Vincent Gordon Harding (1931-2014) was an accomplished historian, scholar-activist, writer and teacher who, with his first wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, developed a life-long commitment to spiritually-grounded social justice work. The Hardings began their activism in the Southern Freedom movement and continued, for over forty years, as leaders and participants in a wide range of struggles for peace and justice – both in the United States and abroad. Vincent was a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and felt a special responsibility, after King’s death, to recover the revolutionary message of King and the Movement which called for a “radical transformation of values” in American society.
Harding was a prolific writer whose essays and books are read widely by community activists, scholars and religious leaders. His books include: Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement; Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero; America Will Be!: Conversations with Daisaku Ikeda and We Changed the World, a history of the Freedom Movement for young people. There is a River, Harding’s classic history of the early Black struggle for freedom in the US, has been in print for over three decades. Harding was also a deeply perceptive and engaging speaker, who, until just weeks before his death, continued to lecture and facilitate community discussions on connections between spirituality and social responsibility; often urging younger people toward the challenge of creating a more perfect union among the richly diverse peoples of the USA.
With Rosemarie, Vincent co-founded the Veterans of Hope Project and served as chairperson until his death in 2014.
Vincent Gordon Harding was a historian, an activist and an educator. A husband, a father and a cherished friend. One of the nation’s leading authorities on African American history and the links between religion and movements for social justice, Dr. Harding combined penetrating scholarship, a gentle insightful manner and a joyful enthusiasm for inclusive democracy. He was a man whose life traversed many epochs, communities and commitments. Vincent Harding was an extraordinary soul whom many remember, especially in his later years, as a patient counselor and keen thinker who could simultaneously critique the profound injustices of America and encourage all of its citizens to build the country into its best possibilities as a multicultural nation.
Vincent was born in Harlem, New York on July 25, 1931 to Mabel L. Broome and Graham A. Harding, immigrants from Barbados. He was an only child, raised by his mother, a domestic worker, who consistently encouraged her son’s interest in education and reminded him that his Bajan family included educators who, even though separated from him by a great distance, were proud of his accomplishments. Vincent and his mother were members of Victory Tabernacle Seventh-Day Christian Church and the congregation became an important extended family for them providing many opportunities for Vincent’s developing oratorical and leadership skills, as well as his love of music, especially singing.
Childhood in New York was a wonderfully diverse experience for Vincent. He played and studied with young people whose families had immigrated from various European countries, Latin America, the Caribbean and the American South. As a youth, he enjoyed sports — playing handball, stickball and basketball in the streets and parks of Harlem and the South Bronx. Vincent often spent summers in Boston with his uncle, Gordon Broome, who was training his nephew to become “the next Joe Louis.”
From early in his life, Vincent simultaneously nurtured a love of writing and a great intellectual curiosity about the world. He adored encyclopedias, globes and maps (supplying his own children with every kind of pre-Google reference book imaginable and teaching them to recite the countries and capitals of Africa from a map that hung on a wall above the kitchen table). Vincent attended Morris High School, where he was editor of the school newspaper and graduated valedictorian of his class. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the City College of New York, a master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism and master’s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Chicago. During the Korean War, he served at Fort Dix where he was a handball partner and speechwriter for the commander and where he experienced a transformative moment during bayonet training that led him to fundamentally question the use of violence and the justice of war — opening himself to a lifelong search for nonviolent alternatives to conflict.
In Chicago, Vincent discovered the Mennonites and was drawn to their Anabaptist witness of reconciliation and peacemaking. While in graduate school in the 1950s, he began serving as a lay pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church and, increasingly, was invited to speak to congregations and conferences about faith-based responses to the growing movement for racial justice. It was in this context that Vincent met Rosemarie Freeney, a teacher and social worker whose family had been among the early members of a predominately Black Mennonite mission church on the west side of the city. Vincent and Rose were married in 1960 and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to establish Mennonite House, the first Black-led, interracial social service center in the region. The Hardings became friends and colleagues of Martin and Coretta King, among many other dedicated freedom movement workers. They travelled throughout the south as representatives of the Mennonites to the movement, acting as facilitators, reconcilers and advisors in a number of major campaigns, including Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. The Hardings’ work with the Mennonites also took them on speaking tours to Europe in the early 1960s. Daughter Rachel and son Jonathan were born in 1962 and 1966, respectively.
In 1965, Vincent was invited to chair the department of history and sociology at Spelman College where he continued his engagement with the movement. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Coretta asked Vincent to become the first director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center for Social Change. Vincent was later also the founding director of the Institute of the Black World, an educational project that brought together scholars, writers, artists, community organizers and students to develop pedagogical and political tools in support of the diasporan Black freedom struggle. Through seminars and publications, IBW helped train a generation of Black Studies specialists, developing some of the first models of the discipline to be introduced into higher education.
