If you ask Dr. Vincent Harding who he is, he won’t say he’s Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology. Nor will he volunteer that he was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, or that he served as the first director of the King Memorial Center in Atlanta. He’s not comfortable with titles, but if you push him on it, he will tell you that his job is “to encourage others to be their best selves, and the country to realize its best possibilities.”
To that end, he and his late wife Rosemarie founded the Veterans of Hope Project at Iliff. “Veterans of Hope invites people who’ve been working for human social change to tell the story of how they came to be engaged, their inspiration, and how they deal with discouragement,” he said. Although their stories are preserved on video tape, Harding doesn’t see them merely as an historical record. “We’re putting these materials in the hands of younger people to help them see the possibilities,” he said. “They’re a source of encouragement to youth.”
Harding’s career as an advocate for peace and justice began while he was in the Army in the early 50s. With time on his hands, he began a serious study of the New Testament, which in turn led him to question his role as a soldier. “‘How do I reconcile killing with loving my enemies?’” he asked himself. “To take Jesus Christ seriously, I had to be a Conscientious Objector. That realization drew me in the direction of the movement.”
At the University of Chicago, where he went to study History after his stint in the military, Harding fell in with a group of Mennonites who wanted to establish an interracial church on the city’s South Side. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘Would we be doing this if we were in the Deep South?’ One day somebody said, ‘Why don’t we head south and find out?’”
Which is how it came to pass that five young Mennonites -- three whites and two blacks – crammed themselves into a station wagon and headed south on an odyssey that would take them from Little Rock, Arkansas, across Mississippi, to Montgomery, Alabama; a fairly dicey proposition, considering that Dixie in 1958 was still legally segregated.
Improbable as it may seem, the group located Martin Luther King’s phone number in the Montgomery directory and called him up. King’s wife, Coretta answered and invited them over. Dr. King welcomed them from his sick bed, where he was recuperating from a stab wound he’d received on a book tour in New York.
“We sat in chairs around the bed and talked,” Harding recalled. “Martin was impressed that we’d made it through Mississippi alive. As we were leaving, he said ‘You’re Mennonites. You know about non-violence. Why don’t you come on down and help us out?’”
Two years later, Harding and his new bride took King up on his offer and moved to Atlanta, where they became the official Mennonite representatives to the Freedom Movement. The house they lived in was just around the corner from Dr. King’s, and it wasn’t long before a friendship developed.
“I saw him as an elder brother,” Harding said. “We saw a lot of each other. Occasionally he’d ask me to draft speeches and press releases for him. One significant piece was his speech calling for resistance to the Vietnam War. It was delivered at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated.”
Harding feels that many teachers today are reluctant to talk about segregation, and as a result, students are coming away with a false impression of what it was really like back then. “The story is much, much more than just Dr. King,” Harding said. “Thousands of unnamed people took enormous risks by refusing to obey the laws of segregation. They need to be recognized and emulated.”
Which brings us back round to Voices of Hope. “Our mission,” Harding said, “is to get the story out there. If we don’t talk about it, tell the stories, times will continue to be difficult.”
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