Vincent Harding Remembered
By Alan Gilbert.
Alan Gilbert wrote this on the death of Vincent Harding on May 19th, 2012.
Over the past 25 years, it has been my privilege to get to know Vincent Harding. Vincent was a man for whom many of us are, here and in eternity, in the words of Mennonites and the civil rights movement, brothers and sisters. Sometimes, Vincent would come to speak in my seminars on nonviolence. He asked each person her name, where she was from, her maternal grandmother’s maiden name and where she was from, and initiated a conversation with each as a full person, even, as it were, among her ancestors. He welcomed everyone into the circle. Vincent preferred to start talks and conversations from questions (I used to listen harder in the seminars with Vincent even than in the ones I teach…; I, too, now start seminars with these questions). He was as much a radical democrat in teaching as in the movements we were a part of.
Vincent lived in a country with a promise of democracy and equal rights (for some), a reality of slavery, segregation and imprisonment toward black people and a great river of resistance against it (racism toward African-Americans is also a linchpin of many other oppressions of poor people and others, at home and abroad, and resistance to it…). At the center of the civil rights movement in Atlanta and then every day since in Denver, he made and stood for a beloved community, a democracy of friendship and nurturing the young to find themselves as artists, as storytellers and be transformative figures politically. The beloved community is a hope for all of us. In his own spirit and that of his great friend Martin King, he listened, encouraged and exemplified this fledgling community, this movement which enacts a new kind of society.
For many summers, Vincent organized multiracial groups of young people to share their arts and politics. He would occasionally invite people to come talk with them, and once I did, talking about and reading some of my poems. The artists engaged with me both about what they did as well as the poems which are about some of my experiences growing up, politics embedded aslant in my life. Vincent said to me afterwards, with amusement, about some of a distance of worlds: “That’s the first time they met a Jewish communist…” It was not mainly the rule of the rich with which Vincent was concerned, though he wrote poetically about King’s last thoughts against it in The Inconvenient Hero. There he pursued the metaphor of King as an astronaut, reaching far beyond others in the movement, striking out against poverty and a world in which ownership by the few meant the unnecessary suffering of millions, particularly of nonwhite people. This is also a theme in King’s “A Time to Break Silence” about the Vietnam aggression – “my government – the most violent government in the world” – of which Vincent wrote the first draft. On the anniversary of the speech and King’s assassination on April 4th 1967 and 1968, he shared the draft with Tavis Smiley – see here, here and here. King spoke marvelously of how the earth’s waters and the chance of each person for a decent life can be no one’s property.
I was in New York giving a talk one April a few years ago; on the anniversary of King’s speech and his death in Memphis, Vincent invited me to a large gathering at the Riverside Church in Harlem at which he spoke. I asked him from the audience about King and capitalism. What he said in response was that we need a democratic movement of many voices, seeking to create the beloved community. His response surprised me (he had his own version modeled on participatory democracy from support of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – SNCC – to fight segregation and the constant threat of violence and death. Vincent and Rosemary, his wife, had befriended Stokely Carmichael who lived with them in Atlanta). He thought the movement to build a democratic community would have to find its own collective way – his voice was a powerful guide but always one among others, questioning, counseling as an elder to help each person find her own voice in the moment.
I have long been a radical democrat, but I learned from his emphasis (from his eldering a movement). He was surrounded by the spirits of those who had come before of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells, of those who resisted and made the river – There is a River – of resistance. He taught me what it means to be surrounded by ancestors… Being a great scholar was the companion of a powerful eloquence, a fiery and somewhat nationalist (John Brown plays little role) and not in spirit nonviolent resistance to oppression. He sometimes chided me when my idiom was not nonviolent – I incline to forceful metaphors for stopping oppression – and I realized, in reading his book, that this was also one of his own struggles, though long settled by the time I knew him.
In 1991, I heard Vincent speak at an anti-War rally organized by the AFSC against the first Gulf war (rarely, not a formal case of American aggression though President George H.W. Bush and much of the establishment basely hungered for oil and military bases) and we had lunch afterwards. I asked Vincent if he knew what was the best way forward for the movement (I didn’t beyond some broad strategic points about the importance to democracy of fighting all forms of racism) and he said, like me, he didn’t know. But he did know something that I only sensed: that it is out of the democratic efforts of young people and serving as an elder – telling the stories or narratives of one’s own experiences and inviting those of others, helping each person find his voice, in the larger river of struggle that hope – Vincent’s name for his organization, the Veterans of Hope, is beautiful – against the odds, flourishes.
