Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) joins all those committed to building a more just and peaceful world in mourning the death of Dr. Vincent Harding on May 19, 2014. Current ICUJP Board Member and former Chairperson Rev. Louis Chase has prepared a beautiful tribute to Dr. Harding on behalf of ICUJP.
By Louis A. Chase, OSL
Pastor, Magnolia Park United Methodist Church
The world mourns the loss of a giant, Dr. VIncent Harding, who died on May 19, 2014 at age 82.He was known by many people as a theologian, peace activist, teacher, author, visionary, Civil Rights campaigner and a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Vincent Harding I knew was a man of few words, fiery, intellectual brilliance, a follower of Jesus, passionate about defending the poor and committed to the path of justice. He lived his life as he preached simple, poetic and hopeful. He remained just outside the limelight of fame, bending history and shaping the moral contours of our social discourse on issues of freedom, justice and peace.
I first met Dr. Vincent Harding in Los Angeles at Holman United Methodist Church in 1984. He came at the invitation of his longtime friend, Rev. Dr. James Lawson. The two knew each other from their work in the South in the struggle for racial justice and the rights of the poor in the1960s. Dr. Harding helped add an intellectual component to the debate and shaped the moral platform that gave the Civil Rights movement its gravitas and depth. In fact, Dr. Harding came from a pacifist tradition and was on some levels, based on philosophical reasons, a critic of the Gandhian, nonviolence tradition implemented by King and the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Harding, however, was supportive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King sent Dr. Harding to address specific groups on several occasions, one of which was to mediate tensions between Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and SCLC at Albany, New York.
I met Dr. Harding again as he was the keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by Bread for the World in Chicago in 1988, where he insisted I call him “Vincent.” It was here that I had conversations with a lucid, imaginative and provocative intellectual genius and historian. I also found him to be elegant, soft spoken, pedestrian, down to earth and personal.
Vincent told me of his mother who worked as a cleaning woman in New York and his grandfather a native of my homeland, Barbados. Growing up in Harlem, tough though it was, could have deterred Vincent’s quest to achieve, but it did not. This environment of poverty was a discomfort that birthed in him a stubborn hope that led to a solidarity with a radical social movement for change. It may have also influenced, by contrast, an appreciation for and affiliation with the Mennonites, a religious movement that helped shape his character for peace and his embrace of a meditative form of worship. In some ways, he shared the mysticism of Howard Thurman, yet remained engaged in the trenches of the movement. This Mennonite affiliation is possibly the source of his identification as a peace activist and not a disciple of nonviolence, a key, ideological difference.
Dr. Cornish Rogers, Professor Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology speaks of Vincent’s gentle and distinctive personal demeanor in classroom/ lecture hall setting. “He had a distinctive and specific intimacy with the students. He would ask for their name before answering questions.”
Jim Lawson recalls Vincent as being a quiet person. “He had an intellectually rigorous, yet gentle, inquisitive manner when he taught class. At times in the middle of conversation, Vincent would pause, until the right word or moment arose.”
Vincent also crafted Martin King's’ speech entitled ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,’ delivered at the Riverside Church, New York in 1967, where King identified the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. These were prophetic words that pointed to the global nature of the civil rights struggle, though King had grappled with the Vietnam War as early as 1961, and always understood it within the context of the Civil rights struggle. For this speech and expansion of the concerns of the civil rights agenda, King was questioned by some leaders in his inner circle, vilified in the media and some sectors of the religious right and the left that considered the action unconscionable, given President Lyndon Johnson’s strident, political advances that benefited marginalized Americans and the Civil Rights movement.
Through the years, Vincent continued to teach, preach, speak and support the groundswell and evolution of the peace and justice movement that became broadly inclusive of various concerns, including gender equality, workers’ rights, the environment, LGBT rights, poverty, militarization and occupy Wall Street protests. He and his wife, Rosemary, remained in close communication with his friend Jim Lawson and would frequently share the platform at different conferences and interviews across the country. Jim and Vincent’s fraternal relationship continued as he married his second wife, Aljosie.
For several years Vincent was a faculty member at Iliff School of Theology. On a visit to the Claremont School of Theology in 1997 Dr. John David Maguire, President, invited him to consider a faculty position at Claremont Graduate University. This would have increased his salary exponentially, but in view of a lawsuit against the school by a Black faculty member, he deferred the offer.
At the time of his death, Vincent had been visiting the East Coast, including speaking engagements at the Eastern Mennonite University and Pendle Hill, Philadelphia. He recently co founded the Council of Elders with Philip and Jim Lawson and also contemplated penning an autobiography.
Vincent continued to serve as mentor, friend, counselor, prophet, historian and brother to people around the world. He mourned the mounting gap between the underclass and the rich. He was excited about a cadre of young people with a zealousness for transformation and remained hopeful about the direction of interracial dialogue and progress in our country and celebrated life and all of its complexities. This is the Vincent I knew.