Vincent Harding —
Civility, History, and Hope

Civil rights veteran Vincent Harding died this week at the age of 82. He had a long lens of wisdom on how social change happens. He believed America is still a developing nation when it comes to creating a multi-religious, multi-racial democracy. Vincent Harding spent recent decades bringing young people into creative contact with elders, civil rights veterans — offering experiences of them, as he said, not as figures in history books but "as living and lively and magnificent." We remember Vincent Harding and how he embodied that legacy and its wisdom for us.

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was co-founder and chairperson of the Veterans of Hope Project at Iliff School of Theology, where he was a professor of Religion and Transformation. He was known in particular for two books, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.

Pertinent Posts

There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop us dead in our tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity.

Selected Readings

'Is America Possible? A Letter to My Young Companions on the Journey of Hope' by Vincent Harding

Harding suggests in this essay that the dream is never finished but endlessly unfolding. He suggests that America's most important possibility for the world is not to dominate, threaten, or compete with, but to help each other in a search for common ground. He suggests that when we simply attempt to replicate our free-market materialism, we miss our most vital connections. From this, he opens the possibility that a new conversation may begin — one that might initiate a deeper journey concerning the possibilities of human community across all geographical lines.

'Dangerous Spirituality' by Vincent Harding

"That's a tough spirituality. That's not any kind of sweet-by-and-by spirituality. That's a spirituality that takes on the world as it is and says, "I'm gonna figure this out one way or another." The mystic and the Moses."

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Dr. Vincent Harding at the 2012 21st Century Freedom Ride.

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Listening to Vincent Harding speaking of the beloved community touched me deeply.

I was reminded of when I worked at a very large state-run psychiatric facility. Each day there was a struggle. To daily witness another human being writhing on the floor in inexpressible agony, or waiting endlessly by the door for a phantom lover that would never come, was to daily have my heart broken. Slowly a choice was forming: To close myself to their suffering, or feel their pain.

One day the answer was shown to me.
While at the geriatric unit, I was trying to comfort a patient who had become uncharacteristically terrified.
"Is this real?" She said fearfully.
I spoke consoling words to her, but they had no effect.
"Is this place haunted? Am I ghost? Help me! I am afraid!" She said with such pleading, that I can only picture a child lost in the dark uttering them.

"Here, this is for you. I've been saving it for a time like now." A patient said placing a partially knit piece of green yarn upon the crown of her head. "It will bring you good luck."
"You're doing great! You can make it!" Another elderly woman said resoundingly.
"Mummble-berrys, and the like, who dee-haw. The good ones, you know." Were the disjointed, but ever so tenderly spoken words of an older man.
And on, and on, the patients came one by one, forming a line to greet the confused woman. Yarn, hugs, and flowers were all imparted until the once fearful patient was crying. "I feel better now, it's going to be O.K. now," she said, looking up at all her friends.

As a group, those patients had endured homelessness, rape, emotional and physical abuses, all the while suffering under the crushing weight of mental illness. Yet, they gave what little that had. They gave their hearts away.
The beloved community.

When Mr. Harding mentioned the fact that young people, and I'd say all of us, need to find people who have lived rich lives to interview and to know what questions to ask, I thought of our Caregivers. I've been interviewing Caregivers for over a year. These wonderful souls rarely get to tell their stories. There are so many lessons that come from caring for another when they are at their most vulnerable, we as a society need to listen.

As always, the interview was inspirational and informative. Krista is a terrific interviewer. I could not "click on" the transcript and am interested in the Methodist Church in Philadelphia with a female minister whom Mr. Harding described as particularly interested and attentive to young people. There is a particular young man in Philadelphia for whom this would be a good connection. Help, please? Thanks for all the good thoughts and inspiration!! Peace.

Listening to your program on Sunday morning at 7 AM has truly become appointment radio for me, probably my favorite program of the ridiculous number I listen to or stream every week. Still, your interview with Vincent Harding today was exceptional for me. I've had brief conversations with Mr. Harding over the past several years, and wished more people were aware of his Veterans of Hope Project which gets far too little attention. Thank you for helping his little light shine brighter, now needed more than ever. I will always remember the button he usually wears - War is Terrorism. Succinct and to the point.

Wonderful interview as always, I love the show.
I like what Mr. Harding said about the word minority. Everyone that I come across wants the same things from life, to live a good life and provide the same for their family's. The only reason any idea of race,ethnicity, minority/majority comes into play is because our media does nothing to inform people of the facts. I have met racists who say things like "the blacks are mostly criminals". And what they see on the news never contradicts their belief. I have never seen a story on the nightly news about how crime rates are the same in poor mostly white community's as in poor mostly black community's.
Maybe if the news media told folks the REAL reason there are fewer jobs and wages are stagnant, the myth that "it's the immigrants!" would disappear.
Lately I am coming to see more and more that there are no divisive issues, only misinformed people. We don't need civil discourse between people who know the facts and people who are misinformed. We need a news media that will speak the truth when a corporate/rich people friendly politician spouts some lies to try and divide people into groups like, republican/democrat, white/black, american/immigrant, or,minority/majority.
The extremely wealthy are the only minority in America, and the only way they can push their agenda is to keep people divided and misinformed.
Keep the truth coming, and thanks for the show.


