Vincent Harding is professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology, a
Sojourners contributing editor, and a noted civil rights historian and author. He was interviewed by telephone in late September by Aaron Gallegos.
Sojourners: Many people look at the suffrage movement or civil rights movement and don't see them in the same light as, say, Tiananmen Square or what's going on in Burma or other places of the world. Could you discuss the legacy of democracy movements in this country?
Vincent Harding: We tend to forget that this country developed out of a pro-democracy movement. While the break with England had many complicated aspects to it, one crucial element was the attempt to find a way in which the white, ruling people of this country could establish for themselves a setting where their voice could be the determining voice in the future of the country, rather than the British Crown or the British Parliament or the British representatives of the ruling forces.
And at the very same moment, this country's governing bodies were acting in a most undemocratic, dominating, and destructive way in relationship to many parts of the nation-most obviously with its native peoples, whose lands were being taken and whose lives were being destroyed; its African-American people, who were being used for their labor as a slave people; and with its poorer people generally. None of these three groups had membership in the kind of democracy that this country was claiming to be concerned about and based in.
Therefore, in the midst of this country's overall search for democracy and relationship to its "colonial mother," there was another force demanding that democracy should be manifested within the country itself. An internal set of pro-democracy movements naturally had to flow out of the political, social, and cultural situation that was here in the exploitation of the natives, and in the disregard for women and the poorer classes. All of these things were in a magnificent ferment at the same time as the beginning of the country's rights.
You get a document like the Declaration of Independence, on the one hand, and the Constitution on the other, and you see right there some of the internal struggles. One announces a kind of enlightenment and religious insight in terms of the rights of human beings, and the other tries to hold on to a certain kind of privileged order in society. They are set up for tension and for difficulty and for a kind of constant struggle toward the realization of real democracy.
I always remember Justice Thurgood Marshall saying, toward the end of his life, that the people who originally wrote the Constitution really did not know how to get at the whole matter of true democracy-they did a very good job in the Constitution, but ever since the writing of the Constitution many of the rest of us have had to re-do things. America has been in a constant process of re-doing, so that the Constitution has become much more of a servant of democratic development in this society than the servant of the privileged and the structural status quo.
Sojourners: What, in your opinion, is the factor that is alienating so many people from this built-in inspiration in our country's foundation? It seems today that a lot of people don't have any heart for fighting for freedom or greater democracy.
Harding: Part of it is that our culture has developed-especially over the last half-century-so that people are not encouraged to think about the old-fashioned quality of perseverance in the face of difficulty. We are so geared now toward "easy access" to technology, to food products, to success of one kind or another, to each other's lives, that the whole human idea of struggling for that which we value has lost a great deal of footing in our lives.
So when we realize that democracy and the benefits of democracy do not arrive overnight, and do not follow automatically out of the heroic struggle of a period like the 1960s, very little in the culture encourages us to say, "Let's keep on going, because that's the way life is."
There is also a certain kind of loss of a spiritual, religious ground for ourselves that in so many parts of the human experience has given people the heart to carry on in the most difficult and impossible kinds of struggles. They are filled up, buoyed up, by something coming from deep within them and something coming from well beyond them to believe that they can carry on.
Certainly the struggle for democracy, the struggle for women and men to realize their most imaginative possibilities as persons-this is a cosmic struggle. The struggle for democracy cannot be carried on by the faint-hearted and by those who are not prepared for very long, sometimes unrewarding kinds of difficulties. Particularly now, as far as internal training, we are much more geared toward sprints rather than marathons.
We need to introduce people to, or remind people of, the long history in our country and elsewhere of people who have persevered. We have to set some kind of example, some sacrificial goal, and work from a basis of hope, possibility, and solidarity. It's got to go beyond words-that's a very important theme of historical models of democracy, that we be examples of persevering.
Sojourners: Are you optimistic that we will be able to open up our democratic system to more participation and equity in the future?