On February 16, 2003, I asked Vincent to speak at a rally in Colorado Springs against the Second Gulf War. I and Paula, my wife, and Sage, my then 5 year old son, gave him a ride down. The talk turned to how he had gone with 4 other Mennonites, black and white, on a car trip – a pastoral freedom ride – through the segregated South in 1958 and called Dr. King in Atlanta. King was recovering from a near fatal knife wound, and they had spoken at first with Coretta, but he then invited them over. As they were about to leave, he took Vincent aside and asked him to move to Atlanta. He and Rosemary did three years later, living 5 doors down from the Kings. Martin and Vincent talked often, became alter egos.
Martin King was on the road 300 days a year. He wanted to give a powerful speech on Vietnam which would lay out persuasively what they both felt. Vincent was the expert in the movement on Vietnam (I discuss his two brilliant articles from 1965 in Reinhold Niebuhr’s journal Christianity and Crisis, containing the signature phrase about “Western arrogance,” which is also in “A Time to Break Silence” in my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch.2). Vincent wrote the first draft of that speech…
The speech is so apt about the trajectory of American aggression, militarism and self-destruction (he speaks of three evils: militarism, racism and materialism), that during the Iraq War, we simply changed the name to Iraq and used some of King’s signature phrases on signs for a demonstration on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Just 4 of us from the anti-War movement over New Year’s – not a good time to meet – planned activities leading up to the demonstration and a few days later, helped make signs and brought them to the march; thousands of marchers took them, and the whole demonstration turned to this issue. In addition, April Guy, a wonderful social work student, gave a talk and made a slideshow in one of my nonviolence class with this theme and then invited Vincent and I to speak to what became a forum of 150 people against the War at the University of Denver School of Social Work. April gave that slide show just as effectively again.
Along with King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” “A Time to Break Silence” is a great piece of American writing. If there are humans in a few hundred years, and they read public documents, I would suspect that with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and the Gettysburg Address, and perhaps some Tom Paine and the Declaration of Independence and if we are lucky Barbara Deming’s “Revolution and Equilibrium”, these will be, among the words about America that survive and are read…
On February 16, 2003, the demonstrations worldwide against the American aggression in Iraq involved tens of millions of people, for instance, 2 million in Barcelona, 1 million in Madrid and 1 and ½ million in New York – the police had pens for 10,000 in front of the UN, but the marchers stretched like sardines, my daughter Claire told me, for thirty blocks… But even Vincent, far along the road into the mountains of the spirit compared to many of us (to me anyway), had some deep struggles. Vincent had long thought that the state assassinated King (he was no enthusiast for LBJ…) a year to the day after that speech was given (the King family also does not believe that James Earl Ray was the killer…). And he had a long ordeal over the fact that King had spoken words, many of which Vincent had written, which had led to his death. Vincent wrestled with this spiritual connection and though he made peace with it, though it had quieted in his heart and spirit, though he was a man without bitterness or self-wounding, it seemed to me still to remain there as a presence later on…
Vincent had asked his friend Jim Lawson whether he felt guilt for asking Martin King to come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers (I met Lawson, the imaginer of Nashville sit-ins, a three year prisoner for resisting the Korean War, and a brilliant speaker against war and imperialism, through Vincent in Denver). Lawson had counseled him that Martin was acting against the war and against the anti-democratic oppression of workers and the poor in America and had come of his own volition, there to Memphis, to speak. He took on the risks… One might even say: King’s fate was not determined by happenstance. In that last year as The Inconvenient Hero implies, there was no shielding him from it. At Coretta King’s memorial service, Martin Luther King was called by Jimmy Carter “the greatest political leader my state has ever produced and perhaps the greatest leader my country has produced”…And that is not, as we also know from Lincoln, without sacrifice.
