Landis, the director of the Mennonite Voluntary Service, wrote King of the progress of his church’s ministry to black migrant workers in the South in a 24 September letter.1 He explained that some Mennonite youth wished to “do more in a tangible way to carry out our position against racial prejudice and segregation” and asked King for “suggestions as to how we might be able to assist on a ‘grass roots’ level in some of these poor rural communities.” In this reply, King admits his limited knowledge of the rural South.
Mr. Paul G. Landis, Director
Mennonite Voluntary Service
The Lancaster Conference
Dear Mr. Landis:
I am in receipt of your letter of September 4. First, let me apologize for being so tardy in my reply. Absence from the city for several weeks and the accumulation of a flood of mail account for the delay.
I read your letter with great interest, and I am happy to know that you have developed a program called Voluntary Service to help your young people find a positive expression to Christian love. Certainly, this is a noble venture.
I regret to say that my suggestions of how you may be able to assist on the “grass roots” level in some of the poorer communities of the South are very limited. I have very little knowledge of rural communities in Alabama. In the last few years I have been so involved in the struggle to break down the barriers of segregation and discrimination in the urban South that I have not had a chance to look into the rural situation. Of course, this is not something of which I am very proud, because the economic injustices in the rural South are much greater than the justices in the urban South. But I must confess that I have not gotten around to this area as yet.
However, the job is there to be done, and you are to be commended for seeing the need. Since I do not have any concrete suggestions to send you I would like to suggest an agency that you can write and possibly get some positive ideas concerning the rural situation. It is the America’s Farm Workers Union, Suite 1106, 112 East 19th Street, New York 3, New York. Dr. Frank P. Graham is the Chairman of this committee.2 Here, you can probably find more about the plight of the Negro in rural communities than anywhere else. I am sure that they can also suggest the best areas of concentration. I have had some little contact with this organization, and I know how intensely concerned they are about the problem.
You mention in your letter that you will be in this area in the not-too-distant future.3 If that time has not already passed, please feel free to let me know when you are coming, and I will be more than happy to talk with you. I am sure that we will find many issues of mutual interest to us. Incidentally, I am quite familiar with the Mennonites. I have had many creative contacts with your denomination in the past few years.
Very sincerely yours,
Martin L. King, Jr.
1. Paul Groff Landis (1932- ), born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became camp chaplain with the Florida Christian Ministry to Migrants in 1952. From 1954 until 1963 he served as director of the Mennonite Voluntary Service. Landis was ordained a Mennonite minister in 1958 and became a bishop in 1962.
2. King refers to the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU). He agreed to an 11 August request from Eleanor Roosevelt to serve as a sponsor for the union’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. United Nations mediator Frank Graham was on the advisory committee for SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship and served as chairman of the NAWU celebration.
3. Landis visited King in Montgomery in December and attended a session of the MIA’s Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change (Elmer Neufeld to King, 17 December 1959).
MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.