Realizing the dream: A conversation with Vincent Harding

Note: Vincent Harding was a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the primary author of "Beyond Vietnam: a Time to Break the Silence." He is Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Illiff School of Theology in Denver and the chairperson of the Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal.

Madeline and I got to spend a few hours with Vincent Harding on July 3, 2013 at the FGC Gathering of Friends in Greeley, Colo. When Madeline and I introduced ourselves, I said I was honored to meet him. He said he was honored to meet us, too, and wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if all people felt honored to meet each other. After each question, Vincent would close his eyes and contemplate his words before he spoke. I found his presence calming and invigorating all at once.

You can listen to the full interview here. If you’d like to read more of his words on nonviolence, see the recent interview published in AFSC’s newspaper Street Spirit. You can also read a short reflection on “Creating the Quaker community that does not yet exist" at Acting in Faith. - Lucy

Honoring the anniversary

Lucy Duncan (LD): The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is in August, and in “The Inconvenient Hero,” you write about the transformation and the continued development of Martin Luther King, Jr. after the March on Washington. It was spurred on in part by the bombing in Birmingham and the death of those girls, and by talking with young people after the Watts riots, and their sense that after the Watts riots they finally got people’s attention. He was moved by what these young men said; he himself said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” He became even more committed to addressing the underlying causes of racism, poverty and militarism. I wonder, for those inspired by the revolutionary fire of the last years of Dr. King, what is your sense of the best way to honor this anniversary?

Listen to ( or download ) Vincent Harding speak
about the legacy of Dr. King's dream.  
( Right click download link and select 'Save As' )

Vincent Harding (VH):  One thing would be to read the speech.  Not just to pick out that one phrase, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” but to honor it by groups of people and individuals actually sitting and giving themselves a minimum of an hour to sit with the document and let it speak to them.  And to see what it says fifty years after the initial experience.

March on Washington at Penn StateThere are all kinds of things that continue to jump around my mind when I think of the document and our response to it.  One of the things that comes most to my mind is that statement that lots of people, a variety of people, a lot of them basically very conservative people, like to grab onto, and that is Martin’s talking about longing for the day when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And lots of people love that. And for them it’s a way of not talking about color, not talking about race. And I see that as a cop out. Because it seems to me the need to talk about race is at least as great now as it was then.

But even more so, I think that we ought to spend some time reflecting honestly about, what do you have to do in order to figure out what the content of a person’s character is?  How do you find that out?  And can you find that out by living in silos apart from each other, by sending our children to schools where other children will never really be known? Never having people of color at the tables of our homes?  How do you get to know the content of someone’s character?  To rejoice about being judged for the content of your character really assumes that, well, we will know something about the content of each other’s character and when we’re even afraid to talk about color and character, how do we get to know one another’s character?

So I think one assignment we could give to ourselves again for the 50th anniversary is to really talk to ourselves and talk to each other about that matter; how do we get to know the content of each other’s character, and can we know it without engaging each other honestly in dialogue, honoring each other in conversation. That’s one of the things that’s been on my mind a lot, especially when I think about his wanting to focus that thought on children, and especially, how do you get to know the content of children’s characters if you’re not around them, and watching them and listening to them and encouraging them?

Faith and democracy

Vincent Harding at the FGC GatheringMadeline Schaefer (MS):  I know you’ve done a lot of thinking about democracy and you’re also a very religious person, and I’m wondering what you see as the connection or interaction between religion and democracy in the United States or any other country.

Vincent Harding (VH):  Madeline, one of the most natural connections that I see is that in the religion that I find most grounding, the assumptions are that we are children of the divine creator.  And that means, among other things, that we have tremendous capacities for creativity.  And as I see it, building a democratic society demands our greatest creativity, especially after decades of mutual destruction.

How do you go from occupying another people’s land, carrying along with you slaves from another world, and in the course of two hundred years, let’s say, intend, even want to build a beloved community that is a democratic community. That demands deep, deep commitment to the human project.  And it seems to me that that is an essential part of the religion that means much to me, that the project of discovering our great humanity and therefore our great divinity goes hand in hand with the project of discovering our deep community. 

If you are assuming that that community is part of the gift of the divine, and that we are expected to develop it, and to honor each other in the development, not to honor kings and wise people, but to honor each other in the development of it, then you can see the ways in which that becomes a spiritual project, a religious calling, a calling to build a loving community that is filled with compassion and that does everything to bring out our best selves.  And it seems to me that that is what democracy should be about—a community so structured as to make space for the expression of our greatest and most human gifts and make space for us to discover the content of our characters.

The impact of racism on children

Lucy Duncan (LD): So right now the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, is happening. I used to teach in a school in Vallejo, California that was an underfunded school but it was culturally incredibly rich. White students were the minority and I think there were nine or twelve different cultures in that setting. I was teaching in the early nineties and the acquittal of the police officers videotaped beating Rodney King was announced and riots happened in response. The day after that had started, I went into my classroom and I sat my students down, I interrupted the routine so we would have an opportunity to talk about what was happening.

My students talked about their own experiences of racism, their daily experiences of racism, and talked with one another about how important it was to care for one another, they understood that being friends with one another was one of the ways that things could change. And I said something about how I wasn’t sure the violence would help. Afterwards one of my students came up to me, he was the son of

Children working together at an interracial camp

 African immigrants, and he was crying, and he said, “Ms. Duncan, my dad believes that the riots are a good thing.” I said, “Francis, maybe he believes that if things get bad enough, then things might change.”

