chose African American literature as one of my areas of concentration. That background played into my interest in anti-racism initiatives while I worked at Mennonite Mission Network.
Being a White ally in a Black community gave us tools to understand ourselves, insight into the dynamics and pervasiveness of White racism — ours and society's — and an awareness of the day-to-day burden that racism places on Black society.