My mentor, my holy man, my history teacher, and my friend died Monday, May 19th. Vincent Harding will be mourned by hundreds of thousands of people who had basked in the glow of his slow, gentle smile and heard his quiet, mellow tones of encouragement urge them into the struggle. He will be mourned by millions who know him only through his prolific writing.
Others will have never heard of this civil-rights prophet who inspired and nurtured Dr. King in the commitment to nonviolence. Harding was the quiet, behind-the-scenes architect of the Riverside sermon, the most prophetic sermon of King’s career, in which King boldly moved beyond the predictable race script to critique materialism and militarism.
For a few years now, as the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement generation who survived that era have been joining their ancestors, I have been steeling myself for the loss. It is imperative that the history they carry not be lost.
Dr. Harding, perhaps more than any other, carried that truth in his heart. He spent the last decades of his life devoted to preserving that history and mentoring young people. He curated the amazing Veterans of Hope film series at Iliff Seminary, each one a beautiful interview between students and civil-rights and cultural leaders whose work for change was spiritually grounded.
He wrote There is a River, perhaps the most eloquent and best history of Black struggle in the United States up to the Civil Rights movement. His second volume, unfinished, was to cover the movement to the present. He also was the historian behind Eyes on the Prize, the 6-film series of the movement. He wrote prolifically.
Vincent would never expound. The gift he offered the world was to listen, alert for all sign of hope and change. Any group he was speaking to quickly became a roundtable discussion. He would fix his always engaged and fascinated eyes on each member in turn, ask them questions, listen deeply to responses, and answer quietly from a well of experience. His yearning was to encourage, and he always did. If he offered any admonishments or differing opinions, they were humble, and quietly shared.
He beamed. His face could lift you into joy. His patience was incredible. These things made him a true teacher. He was indefatigable, even at past eight decades, always ready to walk, go, do something. I would see him at outdoor gatherings in 90+ degree heat, sitting in deep discussion, unfazed. Always ready.
My son, now fourteen, first met Vincent as a toddler, my daughter as an infant. Last Sunday, before he entered his strand of surgeries for his heart aneurysm, we stood briefly at his hospital bed, afraid for him, wearing our brave faces. My son, sober and tall now, took the hand of this man whom he has idolized most of his life. Vincent’s grip was firm and strong.
Vincent met his eyes: “You keep growing, Luke, and make sure you grow on the inside as well as the outside.”
This was what Vincent believed in most, captured in one sentence: Transforming oneself every day. Growing with each moment. He never lost sight of the vision of Beloved Community, and was relentless in his march toward it. He believed that you should never close a day without having grown as a person in that day.
We left him on those words, gave him over to that final battle of the body. His spirit was free as it has always been, bearing him through every moment until the great crossing over, where he now joins so many compatriots in the struggle for justice and against violence.
I hear his echoes in the Riverside speech he penned and which Dr. King delivered: “Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world…”
Vincent Harding dedicated his life to that struggle every day. His favorite song was entitled “We Are Building Up a New World.” He premised his life on the belief that we were doing just that, every moment and every choice we make.
And now that he has joined the ancestors, he is expecting each of us to carry the torch. It is, after all, our responsibility to history, and to ourselves.