As a Literature and Composition teacher at Sisseton-Wahpeton College in South Dakota, I was asked last Monday by Steven, one of our more outspoken students, a question that allowed me to reflect on Vincent Harding’s essay ‘Is America Possible.’
“Are you obsessed with racism?” Steven asked, as we got ready to listen to a piece of the podcast of Vincent Harding’s radio interview on ‘Being.’
“No,” I said. “I am not obsessed with racism, with ugliness. I am obsessed with beauty, with overcoming ugliness, overcoming racism.” I went on to cite the story Harding had told about singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and how its teen singer was jailed just for singing. I wanted to say something about context and how a powerful understanding of the right words at the right moment is almost pure beauty – a beauty that can outshine any ugliness.
But I was unable to explain satisfactorily just why it really is that I have taught Langston Hughes. Sometimes I still feel awkward talking about the subjects that Hughes touches on, even after teaching them three Fall semesters in a row. And sometimes the awkwardness is palpable, thick almost, within the classroom.
I agree with Mr. Harding that many of us – like me quite often – don’t know how to talk about these things. We need to develop our abilities to discourse and create meaningful dialogue.
At such a juncture, Langston Hughes speaks in a beautiful manner. He does so because his poems seem infused with magic – and dreams – and the power of the fact that every life is unique:
Mexican Market Woman
This ancient hag
Who sits upon the ground
Selling her scanty wares
Day in, day round,
Has known high wind-swept mountains,
And the sun has made
Her skin so brown.

Accompanying a nearly inarticulate insistence on Hughes is a realization. “This ancient hag” of the poem is only ugly, only mundanely “Selling her scanty wares / Day in, day round” at a cursory glance. Both poet and reader soon see she “has known high wind-swept mountains,” and she has known beauty that erases her ugliness: “The sun has made / her skin so brown.”

Beauty like this outshines ugliness. Vision like this is not satisfied with half-truths. And vision like this probes. Vision like this asks questions.

That is why – awkwardness risked – I believe it is important to continue to dialogue with students like Steven, and many, many students like him, who are poised to envision what a one-sided conversation never can. “Are you obsessed with racism” doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Indeed, in every conversation – at least in the America in which we live, the America still possible and forming multiculturally – we may need to start with the awkward question, the question that probes ugliness looking for truth and articulation, and beauty. This is what Vincent Harding and Langston Hughes have gifted the world with. Maybe in our still possible America, a place just coming together, if we can keep questioning and answering in the awkwardness, it’ll all be good.

After several centuries, America now needs to graduate from this experiment with shared space. Otherwise, the rest of the world will find the whole project a mission impossible. Sadly, Europe's own attempt at this navigation is terribly strained at the moment. Much of Asia and the Arab world have not even created room for common space, not to talk of engaging in dialogue. Africa, which has for so long taken the rod on the backside of cross-cultural encounters, simply does not care (It is busy looking for food to eat). May another generation not pass by without a definite sign of hope that this conversation will open up further and ultimately mature.

Just recently you asked Dr. Harding to reflect upon some of community differences between the civil rights movement in the 60's and now. Dr. Harding said he'd like to coax a tempered reflection forward. He was a bit tenuous.

May I suggest that the in 60's, amongst youth and their elders in the movement, singularly these people were attempting a communion. A major influence on life in general then but absent now is that the draft, the universal selection of any man "of age" went to the military. Many went to Asia and either did not return or came home "broken". All Americans knew someone who was in that war. The Civil Right Movement coincided with the Viet Nam era. We haven't had conscription since that was. Few I inquire of (widely) have a personal friend of family member in the military now. When in Europe I dearly love collecting stories of those who lived through the war. Community tales, universal moments of total, selfless compassion reign. In England alone the cast system totally disappeared for most during the bombings of London.

Have you read "Unearthing Seed of Fire"? This book as an informal history of the Highlander Center (now in New Market, TN). I mention this book for the show you've produced, while true to your design of looking for the common threads of spirituality, is about the Black community, the "King" experience, and the "then and now" perspective. Miles Horton, graduate of Union Theological Seminary, one Dr. King's most important "tutors", creator and director of the Highlander Center, introduced music and "play" into the mindset of organizers for civil disobedience. Horton modeled yet altered the folk school movement of Denmark in his work. He most effectively brought the spiritual and the secular communities of the South together years prior to the civil rights moment.

I love your show. I listen frequently and share note with friends frequently.

The white sisters and brothers drawn to action within the 60's, many of whom were not part of any specific religion, were young and old, educated mostly. In the research of another perspective (another show perhaps) on these same issues, the same moment in time, you may wish to examine the work of Guy and Candie Carawan, Miles Horton and others from Highlander who had a major impact on the earliest stages of the voter registration movement, civil rights movement and other Southern conflicts like textile and mining workers' rights.

