Vincent Harding (1931-2014) was an unassuming person who was inclined to serve the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement from behind the scenes. He was a young man then—having graduated from City College of New York with a baccalaureate degree in history (1952), followed by a stint in the U.S. Army (1953-1955), and subsequently earning a master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago (1956). But Harding had a passion for justice, so he traveled to Atlanta, GA, to participate in the movement in 1960. Living around the corner from Martin Luther King, Jr., Harding and his neighbor (and their wives) became fast friends. At the time, Harding was a representative of the Mennonite Church.
While helping to teach nonviolent tactics in King’s direct action campaigns, Harding continued his education—pursuing doctoral studies until he was awarded the degree from his master’s alma mater in 1965. He was a professor at Spelman College. During the early 1960s, he and his wife, Rosemary (nee Freeney) started Mennonite House, which was an interracial community center where civil rights activists were able to meet, study, strategize, and recreate. Harding called little attention to himself, but he was a solid assistant to the leadership of the movement.
As a matter of fact, Harding, so frustrated with U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam, finally convinced King, after two years, officially to speak out against the military endeavor. The speech he wrote for King was delivered at the famous Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. It was a scathing attack upon the (Lyndon) Johnson Administration and criticized the president and congressional leadership for not addressing the exacerbating plight of the poor—who were disproportionately represented on the battlefields in Vietnam. From most sectors of the body politic, King was castigated for his coming out against the war, which was ostensibly supported by the majority of the citizenry at that time. Even major, African American civil rights leader rebuked King for his outspokenness against American foreign policy—an area they deigned could not possibly be apprehensible to a black man from the Deep South!
Harding felt badly about the speech—not because it was wrong or ill timed—because one year later, to the day, King was assassinated! Harding could not help but believe that part of the reason for King’s murder was because of the speech he had written for King: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
Harding was a great man in his own right. I never met him personally, but I did correspond with him as I was trying to determine where I would pursue my doctoral studies. At the time, in the early 1980s, Harding was at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. I had the chance briefly to speak with him, and he was both unusually kind and very understanding of my circumstances. I finally chose to go to Boston University, but I never have forgotten the encouragement that Harding gave to me. Two books that he wrote which I truly enjoyed are: There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981) and Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Inconvenient Hero (1996).
As 2014 and 2015 are framed by the fiftieth anniversaries of the two major legislations regarding civil rights in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, I urge you to invest some time in reading Harding’s take on the movement and its undisputed leader, and in watching the celebrated documentary series for which he was a senior consultant, Eyes on the Prize.