When I read the depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. going to Watts after the riots and his talking with the young people and them saying, “Now we’ve got their attention,” I thought of Francis, and I thought that the practice of nonviolence, in order to be really legitimate, has to acknowledge the depth of the violence that’s embedded in the structures of our system, and the anger and rage that will emerge in response to facing the daily impacts of that oppression. It seems as though that urgency that occurs, the urgency of addressing the system of oppression, that right now we’re at another point where what happens with this trial will be another revelation of the system, or can be.

And I just wonder what your thoughts are in response to that, feeling the connection with those that are most impacted by the oppression of the system and how that calls us to live.

Vincent Harding (VH):  It’s a wonderful pathway to try to be on.  What that statement from the young men in Watts suggests to us is that the issue may not be oppression as we normally think about it—doing terrible things to people—but what they were saying was that the issue was neglect, refusal to recognize them as human beings worthy of attention, and especially as children whose life depends upon loving attention.

Listen to ( or download ) Vincent Harding tell
the story of one young
girl's awarness of difference.  
( Right click download link and select 'Save As' )

Though they could not put it in those terms, that’s what they were saying; that you can’t really be a child, you can’t really grow, without someone paying loving, nurturing attention to you. And one of the things that our racial separation has made possible for us, is to live at peace with the idea that if those children, whoever they are, wherever they are, are not quite “our” children, they do not deserve our attention, our tax dollars, our creativity, in the building of spaces for them. 

It seems to me that that’s one of the kinds of things that, again, brings us back to where Martin was constantly going, especially in those last years when he was using this metaphor of the beloved community, that that is where we ought to be going.

It’s important to recognize that adults exist for the purpose of nurturing children, and that adults can’t be true adults when we fail to nurture children, when we fail to help them to develop the content of their character.

Possibilities we haven't even dreamed

Lucy Duncan (LD): I have a question about nonviolent revolution. There are some people that have been talking about putting revelation and revolution together, that they’re twins, and I kind of like that idea. I was four when King was assassinated and it wasn’t until recently that I had a bodily apprehension of the trauma of the assassinations of JFK and RFK and Malcolm X and King, one after another, and how that must have been such a deep blow, just really deep trauma to live through that.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the March on WashingtonVincent Harding (VH): James Douglas, a very wise Catholic Worker connected guy has done at least fifteen, twenty years of research on the assassinations and on the similarities among them. One term that he keeps using that I think is in the title of one of them is, “The Unspeakable.” And so I suggest that you look for Douglas’ work on the assassinations, it’s the most complete thing that we have.  But what were you going to ask about that?

LD: It feels like a body blow for the movement, just a huge body blow. There was something that you talk about in “Inconvenient Hero,” where a young man asks you, “If King knew that he was probably going to be assassinated, why didn’t he chill out?” In response a Latina girl says, “Dr. King couldn’t chill out, he had work to do.” I wonder how one recovers. It seems as though Trayvon Martin is another body blow following up on so many. It’s a different kind, but how, out of that despair, do we find the way to move forward and to continue powerfully in the struggle…and I wonder if you can tell me stories of people that you see that are stepping up with a deep understanding of how deep this problem is but that are moving forward with a deep commitment to fully embrace that struggle.

VH:  Do you know the name of Grace Lee Boggs? 

LD: I do.

VH: I was in Detroit last week for, among other things, the celebration of her 98th birthday, and all around her were young people who were testifying to what she meant to them as far as a model for never ending struggle, and my sense is that part of what they were feeling, receiving, experiencing, was the other side of the body blow, and that was a deep injection of moral truth, that we are meant to fight hard, hard battles in order to build our moral muscles and to help us to discover our fundamental purpose in life. 

And wherever I go in this country, without fail, Lucy, I find young people like that. Most often they are totally uncelebrated, uncovered by the media, but they have decided that they are going to enter into the stream of on-going struggle for a new America.  And they pick it up at different places, some of them pick it up around immigration, some of them pick it up around the tremendous violence in some of the inner cities, some of them pick it up around American foreign policy, but people are, young people are picking it up. There was a community organizer in Chicago who worked with the industrial area’s organization, who used to say, “When you believe it, you’ll see it.”  And I do believe that those kinds of young people will continue to rise up, so I tend to see them.

LD:  I am less a target of some of the systems than some people, but my experience is also that in order to move forward, that in order to struggle effectively, you have to be deeply connected to other people, and so embedded in it you can taste the community of love and resistance, and it’s a taste of what you’re trying to build in the struggle.

VH: Yes, you can’t really continue working for it, unless you’re constantly tasting it.

LD: And the taste…once you get one little taste of it, you want more.

VH: Sure. And you not only want more, but you need more in order to be a human being.

LD: That it’s the most deeply nourishing food for the soul, without it your soul shrinks.

VH: But there are costs.

LD: Yes, there are costs. Do you have any other thoughts or any other stories?

VH:  I think that one of the things that the recent attack on the voting rights act has confirmed for me is that…you know sweet honey in the rock and their song, “Ella’s song”…we who believe in freedom cannot rest. I think that what we are seeing is that we who believe in the development of democracy cannot at any point finally say, “Well, we took care of that.” That it needs constant nurturing, just like our children.

LD: It’s a living, breathing entity.

VH: I have a friend who was the first black mayor of Berkeley and recently he wrote a letter to some of us who were part of this organization that we’re trying to develop called the Council of Elders. Gus says, “The great American experiment of a truly multi-racial, compassionate society, is still in the laboratory.” And I found that very encouraging. To realize that it is an experiment, that it is still in the laboratory, that we don’t know it in terms of being so expert that we can bomb other people into it. But that it still has possibilities that we haven’t even dreamed.