Always, Vincent was concerned for connections between the African American experience and the struggles of other oppressed peoples around the world. During the Vietnam War, he travelled to France as part of a delegation of activists for conversations with North Vietnamese leaders. While still in Atlanta, first at Mennonite House and later at other residences, Vincent and Rosemarie housed and hosted many friends from anti-colonial struggles around the world, including Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farm, the family of Thandi and Thulani Gcabashe from South Africa, Mrs. Shirley Graham DuBois, and the family of Walter Rodney from Guyana.
In 1974, the Hardings moved to Philadelphia where Vincent began a series of visiting professorships and research fellowships: at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Moton Center, Duke University and the Pendle Hill Quaker study center. In 1979, Vincent and Rosemarie hosted one of the first of what would become a series of activist retreats combining deep reflection on the history of the African American freedom movement with spiritual renewal and heartwarming hospitality. Those retreats, which later developed as the “Spirit and Struggle” gatherings, became the impetus for the intergenerational story-sharing at the heart of the Veterans of Hope Project.
Vincent and Rosemarie (who died in 2004) were a remarkable pair who brought complementing strengths to over four decades of work as organizers, counselors and historians. Rose was a graceful and wise woman, the consistent backbone of the family, with an acute and gentle intelligence and a deep instinct for the links between hospitality and activism. Throughout their life together, Vince and Rose were often joined and supported in their work by members of the extended Freeney-Harding family. Charles Freeney, a nephew, was one of the first librarians at the King Memorial Center and acted as Vincent and Rosemarie’s personal archivist (and chief biennial mover of the mountains of books) for over 25 years. Niece, Gloria Smith, typed the first draft of Vincent’s history of the African American freedom struggle, There is a River, at Ella Baker’s family home in North Carolina and was Vincent’s secretary in the 1970s when she and her children lived with the Hardings. Rachel grew up as research assistant to both of her parents, and she and Gloria have shared the directorship of the Veterans of Hope Project over the past 12 years; niece Jean Campbell helped coordinate the Ambassadors of Hope Project; and Jonathan served as the project’s logistics coordinator and then receptionist until recently. Joined by a great host of friends, other relatives and colleagues, the work of the family has long been a collective and communal endeavor. “Uncle Vincent” had adopted nieces and nephews, sons and daughters all over the country – from Philadelphia to California and from Denver to Atlanta (including a few special folks in India, Brazil and Zimbabwe). And every one of them delighted in his warmth, his wisdom and the excitement they felt in his presence for the ongoing work of justice and peace.
In 1981, the Hardings moved to Denver at the invitation of Pres. Donald Messer of the Iliff School of Theology. Vincent often remarked that Iliff allowed him the freedom to “teach whatever I wanted to teach, with no restrictions.” He was inspired by students who were consciously trying to live their lives in service to others. Vincent believed that preparation for ministry was one of the few programs of professional training that encouraged people to openly plumb both the depths of personal faith and commitment to the struggle for the creation of authentic, democratic human community. In all of his encounters as a teacher/mentor/participant he worked to create spaces for people to meet and discover the beauty in each other. Starting from a request to “Tell us about your mama’s mama,” Vincent urged everyone around him to explore their similarities, their uniquenesses and their common imaginings of a just and inclusive America. His persistent voice on the imperative for inclusion helped transform Iliff during and after his tenure. In 2004, Vincent retired from the school as Professor of Religion and Social Transformation, having also served for a time as Iliff’s Vice President for Institutional Transformation.
In coming west to Denver, Vincent and Rosemarie deepened their grounding in the African American freedom struggle and expanded that base to embrace the insights and experiences of Native, Asian and Chicano/Latino brothers and sisters, recognizing important points of connection in our shared histories. The multicultural emphases in Vincent’s writings, in the Hardings’ workshops, and in the programs of the Veterans of Hope Project are a reflection of the family’s powerful interactions with a richly diverse Rocky Mountain community – in particular with Gandhian scholar Sudarshan Kapur, with Escuela Tlatelolco and the family of Corky Gonzalez, with Anna Koop and the Catholic Worker House, with El Centro Su Teatro, with the Spirituals Project and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and with Tewa Women United in New Mexico and Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, California.
In the mid-1980s, Vincent held a visiting professorship at Swarthmore College. He returned to Iliff in 1987 and for the next 15 years he and Rose travelled extensively offering lectures and workshops for educators, religious leaders, activists and students – always connecting social justice history with resources of culture and spirit from the African American freedom struggle and movements of other marginalized people. In this time, Vincent served on the steering committee of Witness for Peace, joined the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and he and Rose regularly visited with the Sojourners Community in Washington, DC, the Boggs Center in Detroit and other grassroots community-based activist organizations around the country.
