Monday, May 26, 2014

Vincent Harding, part 1



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.

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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 initated 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.

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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.

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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. See "Five Poems" here. Vincent said to me afterwards, with amusement, about some of a distance of worlds: “That’s the first time they met a Jewish communist…”

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It was not mainly the rule of the rich 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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. For some of Vincent's thoughts about King's last year, see his interview with Amy Goodman here.

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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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 - see here and here - 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…

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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 - see here. 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…).


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King was. And in a certain way, so, too, was Vincent…

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