Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King’s colleague and a theologian, historian, and nonviolent activist, reflected upon the last year of King’s life, writing, “Martin looked more beleaguered, harassed, and desperate than I had ever seen him before” (Introduction to “Unfulfilled Dreams,” 189). Having met King in 1958, Harding had a long sense of perspective.
Born in Harlem on 25 July 1931, Harding was raised by his mother in the city’s West Indian community. Harding recalled that his “primary community was a Black church” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 220). The church, according to Harding, “was an offshoot of the Black Seventh-Day Adventist denomination,” and represented “a kind of nonconformist Christianity” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 220). Growing up, Harding’s mother had difficulty making ends meet and supported the two of them with domestic jobs and government checks. After graduating from City College of New York with a BA in history, he received an MS in journalism from Columbia University.
Harding drove South in the fall of 1958 as part of an interracial pastoral team and met King as he recovered at his Montgomery home from a stab wound inflicted by Izola Curry. “He and Coretta were very gracious,” Harding recalled, and King told him: “‘You ought to come down here and work with us.’ So that call reverberated” (Berger, “I’ve Known Rivers”). From 1961 until 1964 he worked with his wife Rosemarie as a representative of the North American Mennonite Churches in the southern freedom struggle. Their base was in Atlanta at Mennonite House, which they had founded. Harding remarked on their joint decision to go South: “I think the fundamental decision was to give ourselves to the struggle for as long as seemed right” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 225).
Harding engaged in a wide variety of social and political campaigns in the South. In retrospect, Harding remarked that “the fundamental racist nature of the U.S. meant we were of necessity striking at the heart of the situation. When Black people were involved, especially in the South, normal political activities, such as voter registration, became essentially and fundamentally radical” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 226). Harding was involved in the Albany Movement and was arrested for leading a demonstration at Albany City Hall in July 1962. He led a workshop on nonviolence as an approach to social change at the sixth annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) convention in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1962, and was involved in the Greater Atlanta Peace Fellowship, which protested the proliferation of nuclear arms. In early January 1964, King asked Harding to draft a “critical analysis of the nonviolent movement,” with an emphasis on “new directions that the nonviolent movement must take in ’64 and in years to come” to catalyze a discussion of these issues for an SCLC retreat attended by Harding later that month (King, 3 January 1964).
Following the 1965 completion of his PhD in history from the University of Chicago, Harding accepted an invitation to become chair of the History and Sociology Department at Atlanta’s Spelman College. Harding recalled that as a result of this opportunity and of his growing awareness of the Vietnam War: “I became very concerned that I not go to a teaching situation with young people without having some greater clarity about that war” (Berger, “Extended Interview”). To prepare, Harding studied Vietnam’s history and, in the process, “decided to write something to the SCLC convention.... And what I wrote was essentially an open letter to Martin and the delegates” (Berger, “Extended Interview”). In this letter, Harding asserts: “It is my personal opinion that our nation is wrong in what it now does in Vietnam, and has been wrong for more than two decades.... I believe, too, that we as a nation are called upon to repent of the arrogance that took us into Vietnam in the first place” (Harding, 8 August 1965).
As American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, in 1967 King publicly opposed the war. Harding recalled that King joined with Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam “to make a major anti-Vietnam War presentation at Riverside Church and he asked me to prepare a draft of what he might say. Essentially, the speech that he gave on April 4, 1967, was what I drafted.... I feel very strongly that the speech and his unflinching role in expressing and organizing opposition to the war—and to the foreign and domestic policy it represented—as well as his ineluctable movement toward the call for nonviolent revolution in the U.S., were among the major reasons for his assassination.... But I know that at his best Martin was his own man, and he would not have made the speech if he had not claimed it fully as his own” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 229). King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” caused a storm of criticism in the press and from supporters of U.S. foreign policy, such as Billy Graham and Ralph Bunche. However, Harding recalled that, for King, “the most hurtful criticism was in the movement,” from civil rights leaders such as Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young (Harding, 28 June 2007).
After King’s assassination in 1968, Harding worked with Coretta Scott King to establish the King Center in Atlanta and was the Center’s first director. At that time, he also worked with other scholars to create the Institute of the Black World, based on the idea that “the whole study of the Black experience ... ought to be essentially defined by Black people,” and that “our academic work, our intellectual work, be carried on in the service of the continuing struggle” (Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” 232). Harding was professor of religion and social transformation at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology from 1981 until his retirement in 2004. In 1996 he published a collection of essays entitled Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, illuminating the last years of King’s life and the necessity of moving beyond King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1997, Harding and his wife founded Veterans of Hope, an initiative on religion, culture, and participatory democracy that emphasizes nonviolent and grassroots approaches to social change.
Rose Marie Berger, “Extended Interview with Vincent G. Harding,” Sojourners (April 2007), https://sojo.net/magazine/april-2007/web-exclusive-extended-interview-vincent-g-harding (accessed July 11, 2017).
Rose Marie Berger, “‘I’ve Known Rivers’: The Story of Freedom Movement Leaders Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding,” Sojourners: Faith, Politics, Culture, http://archive.li/KgCsJ (accessed July 11, 2017).
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Carby and Edwards, “Vincent Harding,” in Visions of History, ed. Abelove et al., 1983.
Harding, Interview by King Papers Project staff, 28 June 2007.
Harding, Introduction to “Unfulfilled Dreams,” in A Knock at Midnight, ed. Carson and Holloran, 1998.
Harding, Martin Luther King, 1996.
Harding, “An Open Letter of Concern to the SCLC Convention,” 8 August 1965, VHC.
King to Vincent Harding, 3 January 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.