Now assassination attempts had been made at least yearly against King from the time he was 26 in Montgomery. It was King’s unique courage in the face of darkness, his spiritual blessing, which enabled him to act with such determination to heal America, to call forth, among people, a determined movement to stop the oppressors, but also to heal their souls in a beloved community. He told Coretta he wouldn’t make it to age 40. He didn’t…
But Lawson was not King’s brother in quite the way Vincent was. The great words that brought on ostracism by corrupt, mainstream civil rights organizations, the New York Times, and LBJ – Johnson knew that King’s words were true, as Johnson’s tapes talking to Senator Russell, now reveal… – had also initially been Vincent’s. It was a long wrestling with an angel… This demonstration on February 16, in the shadow of NORAD built into a mountain there (militarism and misshapen, perhaps one should say nuclear missile-bent “Christianity” are a hallmark of the Springs) was a gathering of 3,000. It was later attacked by the police, one of two nonviolent demonstrations worldwide that day, the other in Madrid, that were.
We both spoke that day. Vincent said to me afterwards that I was a child (or leader) of anti-war movements as he in the civil rights movement. (I was on the periphery of the civil rights movement, though my childhood friend Andy Goodman went to the heart of it). One of the many things I learned from Vincent is that the anti-war movement(s) were not a home or a community in the way that the civil rights movement in the American South, a movement out of deeper, lifelong and more immediately life-threatening oppression – see King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” – was and remains. The Southern movement was filled with song and group singing, drawn from the experience of slavery in the spirituals (not just the wonderful ironies and beautiful love songs of Phil Ochs or the grace of Simon and Garfunkel or Country Joe and the Fish…).That community also grew out of the spiritual communities (Mennonite and perhaps diverse Protestantisms and Buddhism among others) of which Vincent was a part.
Yet the community of great movements, afterwards, is somehow brittle. Denver has one of the most vigorous MLK marches in the country (often thirty thousand people show up). But mayors often speak and the official gathering is labelled the “State Farm Martin Luther King Day,” commodity fetishism run amok. It always struck me as ironic that I might hear Vincent Harding speak at the Riverside Church in Harlem or in Atlanta, but that he was somehow not recognized in Denver, I don’t recall a King march in Denver at which Vincent was asked to speak… It also always struck me as ironic that so great a figure in the anti-War movement, one whose words embodied truths about the devastating consequences for war for domestic politics, for instance that the war in Vietnam or Iraq was a war on the poor – words which John Mearsheimer or Barack Obama barely touch in mentioning the connection of militarism and authoritarianism here today would be at the Iliff School of Theology at the Veterans of Hope office, a walk across the parking lot, but that only I and one or two colleagues would send, from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, students to work with, learn from him…
When Thich Nat Hanh came to Denver to speak, Vincent introduced him (Vincent and I and my wife also went on retreats and did walking meditation with Thich Nat Hanh). Nat Hanh had been the colleague and friends of Thich Quang Duc who burned himself in Cholon to protest the American dictator Diem’s suppression of Buddhism. But he concluded this was not the way. Instead, he came to America to fight the war and has set up monasteries here and in France to heal spirits, to find the beloved community. In his introduction, Vincent said that it was Thich Nat Hanh’s meeting with King which impelled him, in many ways at great cost, to break his public silence and speak out against the war. Four months before King was assassinated in Memphis, Thich Nat Hanh came back and spoke at a gathering. “We in Vietnam consider you a Boddhisattva” (a being of divine compassion who will not pass into nirvana until every living being has passed…).
King was. And in a certain way, so, too, was Vincent…
Vincent Harding, part 2.
Vincent is perhaps the only person I have known who would meet me for lunch at Poppy’s (a favorite restaurant of his, not too far from Iliff) or at his office at the Veterans of Hope at Iliff and ask me to join him on adventures and I would just do so (he eldered me a bit, too…). I was looking, for example, to communicate about my new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, and he invited me to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) conference in Richmond, Virginia. ASALH, as an organization mainly of black scholars and including high school teachers and students, was born in the struggle; the people who come (like Jim Turner, Bob Harris, Bill Strickland, Berenice Johnson Reagon, Sterling Stuckey and John Bracey – they worked together with Vincent, after King was shot, at the fledgling Institute of the Black World – are often part of, when they were younger, nurtured in, gave voice to – Sweet Honey and the Rock- the movement. It is thus part of a fledgling beloved community in a way that other professional associations, say the philosophical or political science or sociology associations, are not (there are, of course, aspects – I have old friends from the anti-War movement like Tracy Strong or Mike Goldfield or Hilary Putnam – or panels that are, but this association, often in its spirit, is).