Then as now you are affecting regular people, hopefully. In favor of reaching for the widest perspective of how the spirit reaches into life via music communicate with Dr. Bernice Regan Johnson, founder of "Sweet Honey In The Rock". She too knows well the roll of Highlander in the Civil Rights Movement. It is her version of Kumbaya (in the background) that closed the show this week.

With highest regards,

Frederick Park

I am hoping to be in touch with Dr. Harding. He was a contemporary of my Mentor Dr. C. Eric Lincoln.

Randy Cirksena
507-254-8752 cell

Isn't this exactly what this world need today. ? This is a great program.. Thanks for your efforts.

American Black Prince, Malcom Shabazz postulated before being felled by the cowards :After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X announced his willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement, though he felt that it should change its focus to human rights. So long as the movement remained a fight for civil rights, its struggle would remain a domestic issue, but by framing the struggle as a fight for human rights, it would become an international issue, and the movement could bring its complaint before the United Nations. Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support to the cause of African Americans.

It was Malcom informed by Al Islam who articulated an exclusive human struggle. I sincerely hope African American history remembrances are not translated into Martin Luther King history remembrances not withstanding Dr. Kings commendable contributions to American culture. Malcom, the Muslim is still regulated to the intellectual ghetto of American discourse dispite his equally commendable contribution.

The Vincent Harding interview was very thought provoking and inspirational for me. Terrific program But Krista, your introductions are so dense I need a brief moment to take take in each thought in and process it. Please loosen up the editing a little bit, throw in some pauses here and there, let the music run a little longer between segments. I can barely catch my breath, can't keep up with you and that's making programs less enjoyable for me. Sincerely, Michael

I just listened to the interview with Vincent Harding for the second time. It brings tears to me each time. Thank you for sharing his wisdom with this generation.

I made a wonderful discovery today of Vincent Harding's workshop with Americus Georgia students in February 1964, as plans for Freedom Summer were taking shape. It is a model of democratic pedagogy, as he challenges his students to think about how they as Christians can persuade their elders to risk jobs, mortgages, and potentially, their lives in a struggle for the vote. This man has inspired me for decades and continues to do so.

Uncle Vincent will be missed. Thank you Krista for allowing us to be a part of the conversation. - Peace and Blessings - Leanne Patterson

The discussion of how people remember the Sixties rang a bell for me, since I do a double take when I hear someone call them a "terrible time." Perhaps this is because, though as a child I wasn't directly involved in the movements and was probably sheltered somewhat fron the scarier aspects, my radical parents and theIr younger friends we had over would talk about them and I picked up on the idealism. I suppose my sense of that time is also shaped by the cultural aspects I was more directly exposed to -- the music, the album covers and other art -- which I sensed to be connected to the movements.

The derogation of that period, even by some of a liberal bent, is reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's remark about those who desire a crop but fear the thunderstorm that brings rain.

Great program informative and moving

When I heard of the passing of Dr. Harding, I hoped you would replay this beautiful show. As always I was struck by new insights on the re- listen.

I was taken by his comments on how necessary stories are. How appropriate that your show with the creator of Story Corps was on just a few weeks ago.
They were very different stories but the thread of story telling and its value struck me. What better way to break down the barriers of Us vs Them than by sharing our stories.

As usual, bravo and thank you.

One of the greatest hours of radio I have ever been exposed to. This is what makes public radio so invaluable.

Uncle V, you finished the race and have now crossed into eternity. I will forever miss you and our Thursday' conversations.

Dr. Harding was not only my professor history while a student at Spelman College he was my life coach. And to this very day he has remained my mentor and guiding star. Under his watchful and deliberate guidance he forced us all to think large, to seek truth and not be afraid of it when we find it- to conduct ourselves as agents of change.In the sixties during his work first at the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change and then at the Instituteof the Black world, he brought young and old people together,students, historians, poets, and political scientists from all over the world so that we would know to appreciate our history, but also to brainstorm, create new directions, and learn to live purposeful lives. It was he who,when invited to speak to a group of education majors, came to the University of Georgia and , in a week of lectures, redirected the focus of the socialogy department, changed the entire thought pattern of a group of young idealists, helping all to view the world more clearly-without blinders. We all left that institution armed with much much more than a Master's in Education. Some time after, before graduation, It was he who pulled me aside and said I should start a school in Atlanta (and I did The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community School)-one that united teachers, parents and community to better serve the children-one that grounded black children in their culture and send them off in the world with vision and love of self and commitment to each other. His passing "mak me eye for dreen" (made me cry) as we say in Gullah, for the selfish lack I feel that he in no longer of this world. I am left with these words from Paul Lawrence Dunbar (paraphrased) "Who shall come after thee out of the clay, o" learned one to show us the way? Who shall pass the test? Think thou no more of this. Rest."