When my brother friend Dr. Vincent Harding passed away May 19 at age 82, we lost a beloved historian, theologian, social justice activist, and visionary who never lost sight of the “beloved community” his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed our nation and world could become.
During the Civil Rights Movement Vincent Harding was a close confidant of Dr. King. He helped draft several of Dr. King’s speeches, including the landmark 1967 antiwar sermon “Beyond Vietnam” and later served as the first director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta. His books include the powerful essay collection Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, where he reminded us that too many enshrine Dr. King the dreamer and ignore Dr. King the “disturber of all unjust peace.” Vincent Harding taught at Pendle Hill Study Center, the University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College, and Temple University and spent more than three decades at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where he founded and chaired the Veterans of Hope Project. The project’s mission is to encourage a healing, intergenerational approach to social justice activism that recognizes the interconnectedness of spirit, creativity, and citizenship—a mission he passionately embraced.
In July 2012 on his 81st birthday Dr. Harding spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at a Children’s Defense Fund’s conference. He told us he believed America was a wounded nation, but despite so many years of struggle he remained convinced America could and must get better. He urged all of us to commit ourselves to healing America and making our country what it should be. We can honor him by repeating his important message and trying to make it reality.
He shared a line he heard a West African poet recite: “He made this fantastic statement that I want to pass on to you as a birthday gift. He said, ‘I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.’” The poet was speaking about his homeland, which was going through political turmoil on the road to independence. But my dear brother Vincent said it applied to our current national spiritual and moral crisis in America: “We are citizens of a country that we still have to create—a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.”
“I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist,” he continued, “and that badly needs to exist. And I want to offer you the opportunity to celebrate my birthday with me by pledging deep in you that you are not going to give up this life without offering yourself totally to the creation of this country that does not yet exist.”
He drew a comparison to the words of the brilliant African American poet Langston Hughes in “Let America Be America Again.” That poem celebrates the poor, working class, and immigrant Americans from all backgrounds and colors who have always been the farmers, factory workers, and laborers on whose backs America was built, but who generation after generation have been “tangled in that ancient endless chain/Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!/Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!/Of work the men! Of take the pay!/Of owning everything for one’s own greed!”
Vincent Harding borrowed Hughes’s refrain—“America never was America to me.” He said: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. ‘You’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there. ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that.” My beloved brother Vincent remained true to that promise.
He had a special message for people of color as we work to make America what it should be for us and every American: He said it is critical that people of color remember “that we are no longer a minority.”
“Can we retire that word, as a matter of fact, and recognize that if the Census Bureau in our eyes is correct, that there is a new majority coming into being as we speak? And it’s us, and that means we have great responsibility. We can’t just be a complaining minority anymore. We must now say, as the new developing majority, what it is that we believe this country should be about, and then set to building it.”
Those of us who share Vincent Harding’s vision for that just, compassionate, multiracial, joyful nation that cares for children and elders, itself and the rest of the world, the earth’s needs along with individual needs—can honor his legacy and lifetime of struggle and service by working to make that America reality. We are citizens of a country that does not yet exist, but it is up to us to finally create and make it a just and hopeful land for all.