It was the thirtieth anniversary of the publishing of There is a River; there was a gathering to celebrate it and Vincent’s long career of activism and writing. Many spoke powerfully, the words eloquent, even divine about it, including Rachel Harding, and Vincent read the fiery conclusion, drawn from the spirituals, about the Jordan River and transformation:
“Always the blood of life, the blood of death. Knowing that more blood would be shed, they were remembering the blood streaking the waves of the Atlantic, remembering the blood on Nat Turner’s dying ground, remembering the blood on the tracks of the Underground Railway, remembering the blood on a hundred thousand white hands, remembering the blood crying out from the battlegrounds of the Freedom War, blood so freely shed in that year of Jubilee, blood for the remission of sins. Many thousands gone.”
“Near the close of that chaotic, brooding year, black people were remembering the past and moving forward, committing their lives to all the unfinished struggles of the river. With the crossing over just begun, with the requisites for true freedom still beyond their grasp, still beyond the vision of white America, with fierce, but needful battles just ahead, black people were celebrating their God and themselves, for a great victory had surely been won. It had been a brutal, magnificent struggle, reaching over more than three centuries, over thousands of miles, from the sunburned coasts of the homeland to the cold and dreary trenches near Petersburg, Fort Wagner, and Milliken’s Bend. And they were the soldiers, their people were the soldiers, the singers, the petitioners, the creators of the new time.”
“So as they sang and prayed and cried into the night, the night when slavery was officially ended in the United States, black people were celebrating themselves, honoring their forebears, holding up their children to the midnight sun, praising the mysterious, delivering God who had made it possible for them, and all who lived before them, to come so far and stand so firm in the deep red flooding of Jordan.”
Vincent wrote the book, he said, to have it read aloud to all those engaged, to students, to the unemployed, to prisoners, to grannies…It is the way books once were read (or epic poems told by storytellers in the evening over fires, the Homers or the unnamed authors of Beowulf). Not so many modern books can meet such a test. We also went to the Virginia Theological Union in Richmond. The churches have long been involved in this struggle. James Kinney, the president, took some of us, including Vincent’s great friend, the eloquent Lerone Bennett – author of “The Road Not Taken” about the nature of English colonial and American elite divide and conquer – to a chapel. There those who freed themselves in the struggle of the civil war, hungering to be able to read, were made visible in beautiful stained glass dating from 1865 (the year There is a River ends).
The aspirations of Reconstruction were in the glass; poor blacks and whites worked for the education embodied there (it was perhaps the only decent, integrated, education ever in America I think – cf. W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction – and it says a lot about how the Ku Klux Klan, the “Democratic” Party in the South and today’s “Republican” successor to which the racists fled during and following the civil rights movement seek, again and again, to imprison and break spirits (“hungry ghosts,” as Buddhists say). There is a River tells the story of a woman, at the end of the Civil War, going out to wash clothes, propping up a book, working to read. The Seminary was built on the Lumpkin Plantation, formerly known as Devil’s Acre; the slave master fell in love with and married Mary and left it to her. In 1865, she gave it to become the Baptist Freedom School.
Vincent also brought Michelle Alexander to Denver to speak at the DU law school and a church in Park Hill. He said to me that she is the new Ida B. Wells and a powerful movement has sprung up importantly instigated by her work The New Jim Crow, which underlines that America holds 2.3 million in prison, 25% of the world’s prisoners. I also had lunch with her at the political science meetings where her work helped bring some of that life and struggle into a professional world which is often surprisingly shielded from/uninterested in powerful and decent democratic politics…See here, here and here. At another lunch with Vincent, he asked: why don’t you come, with a civil rights and Jewish activists against the Occupation sponsored by the Dorothy Cotton Institute, to visit Israel? I had sometimes been invited to Israel (the invitations never worked out), and as I learned about the Palestinians of course, I could only come – as someone loyal to the people who suffered from and fought back against the pogroms in Russia; my ancestors on my mother’s side come from the ghtetos of the Ukraine – to meet and learn from nonviolent resistors, Palestinian and Israeli alike (we met the courageous Anarchists against the Wall who go out to be shot at with tear gas canisters and live ammunition for supporting nonviolent demonstrations in the villages).
