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Saluting the Life and Legacy of Vincent Harding

August 2014

Vincent HardingThe life and legacy of Vincent Harding, Ph.D., former chair of Spelman’s history and sociology department and close friend and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was celebrated on August 22, at 3 p.m., in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College.

The program featured tributes by Spelman alumnae Ama Saran, a former Harding student whose life was directly and significantly impacted by his life and work; and Pearl Cleage, playwright novelist, and social activist. Author Michelle Alexander; civil rights icon Dr. C.T. Vivian, Spelman’s chorale reading group RESONANCE, and the Spelman Alumnae Quartet, also made presentations.

A Passion for Peace and Justice

Considered an unsung hero of the Civil Right movement, Harding shared King’s thinking and vision about nonviolence. He moved to Atlanta in 1961, and lived around the corner from King’s family. Shortly after arriving in Atlanta,  Dr. Harding and his wife founded the Mennonite House, one of the South’s first interracial gathering places for proponents of civil rights.

An extended interview with Harding underscores his passion for social justice:

"Following the 1965 completion of his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, Harding accepted an invitation to become chair of the History and Sociology Department at Atlanta’s Spelman College. Harding recalled that as a result of this opportunity and of his growing awareness of the Vietnam War, “I became very concerned that I not go to a teaching situation with young people without having some greater clarity about that war” (Berger, “Extended Interview”).

To prepare for his position at Spelman, Harding studied Vietnam’s history, and in the process “decided to write something to the SCLC convention….And what I wrote was essentially an open letter to Martin and the delegates” (Berger, “Extended Interview”). In this letter, Harding asserts: “It is my personal opinion that our nation is wrong in what it now does in Vietnam, and has been wrong for more than two decades….I believe, too, that we as a nation are called upon to repent of the arrogance that took us into Vietnam in the first place” (Harding, 8 August 1965). "**

And the Rest is History . . .

Harding later penned Dr. King’s 1967 anti-war speech, "Beyond Vietnam," in which he masterfully connected the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. with struggles for justice in other parts of the world. After King’s assassination in 1968, Harding worked with Coretta Scott King to launch the King Center and become its first director. He also was the co-founder and first director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, a community of black scholars, artists, teachers and organizers.

Before joining the faculty at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology in 1981, Harding also taught at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. He later served as Distinguished Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar in Residence at Morehouse in 2012; and that same year, Spelman’s Independent Scholars and the Social Justice Fellows Program hosted “The Struggle for Social Justice In the Twenty-First Century: A Conversation with Dr. Vincent C. Harding."

The author of several books, Harding was senior adviser on public television’s “Eyes on the Prize,” a 12-part program on the Civil Rights Movement.  At his death in May 2014, he was preparing what promised to be an important book about the transformative power of love; and his 2012 blog post, “Do Not Grow Weary or Lose Heart,” is laced with words of hope and encouragement that characterized his life and work:

Are there any remaining glimmers of hope in politics today? … [W]e do not have the luxury of falling into despair. There are too many folks who have fought too long and given too much and found their way through too many disappointments and seeming failures for us to say, oh, it just didn’t work, and, I’m finished with that stuff…

We are in a fascinating, powerful, and perplexing time. My assumption is that’s why we were created with such tremendous capacities: to deal with perplexing situations. That’s why some of us believe that there is within us the creative power of the universe that God dwells in us.

Now, what’s the point of God dwelling with us if we don’t have any tough jobs to do? God’s wasting God’s time, if there is no tough stuff to work on. For me, right now, the building of a democracy called America is the toughest job that we have to work on. The stuff that we are going through now is part of the context, part of the material that’s here for us…

**The historical passage from Berger interview with Harding was taken from

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