Dr. Vincent Harding, a theologian, historian, author, and civil right activist, died at 5:11 p.m. on Monday at the age of 82. Dr. Harding worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as friend, speechwriter, co-collaborator, and served as a mentor and advisor to many of the members of the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee.
Harding's social activism had deep spiritual roots in the Mennonite tradition and the Black church. Dr. Harding was one of the chroniclers of the civil rights movement as a participant, an historian, and social observer. He and his late wife Rosemarie were senior consultants to the "Eyes of the Prize" documentary film project.
Harding was a professor emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology and co-founder with his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding of the Veterans of Hope Project, at the Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is also the author of numerous books, including Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. Harding wrote King's famous 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech.
Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and a friend of Harding, released this statement in response to Harding's death:
This is a great loss for our movement and the world and for all of us here at Sojourners. Vincent loved and served us so often in our history. He was an elder and mentor to me and to many of us. I am so grateful for a life so well lived. Thanks be to God for Vincent Harding. We are poorer for his passing and richer for having known him.
Harding was a close friend of Sojourners and has written many times for the magazine and blog. In 2010 he wrote The Legacy of Martin Luther King: We Won't Turn Back:
Now, a final, loving word to my dear friends, the teachers everywhere: Please be sure to ask your students what freedom means in 2010 -- for children, for adults, for the American nation, for the world community. And perhaps you might let them hear your own answers, your own dreams. What a beautiful exchange! Perhaps we all may even discover the meaning and power of "soul force" in the 21st century. What a great promise! Fannie Lou, Ella, Martin, and Dr. Thurman -- do you see us? We're on our way. And we won't turn back.
Jeannie Choi sat down with Harding for a video interview about the significance of the Obama administration and the need for true reconciliation within the church. He had this to say about what he terms, "The Movement":
What I saw was a movement for the expansion of democracy in America. I like to speak of it in that way. Or a movement for the transformation of America. Becasue civil rights makes it too narrow, makes it too legalistic. And as I see it, both on it's more narrow level and on it's larger level, that movement, without a doubt prepared the way for President Obama to become President Obama.
In the June 2011 issue of Yes! magazine, Harding wrote an "Open Letter to President Obama" in response to the news of Osama bin Laden's death:
Dear Brother Commander-chief, we now need you much more to be Teacher-in-chief. We need you to teach the children that vigilante action is not the pathway to humane, democratic development as a nation, or as individual citizens. Now that you have proven (to somebody) that you are capable of being Commander, we need you, the children and the adults need you, to offer guidance in the creation of a more perfect union. We need you to break out of the damaging, conventional lock-step to find and teach another way.
Arthur Waskow, a long-time friend and co-worker of harding, called Harding, "an extraordinary gentle, persistent, clear, loving, and prophetic voice for justice and vigorous nonviolence in America and in the world." Waskow said this about the last years of Harding's life.
He never left that Movement. Through his writing and teaching he kept it alive. As he said again and again, it was and is the constant struggle to renew and expand democracy — against all the forces of domination and destruction.
Ben Sutter is the online assistant for Sojourners.