I had long realized that the Palestinians are the jews of the Occupied Territories and the Occupiers are the Europeans (just as Americans are the immigrant Occupiers of indigenous land, the killers and “transferrers” of indigenous people). Vincent was there, leading us in song and in conversations about what we saw and what to do about it. Some weeks afterwards, he read aloud his letter to Bassem Tamimi, leader of nonviolent resistance in the village of Nabi Saleh, jailed and beaten in a way recalling the struggles against racism in America. His powerful cadences, prophetic as well as poetic, are worth taking in.
When we entered the police state of Israel, we couldn’t even take books on the Middle East we were reading for the trip because if the customs inspectors found them, we might be turned away. Aren’t many Jews known for curiosity and taking things on politically and in the investigation of nature? Israel, not so much.The government wants no visitor to notice the Wall and the people behind it, the people imprisoned and being, with meticulous calculation, disenfranchised, decitizenized, removed. Palestinians who have lived in Jerusalem for generations have been transformed by decree of the Occupation into “permanent residents.” We met Clay Carson’s student Ramzi Maqdisi who was expelled from his home for going and learning acting in Spain, denied “permission” to return. Israeli officials stifle others and drive them out for acquiring skills – who does that to whom? On the way home, we had to put the fliers and pamphlets we got in the bottom of our small suitcases because if the young airport inspectors found them, we would be taken off and questioned fiercely for 7 or 8 hours.
The Israeli state wants to harass and exile those who resist its policies, but in the case of us visitors in solidarity would simply have wanted to get rid of us. This contrasts with Palestinians who can never take their children 35 or 40 kilometres through check points to the sea. In a home in Budrus, another village, we saw “Five Broken Cameras” – the film maker had had his camera broken five times by Israeli authorities who don’t want photos of what they do getting out – which had this theme in it among others. The film maker got shot by the army while filming, and needed an operation in Israel. Then he at last got permission to take his children for a day at the stolen beach.
The government would not, after harassing us, have kept us, wanted us to go home. In contrast, this is the Palestinians’ home; the process of the second “transfer” or ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories, is calculated, longstanding, meticulous; the State of Israel illegally and immorally strips people of their homes.Like the Israeli soldiers, those who are too young to be fully formed, to know better, the customs officers are being shaped, except of course, for those who admirably come to themselves. Natan, a young man from Breaking the Silence, showed us around the “Jews only” Shuhadah street in Occupied Hebron – see here. Normally, however, these soldiers do an evil which their elders suffered in Europe.
On the trip, we went to Occupied Nabi Saleh, a small village where the Tamimis (the family name of the some 1500 inhabitants) protested nonviolently, except a few teenagers throwing rocks, to save their olive trees. The olive trees, sometimes 2000 years old, pray to heaven, as the villagers say and as Vincent speaks to. See here and here. The Wall cuts them off. Villagers, usually older women, get to water them but one day a year. Settlers sometimes burn them. The gleaming pink settlement, subsidized by the Israeli government, looms on a nearby hill. Among the black people who came, there wasn’t a person unsympathetic to the plight of jews in Europe. There was also not a person who didn’t see this instantly, as everyone remarked at the Airport, as “Jim Crow” or apartheid. Among our sojourners was Aljosie Aldrich, a powerful and gentle spirit from rural Georgia, long part of the movement, who married Vincent last winter.