Harding: The issue is not so much a matter of optimism, it's a matter of hopefulness. With the breakdown of socialism and communism, and with the revolution of the late 1980s, the illusionary, ready-built models of alternatives to what we have were taken away from us. This makes it absolutely necessary to do much more creative thinking and experimentation than we have been, since there are no models in the world at this moment that we can clamp on to.
This is both very painful and very hopeful. I see people at least being willing to talk about this, to think about this, to begin to pick up the small pieces of this in their thoughts and begin playing with the possibilities.
Unless we find some way to keep experimenting with democracy in America, to keep experimenting with the unknown possibilities and potential of ordinary people, we are going to be in very great difficulty. This is one of the places of my own deepest concern for the kind of issues that you are trying to raise about money and politics.
When you have a situation in which money and the possession and acquisition of money becomes overwhelmingly important, then the likelihood is that you will miss out on the tremendous gifts and unexpected power that exist in the lives of people like Fannie Lou Hamer. These are folks who are not money, are not connected to money, but whose lives were really tremendous gifts to the development of democracy in America. That's where the future of democracy rests in this country.
As we discovered-I'm especially referring to the African-American freedom movement period now-there were all kinds of people we hid under labels. We created racial labels and class labels for all kinds of people who, theoretically, were not supposed to have any possibilities at all and who had no real economic power or money at all. But these people had the democratic insights and gifts for the society at large.
This is the genius with which we could govern ourselves in this country-opening it up to people who don't have conventional power, but who have power in their lives and power in their spirits. That's a direction I'd like to see us going in, much more than the traditional, middle-class orientation that is so easy for us to go to.
So I think that there are possibilities, but we've got to make very good use of what we've learned about the potential of these underprivileged classes of our society for providing leadership in a democracy. That is exactly what happens: The people who were brought into this country as slaves, through a whole variety of developments, eventually became our foremost leaders in the struggle for freedom. Those who were considered the least became the major carriers of the democratic movement in society.
Now who that will be, can be, for the beginning of the 21st century is not very clear. But my assumption is that there are some people that have promise.
Some images come forth from Eyes on the Prize
, the PBS series on the civil rights movement. One was from the sequence that dealt with the campaign and election of Harold Washington in Chicago.
For me, one of the most powerful persons pictured was a single mother who lived in a project-her name was Rosie-who was drawn into the Washington campaign. As she put it, "Just me, just ordinary me. I discovered," she said, "that I could do something about really making history." That image of this welfare mother, single parent, project parent being able to sense the democratic nature of the campaign itself, being drawn into the possibility of helping to create our history, was very powerful to me.
Another thing that continues to stay in my memory from that Washington sequence was a panning shot that the camera did over some voter-registration demonstrations. You see a whole group of black young men lining up, including one carrying a baby. All were the kind of young men who have become symbols of deterioration, decay, and threat in our society. They clearly were being called into some kind of participation that inspired them to try something other than what they might usually be doing.
The third image is of a classic Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) photo. An old man, about 106 years old, is being lifted up on the shoulders of two young SNCC workers because he had just registered to vote for the first time, some place in Mississippi. Someone who was so close to the end of his life, who had never been counted as worthy of anything by the larger society, was now being lifted up by these young people, in a way, to manifest his great value.
That opportunity for the poor and the discarded to find a sense of their true value, and that connection between the young and the old, came to my mind as I thought about all the people who we will be in danger of losing if we allow money to become the major force behind the determination of who can participate in institutional democracy in America.
Sojourners: How were these young people in the Washington campaign and in the SNCC work inspired? What caused them to take the burden upon their shoulders?
Harding: A lot of them were deeply inspired by the religious traditions out of which they had come-some of which they were rejecting, but it was part of their history. It was also part of the context of that time in history, when people really believed it was possible to change things, and that even they could participate in the process of change. That's very, very important.
We need to revive our dreaming possibilities, our imagination. People then were developing the capacity to dream about their lives; they didn't disdain some people as unimportant.