Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it 55 years ago, said Jalane Schmidt.
She made the remark in Bethel College’s Sept. 17 convocation, where she talked about “Charlottesville, one year later.” (She also presented a convocation at Bethel last spring.)
The biggest “stumbling block” (King’s phrase) in the way of activist people of color are not white supremacists but rather white moderates, Schmidt said.
Schmidt is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, where she has taught since 2007.
Schmidt grew up in Newton, graduated from Bethel College and has advanced degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University.
In the summer of 2017, Schmidt found herself in the middle of the confluence of history, culture and politics when American white supremacists decided to “place a target on Charlottesville’s back,” she said.
In recent years, Charlottesville has become home to immigrants from all over the world.
In March 2016, a young African-American high school student started a drive to remove Charlottesville’s two 1920s-era Confederate monuments (Robert E. Lee and General Stonewall Jackson).
In November, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election after a bitterly divisive campaign.
The “alt-right,” emboldened by sympathizers in the White House, decided to make Charlottesville the center of a mass demonstration they called “Unite the Right.” Though it had a specific date, Aug. 12, 2017, torchlight marches and attacks on anti-racist activists went on in Charlottesville for months in advance.
Organizers of Charlottesville’s resistance to Unite the Right refer to that time as #SummerOfHate.
Now, a year later, Schmidt reflected on where things stand for Charlottesville and the country.
In Charlottesville, “a much broader swathe of the public – mostly the white public – has seen that white supremacy isn’t just neo-Nazis and Klansmen marching in our streets,” she said. “It’s woven into our institutions, which go about enforcing its policies.”
Charlottesville activists have been turning their attention to gentrification and to “stop and frisk” by the police, both of which affect people of color far out of proportion to their percentage of the population.
And, Schmidt pointed out, this isn’t unique to Charlottesville.
“White supremacy is embedded in institutions, and they need to be called out,” she said. “Whether or not you have a Confederate monument in your town, the [racist] structures are there. Maybe it’s just a little easier in Charlottesville for us to see it, but it’s everywhere.”
Another result of #SummerOfHate has been other anti-racist groups in other communities calling on those in Charlottesville for advice and resources. “Networks of support are being built and reinforced,” she said.
Schmidt is on leave for this year from her position at UVA, working on a book project and occasionally speaking. She was in the Newton area as the guest for Bethel College Mennonite Church’s Peace Sunday, and will do a similar event at Rainbow Mennonite Church, Kansas City, later in the fall.
Her message to her audiences, who so far tend to be predominantly white and Mennonite, is: “We have to be vigilant. We have to consider: What does it look like to be engaged? What does it look like to resist? We need to be prepared to do our own work – and it is work – and to support others.
“When you’re trying to make change, sometimes disruption is called for. It’s not going to always be ‘respectable’ or ‘orderly.’ We do need people ‘inside the room,’ working on policy, but we also need people in the streets putting their bodies on the line.”
It has been gratifying to get the speaking invitations like the two at Bethel this year, she said. “It’s good to know that others believe what we do in Charlottesville is worthy [of wider attention].”
A student asked Schmidt why she chose to do this work. She first cited her upbringing in the Newton community.
“Growing up, my family was part of a progressive church, which was concerned with social justice,” she said. The church is New Creation Fellowship Church, a Mennonite congregation that began as an intentional community in the 1970s.
“Then I went to Bethel College, where I had a chance to continue with my activism. After graduation, I spent two years on Capitol Hill in the [Mennonite Central Committee] Washington Office.
“And now I’m in Charlottesville, at this time. I saw my town being attacked. Sometimes life forces you to make a choice, whether to be involved or not.
“We may not ‘win’ – but history will not judge us kindly if we do nothing.”
Bethel College is the only Kansas private college listed in the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, both for 2018-19. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.