During the trip, Vincent gave a wonderful interview to Amira Haas, the great Haaretz reporter who lives in and reports from the territories. Though much of the richness of his upbringing was in the support he received from a Victory Tabernacle Seventh Day Church in Harlem where his single mom and he were welcomed and nurtured – see here – he also recalled an upstairs neighbor had become a Jew; his teachers, often Jews, saw the immense potential in him and eldered him. Vincent’s own eldering – seeing the potential of young Osama and Janna Tamimi before they quite see it themselves – mirrored his own. Vincent also went to City College which was then 96% Jewish; Vincent took part in SNCC (though Vincent was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Stokely Carmichael, his fellow immigrant from the Caribbean, lived with Vincent and Rosemary), alongside volunteers, many of whom were Jews. One of the noble features of Jewish life has been to accompany – the word is Staughton Lynd’s, also a participant in that movement and Vincent’s great friend – others who are oppressed on their path of liberation, to swim in that river…
From first to fourth grade, I was a classmate and friend at Walden School of Andy Goodman. I had gone on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland where the people had been attacked by a mob led by the sheriff the week before. Three years later, I decided not go to Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Andy did. Vincent did not know Andy (he was murdered on his first day in Mississippi, having gone from the freedom school in Ohio where most of the volunteers were still gathered, a week early), but was friends with Michael Schwerner and James Cheney. When Vincent or Dorothy Cotton, the education minister and sole woman in the leadership of the SCLC, spoke of freeing the Palestinians, it was thus not for any lack of love for Jews. Quite the contrary. It was seeing what Jews had done straight up, seeing the souls of those who fought oppression, mourning the Europeanness of Israel, and fighting for a community where all people, Jews and Arabs can be treated decently.
Israel has been the expelling community. Vincent listened and spoke to all, with great force, of recognizing the Palestinians, of supporting and developing mass nonviolent resistance, and of what, given the end of Occupation, Israelis can do to begin to do to heal. In the small village of Nabi Saleh, we stayed with Bassem Tamimi – see here. Bassem had been in jail for over a year for organizing nonviolent protest against the Wall. Shortly after we left, he held up a sign and chanted at a nonviolent demonstration at a settlement supermarket. He was beaten terribly by the IDF (Israeli “Defense” Forces) – his ribs broken – and was thrown again in an Israeli prison for four months. See here. and here. He adopted Vincent as a cousin when Vincent came (Vincent refers to him as cousin, nephew, brother, son). We sat on Bassem’s and Neriman’s roof watching a demonstration below (within range of Israeli guns, they knew that we were there and it must have taken some “restraint” to fire live ammunition only at the young Palestinians demonstrating down the hill…). Vincent and Bassem became fast friends.
The Israeli government and its American supporters do not know what to do with Palestinians who walk in the path of Martin Luther King, who mount nonviolent resistance to the Wall. In Nabi Saleh, the Israeli army murdered two younger Tamimis at demonstrations Mohammed Tamimi two weeks before and Rushdi Tamimi two weeks after we were there – see here and Janna’s Song here. But the demonstrations forced Israel to move the wall back beyond more of the olive trees. We all walked by the Wall, picked up the silver American-made tear gas canisters – by the deceptively misnamed Consolidated Systems Inc. – and the black “rubber” bullet shells littering the sand and among the rocks. Yes, pictures of this are not to be shown in America, for they would make news like Bull Connor’s fire hosing of children and siccing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham…People would – and increasingly will – stand up against it.
In his interview with Amira Haas, Vincent drew a line: “Harding wrote King’s speech against continuing the war in Vietnam, which was delivered to a huge audience at a New York church exactly a year before King’s murder. Harding reassures us that King usually wrote his speeches by himself, but ‘at the time he apparently assumed that college professors had more time than freedom leaders.’ They formulated their views against the war together. Harding and King told the skeptics within the black community that ‘we have been very glad whenever voices came from outside the U.S., especially from the Third World, to stand in solidarity with us.’
For the same reason it is natural for Harding and his friends to come now and listen to the Palestinians and Israelis who are actively fighting the occupation: In Jerusalem and Bil’in, Ramallah, Hebron, the Deheisheh refugee camp and the village of Walaja. One of the things that he learned immediately in the first two days was ‘how ignorant I was about what is really happening in this part of the world, how little I know and how little I have thought about how little I know – which is not characteristic of me. I come to this situation not simply as somebody who has been involved with non-violent actions of various kinds over many years, but as someone who for some known and unknown reasons, ever since I was in high school, was deeply concerned about learning about the Holocaust.’
…’I come from an American situation in which apartheid has been in one shape or another the reality of the country from its beginning up to the 1950s and 1960s, and then a struggle with how to get rid of it. As I have listened to my sisters and brothers here I felt familiarity and identification. I could identify on both levels – it’s important to emphasize I came here as someone deeply in love with specific Jewish people, and deeply concerned by the great tragedy of the Holocaust experience. I came here as someone who experienced and fought against racial segregation and racial domination for half a century or more. So all this was very fresh and painful to me and very recognizable.’
And what will you do now with what you’ve learned?
