Vincent G. Harding
(1931 - )
Historian, activist, public intellectual
Vincent Harding is an historian, author, and activist who has participated in movements for compassionate justice and nonviolent social change since the late 1950’s. A friend and associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harding was active in the Southern Freedom (Civil Rights) Movement. He was the founding director of both the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and the Institute of the Black World. Harding is professor emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and is the co-founder and chair of the Veterans of Hope Project, an interdisciplinary initiative on religion, culture, and grassroots democracy.
Vincent Gordon Harding was born in New York City on 25 July 1931 and grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx. He earned an undergraduate degree in history from the City College of New York (1952), a masters degree in journalism at Columbia University (1953), and both a masters and doctorate in history from the University of Chicago (1956 and 1965, respectively).
While serving as a draftee in the U.S. Army in the early 1950’s Harding became a conscientious objector. Partly as a result of that commitment he joined the Mennonite Church, known for its historical dedication to peace and reconciliation. For several years in the mid-to-late 1950’s Harding was part of an interracial pastoral team at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. It was there that he met Rosemarie Freeney, a teacher and social worker also involved in the Mennonite community. They were married in 1960, and in 1961 accepted a call from the service committee of the national Mennonite Churches to become its representatives to the Southern Freedom Movement.
The Hardings relocated to Atlanta, founding Mennonite House, an interracial community service center and retreat space for Movement activists. From this base, they traveled throughout the South, working with local and national Movement organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Operating closely as a team, the Hardings focused on teaching nonviolence, encouraging and mentoring Movement participants, and seeking out pathways to racial reconciliation, justice, and hope. This work brought them into relationship with individuals such as Martin and Coretta King, Marion Wright Edelman, Ella Baker, Andrew Young, James Lawson, Anne Braden, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many other well-known and lesser known Movement activists.
In 1965, shortly before beginning a period of teaching at Spelman College, Harding’s increasing concern about the Vietnam War led him to write an open letter to King and the SCLC Convention. In it he raised issues of conscience, expressed solidarity with the international anti-colonial struggles, and asked the SCLC to take a stand on behalf of the suffering Vietnamese people. When, in the fall of 1966, King received an invitation to address the gathering of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, he asked Harding to draft the speech. Delivered on 4 April 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City, it has been hailed as “one of the most important speeches in American History.” (Berger 2007) Commonly referred to as “Beyond Vietnam” or “A Time to Break Silence,” the text drew essential connections between King’s role as a Civil Rights leader, his commission as a minister and follower of Jesus, and the moral and ethical imperative arising from those commitments to speak out against the war. He identified the triple evils of racism, militarism, and materialism infecting the soul of America and called for a “revolution of values” and an accompanying “radical change in the structures of society.” (Harding 1996, 74)
Following the 1968 assassination of Dr. King, which occurred one year to the day after the Riverside speech, Harding was asked by King’s widow to help her organize the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center, including the Library-Documentation project (originally envisioned as the major documentary archive of the Freedom Movement). Harding became its first director. He was also the founding executive director of the Institute of the Black World (IBW), a center for research, publication, and advocacy arising out of both the Freedom and the Black power / Black consciousness movements. IBW was instrumental in providing intellectual and ideological guidance for the then-new academic field of Black studies. Harding remained at IBW until 1974.
Over the next several years he served on the faculty at universities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and taught at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study and retreat center. In 1981 Harding became the first person of color on the faculty at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, serving 23 years as professor of Religion and Social Transformation. He retired in 2004, but remains active as a Trustee and professor emeritus. In addition, Harding is a mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide to scores of scholars and community activists in the U.S. and abroad.
In 1986 Harding was the senior academic advisor for the award winning PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” chronicling the years of the Civil Rights Movement. He has since consulted on a number of documentaries and other projects related to African American history, and particularly the spiritually-based struggles for justice. Harding is the author of numerous articles, essays, and books, including, The Other American Revolution (1980), There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981), Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (1990), and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (1996).
In 1997 Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding founded the Veterans of Hope Project, originally called the Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal. (See related article.) The project is an intergenerational interdisciplinary initiative on spirituality, culture, and participatory democracy. Although his wife passed on in 2004, Harding and his family continue her dedication to the role of spirituality in the work of social change and the importance of intergenerationality in the creation of a more just and compassionate society.
See also: Civil Rights Movement; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Veterans of Hope Project
Berger, R.M. (2004). I’ve known rivers: The story of Freedom Movement leaders Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding. Sojourners Magazine, on-line archive at www.sojo.net (retrieved 4/07)
Berger, R.M. (2007). Dreaming America. Sojourners Magazine, 36(4), 38-43.
Carson, C., Garrow, D.J., Gill, G., Harding, V., & Hine, D.C., eds. (1991). The eyes on the prize reader: Documents, speeches and first hand accounts from the Black freedom struggle, 1954-1990. New York: Penguin Books.
Harding, V. (1980). The other American revolution. Atlanta and Los Angeles: Institute of the Black World and Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA.
Harding, V. (1981). There is a river: The Black struggle for freedom in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Harding, V. (1990). Hope and history. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Harding, V. (1996). Martin Luther King: The inconvenient hero. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Harding, V., with Kelley, R.D.G., & Lewis, E. (1997). We changed the world: African Americans 1945-1970. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harding, V., & Harding, R.F. (2001). Freedom’s Sacred Dance. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, (16) Winter, 21-24. (http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=389)
Veterans of Hope Project website: http://www.veteransofhope.org