Dr. Harding authored over a hundred essays and several books, including There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America; Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement; Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Inconvenient Hero; The Other American Revolution, and a series of conversations with Daisaku Ikeda, founder of Soka Gakkai International, America Will Be! Vincent Harding was also the author of the first draft of Martin Luther King’s pivotal April 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, “A Time to Break Silence.” Vincent was senior consultant to the lauded PBS series on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Eyes on the Prize; and he consulted with dozens of other documentary filmmaking projects on religion and social justice movement history, including the PBS series on Black religion, This Far By Faith, and the groundbreaking Black Heritage series which aired in 1969 on CBS. In recent years, he was interviewed by some of the nation’s well-respected television and radio journalists, such as Amy Goodman, Tavis Smiley, and Krista Tippett. After his retirement from Iliff, Vincent continued his work documenting the stories of activist elders and mentoring young organizers in the Veterans of Hope Project. He also held distinguished visiting professorships and special lectureships at many institutions, including Drew University, Goshen College, Stanford University, DePaul College of Law, Morehouse College and Wake Forest University. Indefatigable, he helped form the National Council of Elders in 2011 and last summer traveled with members of the Dorothy Cotton Institute to Israel and Palestine. In December 2013, he married Aljosie Aldrich Knight, who joined him as a co-worker in many of his activities in the last years of his life.
Even in his final months, Vincent continued to lecture widely across the country. He received numerous accolades for his activism and scholarship, including the Champions of Change Award from Escuela Tlatelolco, The Charles Earl Cobb National Racial Justice Medal, the Charles L. Holte Award of the 21st Century Foundation, the Pace e Bene Nonviolence Award, the Rocky Mountain Region ADL’s Civil Rights Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Trailblazer Award from the State of Colorado, the Boettcher Foundation’s William Funk Award for Building Stronger Communities, the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Humanities from the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities and the 2014 ACLU of Colorado Civil Rights Award (given posthumously).
Vincent died on May 19, 2014 at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania after several surgeries for an aneurysm and coronary blockage. He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Aljosie Aldrich Harding and her family; his daughter Dr. Rachel Elizabeth Harding; his son, Mr. Jonathan Harding; adopted son Geshe Thupten Kunsang; nieces Ms. Gloria Smith and Ms. Jean Campbell; nephew Mr. Phillip Jackson; cousin Mr. Frank Paul, Sr., and a great many other relatives, friends, colleagues and students who continue the spirit of his work.
Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, chapter 1 (Orbis, 2008)
We the People: The Long Journey Toward A More Perfect Union, Prologue to The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (Penguin, 1991)
To Gallant Black Men Now Dead (Negro Digest, 1966)
Articles posted in Sojourners Magazine
Vincent Harding: In Our Cloud of Witnesses (May 2014)
by Jim Wallis
To Redeem the Soul of America (April, 2013)
Do Not Grow Weary or Lose Heart (March 2013)
Articles posted in YES! Magazine
Freedom’s Sacred Dance (October 27, 2000)
Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding
How Shall We Celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday (January 17, 2011)
Vincent Harding and Grace Boggs
Vincent Harding: Let Us Dance (August 10, 2011)
America Will Be: Conversations on Hope, Freedom and Democracy, with Daisaku Ikeda (Dialogue Path Press, 2013)
Is America Possible?: A Letter to My Young Companions on the Journey of Hope (Fetzer Institute, 2007)
Getting Ready to Fly: A Reflection on Hope (SpiritHouse Project, 2004)
We Changed the World: African Americans, 1945-1970, with Robin Kelley and Earl Lewis (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis, 1996, reprinted 2008)
The Eyes on The Prize Reader: Documents, Speeches and First Hand Accounts From the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990. Editor with others. (Penguin Books, 1991)
A Certain Magnificence: Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism (Carlson Publishers, 1991)
Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (Orbis, 1990)
Mobilizing the Forces of Hope, with Rosemarie Freeney Harding, (Mennonite Central Committee, 1989)
A Way of Faith, A Time of Courage, with Rosemarie Freeney Harding (NOAR, 1984)
There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981; Vintage, 1982; Harvest Books, 1993)
The Other American Revolution (IBW/CAAS, 1980)
Slave Trade and Slavery, co-editor with John Henrik Clarke (Holt McDougal, 1970)
Beyond Chaos: Black History and the Search for the New Land (Institute of the Black World, 1970)
New Creation or Familiar Death?: An open letter to black students in the north (Southern Education Program, 1969)
Must Walls Divide? (Friendship Press, 1967)
To the Gallant Black Men Now Dead, (AFSC Southeastern Region, 1966)
Vincent Harding: Civility History and Hope (interview by Krista Tippett)
Video Interview with Vincent and Rachel Harding by Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly on the influence of Martin Luther King and the Freedom Movement on contemporary visual, musical and literary arts (2003)