Brethren Historical Library and Archives
Ralph Smeltzer and His Work in Selma
by Maddie McKeever
Ralph Smeltzer was a member of the Church of the Brethren who worked under the Brethren Service Committee (later, Brethren Service Commission) in a variety of jobs from about 1944 – 1968. In addition, Smeltzer oversaw Brethren Service in Austria post World War II and worked within different capacities for the National Council of Churches. He was perhaps best known for his work with Japanese Americans during World War II, when many of them were held in internment camps, and in helping with relocation after they were released from the camps. Ralph and his wife, Mary Blocher Smeltzer, lived and worked as school teachers in the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Furthermore, it is likely that Smeltzer’s work in the internment camp helped to prepare him for his future work in Selma, Alabama, as a mediator during the Civil Rights Movement. He worked as Director of Peace and Social Education through the Washington Office from 1953 to 1968, also under BSC. According to Stephen L. Longenecker in his book Selma’s Peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Rights Mediation, “in the 1960s civil rights became a predominant part of Smeltzer’s job.”1 By reading Longenecker’s book, Charles E. Fager’s book Selma, 1965, and by consulting primary documents and reference materials in the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, information comes to light regarding Smeltzer’s work in Selma and the relationships involved with this work. These resources shed new light concerning the social dynamics of Selma, Alabama, and Smelter working with the flow of such dynamics to promote peace and renew relationships in this city.
Smeltzer worked passionately toward social justice, and he often did so while living in the same environment as the people with whom he was partnering. He wrote many articles for religious publications, including Messenger, on such work experiences. One of Smeltzer’s articles is titled “The Federal Budget: Whose Priorities?” It was published in the 1973 issue of Messenger, which was approximately eight years after his time working as a mediator in Selma, Alabama. This article provides some insight from Smeltzer, in his own words, on what he believes is the church’s calling in the world. The following quote includes Smeltzer quoting from the Bible – when Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah – in Luke 4:18: ‘[. . .] We must be true to the gospel’s call to “preach good news to the poor, . . . to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”’ 2 As a Christian pacifist and member of the Church of the Brethren, Smeltzer knew that he had to step into the midst of this conflict to ease the suffering by serving others through promoting peace and strengthening relationships. In these ways, the effects of Smeltzer’s work were ever present in Selma, even as he was almost invisible.
In fact, this invisibility was carefully orchestrated by Smeltzer. “Predictably, Smeltzer threw nothing away, and after concluding his Selma work he assembled all his notes, plus dozens of file folders full of relevant news clippings, pamphlets, magazine articles, correspondence and other materials, for the Brethren archives in Elgin, Illinois.” 3 As this quote alludes to, the Brethren Historical Library and Archives is in possession of a collection of a wide variety of written materials related to Smeltzer. While these documents remain, Smeltzer nevertheless worked hard to keep his presence in Selma a secret. He asked multiple people to destroy letters that he had sent to them, and there are virtually no photographs of him in Selma during this time. 4 He believed that he had to work behind the scenes while organizing meetings, interviews, and other social events. Smeltzer purposefully did this so that no one would think that he was working for or against organizations associated with the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).5 Smeltzer believed that if he were to publicly show his support for civil rights groups, while he was working in Selma, it would surely stop his efforts to mend broken relationships in this city. 6
Smeltzer first came to Selma when he heard of how a group of African American nurses, who were employees of Selma’s Dunn Rest Home, were fired from their jobs when they tried to register to vote, in 1963. 7 Smeltzer talked with W. Harold Row about how the Church of the Brethren could help these women, since their prospects for finding other jobs would be increasingly hard.8,9 Although Smeltzer did not outright plan to work in Selma as a mediator, he changed his mind after spending time in Selma and observing the dynamics of this city.10 Smeltzer took it upon himself to interview the people of Selma and learn as much as he could about the history of the city, what differing people thought of each other, and the tense environment in which they all lived. 11 Moreover, Longenecker’s book explains how there were white moderates who partly agreed with extending civil rights to people of color but were afraid to voice their opinions due to other white extremists who opposed integration and promoted segregation.12