‘I have been gifted with a great network of acquaintances, friends and colleagues, and I see a great responsibility right now to disseminate this knowledge and information in writing and by word. I will meet with lawmakers.’” See here.
Every one of us on the delegation and many others will continue, perhaps less eloquently and humorously but with some persistence, this dissemination.No wonder that Jewish students on campuses all over the country – those who have gotten some knowledge of the Occupation – have joined the fight for divestment. For those of you who think this movement means nothing, consider again the beloved community of solidarity and decency. Vincent had brought the deep red flooding of There is a River back to the Jordan. Vincent and Dorothy Cotton would lead us at a morning or evening meeting and on the bus, in song. Song is hope.
After Andy and James Cheney and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi, everyone in SNCC knew they were dead. Bob Moses, a great student leader, told all the volunteers to call home and talk with their parents and take a day to think about whether they would stay. We won’t think badly, he said, of anyone for deciding to go home.They stayed and talked and sang. And the songs, in the immense darkness that surrounded them and those whom they met like Fannie Lou Hamer, a Tamimi of Ruleville, Mississippi, filled them, against all odds, with hope. (Vincent named his center at Iliff the King-Gandhi-Fannie Lou Hamer Center).Few went home.
Vincent remarked on the foolishness of those who mock – “Come by here Lord – ‘Kumbaya’”. One morning, we almost sang “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.” But we had a discussion instead. Vincent pointed out that “the walls come tumbling down” so that Joshua can commit genocide against the Canaanites. We all left that spiritual behind. The story of liberation of the Jews has inspired other oppressed people. Barack spoke of how the story of Jews leaving slavery has moved him; Vincent wrote to his younger brother Barack and his advisors, some of whom he knew, about some of the many missteps, even the celebration of taking out Bin Laden).Vincent loved “we are climbin Jacob’s ladder” and composed a resonant new verse:
“We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world, we are building up a new world, builders must be strong.” Listen here.
In November, after we came back, Vincent invited me to go for lunch and gave me a copy of “This American Life” on the driving of the Sioux out of Minnesota in 1862, “You know”, he said, “the closest analogy to the Palestinians isn’t African-Americans but indigenous people and we should do something about it.” I have long known of and demonstrated against the oppression of indigenous people (at DU, I helped organize a protest in the late 1970s against a racist fantasy in the Clarion about a young woman tanning herself in the New Mexico sun and having elaborate fears of a Native American man walking nearby), but somehow hadn’t taken in the magnitude and bearing on Denver – its founding in the Sand Creek massacre – of this. In January, 2013, I and my wife wrote a letter against the Chivington monument – formally, a 1909 statue to an Anonymous Veteran of the Civil War, not the Civil War against slavery in the South but a second Civil War of ethnic cleansing against indigenous people in the West – in front of the state capitol. And since then I have been engaged in excavating the full meaning of the celebration of John Evans. This journey, too, began from one of our lunches.
I saw Vincent for the last time at a brilliant conversation with Omid Safi, an Islamic scholar who was visiting at Iliff. See here. I shared with them the sesquicentennial of DU and Sand Creek – a journey also set in motion by Vincent’s invitation – and its role in the founding of DU and Iliff. Chivington and Evans were on the original board of the Colorado Seminary which became DU, a Methodist University; Iliff became DU’s School of Theology and then an independent institution in 1910. The administration at DU has taken very significant steps to recognize the evil of the Massacre and make, to the extent possible, a new start. What I said turns out to be a kind of last spiritual callback or report to my friend.I spoke with Vincent at the end of the gathering and gave him a hug.
It gave Vincent life, wisdom and wholeness to be on the path of struggle and compassion. In his own way like Dr. King, he was an astronaut, exploring ever new territories which are part of the diverse movement for a beloved community, a multiracial democracy. He named the newness of this American experiment which has emerged from the civil rights movement and is but 50 years old. He was not weary… Vincent Gordon Harding, that great heart and spirit, is no longer here. But I will not, one single day, cease to learn from his powerful, gentle, healing voice or hear his singing. He has brought together many of us through his eldering.
There is a great hole now in the Universe. But we, too, are astronauts…
And there is also unforgettable and marvelous presence. We are, sisters and brothers, of one heart…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 24th, 2014.