Paging through a back issue of Sojourners magazine, I came across an article about Vincent Harding, the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. …
Paging through a back issue of Sojourners magazine, I came across an article about Vincent Harding, the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The more I read about him, the more surprised I was that I didn’t know anything about this powerful human being.
He was a professor, writer, scholar, and leading historian of the Black-led struggle for freedom and justice in the U.S. His lifelong activism focused on developing a compassionate, multireligious, multiracial democracy. He believed that transformation happened when people were engaged and contributing, so he brought together scholars, activists, artists, youth, and people of faith, encouraging members of every community to talk about what was important to them. He listened rather than lecturing or directing. He believed that human beings could be transformed through love because he had felt such transformation in his own life.
He was brought up in the Victory Tabernacle 7th Day Christian Church, which he said was a place where “everyone knew my name, and everyone loved me, and everyone pushed me to be my best self.” He was drafted at age 22 and thought he’d go to officer’s candidate school, but he had an epiphany in basic training about killing others and knew he couldn’t be a follower of Jesus and be in the military.
After discharge, his journey led him to the Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago where he was to join as a co-pastor with the white minister and help build a multiracial congregation. In 1958, they visited the South to learn about the Southern Freedom Movement (also known as the Civil Rights Movement) and met Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “You’re Mennonites and know something about nonviolence; you understand what we’re trying to do down here. You ought to come back and help us.” That was a turning point for Harding, drawing him into the heart of the Black-led movement to broaden and deepen democracy in the U.S.
In 1960, he and his wife, Rosemarie, spoke, organized, and taught across Georgia, working with the Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia, to desegregate the whole town. They drew in King for his first major involvement in an effort like that. It was not successful, but it laid the groundwork for success later in Birmingham, Alabama.
Harding drafted King’s controversial speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.” He spoke out against racism, extreme materialism, and militarism, a whole cloth denunciation of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Other civil rights leaders wanted King to soften the speech, fearful of alienating President Lyndon Johnson, who supported civil rights. King was adamant. He felt he could no longer promote nonviolence and remain silent about U.S. military actions around the globe destroying lives, communities, governments, and economies. He said, “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.” He also emphasized that the money spent on the military drained resources from all other programs, usually hitting the poor and minorities the hardest.
John Lewis, civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman, said he thought it was King’s strongest speech, calling it “a speech for all humanity - for the world community.” King understood the big picture: that to have peace around the world and in our neighborhoods, we need to know each other, care about each other, and not kill each other, and that having economic fairness, social equality, and justice are essential foundational bricks to caring and not killing. Depriving someone of an opportunity to work for fair living wages, to have safe housing, and access to education and health care are ways we demean people and kill them in body and spirit.
King said, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He foresaw the future, warning of a time of endless war, when the U.S. would be trapped in one overseas entanglement after another while the gap at home between the rich and poor grew ever larger. He was assassinated exactly one year later.
What really caught me in Harding’s life story, echoed in King’s, was the strength and faith he had because of his underpinnings as a child: he was known, he was loved and knew he was loved, and he was pushed to be his best. He could envision a powerful, loving, supportive, interactive community because he had experienced it. That had given him faith in himself and faith in everyone else with the strength to persevere, believing that everyone had something to contribute and could do so. So how do we get there?
I have often thought about how it seems to be hard for us in the U.S. to build and sustain strong, healthy, interconnected communities. Many have tried and failed. Some elements that contribute to this are the physical size of our country, with states and regions as large as some countries; distinctive regional differences; the geographical mobility that separates families and friends and which may also lessen attachments to communities; our cultural ethos of independence and self-reliance as individuals and family units, often enabled by a very high standard of living, requiring less dependence on others.
It’s not that we’re all isolated hedonists. In our hearts I think we all want peace, freedom, and fairness– at least for our families and the people we know. So, it may sound simplistic, but I think we need to get to know and understand a broader spectrum of people; it makes it harder to kill them. We readily care for family, friends, and strangers in difficult times, personally or through volunteerism. Indeed, the U.S. is known for high levels of volunteerism: 25 percent of people above 16 years old volunteer, giving an average of 52 hours per year. You might be surprised to know that the most likely people to volunteer are not the retired and unemployed, but employed people ages 35 to 44. Minneapolis-St. Paul leads American cities with a 45-percent volunteer rate.
Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said, “The fabric of our nation is strengthened by the service of its volunteers. When we stand side-by-side to help others, our differences fade away and we learn that Americans have more in common than we realize. Serving others has the power to change communities and lives for the better,”
Vincent Harding died in 2014 at 82, his vision still a distant dream, but he never gave up on it. I don’t think we should either.