Therefore, effective communication strategies were skills that Smeltzer tactfully used to help diffuse conflicts in Selma to the best of his ability. Accounts from a variety of people convey that Smeltzer actively listened and learned from others.13 When considering what is believed to be a speech outline, titled “The Conciliation Role in Racial Situations,” effective communication did not just have to do with getting your own point across. In fact, it involved learning and listening with an open mind as much as anything else, and from both sides, too.14 It was unbiased and fair.15 Smeltzer conducted many interviews from both sides, read the news, went to the library, gathered statistics, and, in terms of his work, focused exclusively on the city of Selma. His approach was that concentrating his efforts in one city at a time was the best way to effectively minister. 16
Even by simply talking and building friendly relationships with other people, he began to earn the trust of many African Americans as well as some white moderates in Selma.17 Yet, there were other white Americans of Selma who considered Smeltzer to be an outsider.18 This was at the heart of why Smeltzer tried to appear neutral in his work, so that he could effectively perform his job as a mediator in Selma. Other white people of Selma complied with Smeltzer to help him, such as the librarians at Carnegie Library, who, while knowing that Smeltzer was from out of town, allowed him to write inside the library and use their phone. Due t19 earlier integration of this library, it had undergone changes to help reduce the possibility for conflict. “The [library] board believed that removal of the [library] chairs would help the community adjust to integration, for although the library was now technically integrated, removing the chairs meant that blacks and whites could not sit together at tables.” 20
Many white people of Selma – residents, employers, and others – reacted not only out of hatred, but fear, too, as the example of Carnegie Library shows. This was true before and after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The societal pressures from white extremists, who influenced the operations of many public buildings, forced African Americans to use extreme caution when practicing their civil rights. As a result, many African Americans participated in “testing” events in Selma – many of which Smeltzer helped to organize.21 Examples of testing include African Americans integrating themselves into restaurants, churches, or other public places where they were previously excluded under Jim Crow segregation laws. African Americans would often do this slowly but strategically in order to help integrate themselves into society with as few risks for their safety as possible. Others might take bolder actions or not “test” at all. However, regardless of how they exercised their civil rights, African Americans were often met with violence as a result of such testing. 22
Smeltzer’s observations of Selma and his devotion to break down barriers in the race conflicts led to him meeting with Mayor Chris Heinz of Selma, as well as Sheriff Jim Clark.23 Both men, but especially Sheriff Clark, were notorious for their mistreatment of African Americans. While Smeltzer listened to both “sides” of the people of Selma, this does not mean that he compromised his goals. According to Fager in his book Selma, 1965, “[Smeltzer’s] plan [. . .] was [. . .] to prod the white leadership toward dilution and abandonment of their diehard segregationist posture, and the blacks toward building a disciplined, representative leadership that would press resolutely but peacefully for basic but moderate advances.” 24 In this way, Smeltzer sought to be a mediator, as is suggested in the title of Longenecker’s book: Selma’s Peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Rights Mediation.
In terms of American history, Selma is often remembered as a divided city where violence and fear preyed on people and destroyed relationships. Yet, even in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, Ralph Smeltzer helped to connect the people of Selma to one another. His life work serves as an example of how it is possible to renew relationships through nonviolent mediation. Even today, as many Americans are at odds with each other on a variety of issues, communication, empathy, intentional listening, and forgiveness and willingness to admit faults may help ease such tension. This will take time, perseverance, patience, and compassion. For Smeltzer, what started out as a rather short-term mission turned into a cause that lasted for two years. Ralph Smeltzer helped to lay the foundation for a social justice cause – one that is still important today. This historical foundation is ready to be built upon, should we choose to do so.
It should be noted that Stephen L. Longenecker’s book, Selma’s Peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Rights Mediation, was used as a main source in writing much of this Hidden Gem.