[dropcap]I[/dropcap] MET Dr. Vincent Harding in 2003. It was the height of the harsh post-9/11 years during the lead up to the Iraq War.
We were unlikely allies.
He was the seasoned civil rights activist and academic. He had provided strategic planning, speech writing, counseling, and leadership to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and many other significant actions in the South throughout the 1960s. He wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech “A Time to Break the Silence,” and was a close friend of the King family. He was a well-respected professor at the Iliff School of Theology and author of multiple influential books about civil rights struggle. Dr. Harding was a gentle man radiating warmth and intellect. He spoke with the rhythm of a singer.
I, by contrast, was a seventeen-year-old punk rocker who was bored and bullied out of high school. I had jet black spiked hair and wore a dog collar and combat boots. I was filled with rage and fear at, among other things, the idea of this country embarking on years of brutal warfare. I was newly starting college, couldn’t vote, and had no idea how to organize a peace movement. I was desperate to do something.
At first, I was star-struck. Dr. Harding was one of the most influential civil rights historians in the country. He was a confidante of nearly every activist I admired, and was providing guidance to the anti-war movement. But it was easy to grow close to the tender man who told us to call him Uncle Vincent instead of Dr. Harding. He made it very clear that every person at every meeting was important, cared for, and a vital aspect of change.
Despite his warmth and kindness, Dr. Harding did not encourage us – particularly those among us who were young white activists from Denver suburbs — to remain comfortable. He was the historian who pushed me to look into my family and cultural past as much as the great happenings chronicled in his books. He held space for the hard feelings that come from recognizing the painful and shameful story of race in America. He also held me accountable to make change.
The magic of Dr. Harding was that he knew how to create that environment for all of his students, both those who formally registered for his courses and those like me who were lucky to find him in our activist planning meetings. No matter the conflict or cause around which we were organizing, Dr. Harding pushed us to the edge of our abilities with high expectations and love.
He urged us to allow ourselves to be raw and vulnerable in the face of the greatest inhumanities and use the moments of the most hurt to spark transformation. He told us that organizing and social justice work must come from a place of love and liberation, even for our greatest opponents.
I argued and pushed back. “But Dr. Harding, they are starting an illegal war!”
“Yes! And we do not fight their terror with our own!” he told me.
I trembled at the thought of going against great injustice without self-defense.
“My young friend, you can be afraid,” he would assure me. “You cannot be frozen. You cannot be pushed into inaction or into action that violates your greatest purpose.”
He spoke with such faith, you would forget that he had seen horrors in his lifetime: Ku Klux Klan attacks, police violence, assassinations, war and fire bombings.
I have grappled with these lessons for over ten years and many forms of activism. No matter the cause, these lessons have stuck to my core and helped define how I work as a community organizer.
The last time I was with Dr. Harding was in February. He was speaking at a fundraiser for the Victim Offender Reconciliation Project and proclaimed, “We are citizens of a country we have yet to create.” He called on the crowd to take an oath to make this country what it was meant to be.
He was full of fire and joy.
After the event, Dr. Harding held my baby and told me about the great charge of being a parent and an activist. He looked my child in the eyes and said something to the effect of, “We are so glad you are here. We have so much to learn from you.”
I feel fortunate to have those moments captured in a photo. It is hard to think my child will not know Dr. Harding. But I’m thankful to have documentation from that day. The photo is everything I want to remember about Dr. Harding: his fierce optimism, the sense of community he built wherever he went, and his giant heart.
Dr. Vincent Harding, professor emeritus of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology, died last week at age 82.
[ Image by Zoe Williams of Dr. Harding holding her baby, Aster. ]