Dr. Vincent Harding, historian, theologian and a powerful and eloquent influence on the Civil Rights Movement, was a lifelong champion for social justice and a venerated professor emeritus at Denver’s Iliff School of Theology. He died Monday, May 19, at 82.
As a friend and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harding was perhaps best known for his role in drafting King’s famous speech of April 4, 1967, delivered at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, in which King broke with the Johnson administration over the war in Vietnam.
Politically, the Riverside Church speech was a stark choice and one fraught with peril.
President Johnson had delivered on unprecedented civil rights legislation and had initiated his War on Poverty, all signal achievements for King and the Civil Rights Movement. Both The New York Times and Washington Post immediately criticized the speech, with The Post saying King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people … ”
But the choice wasn’t a political one, Harding would later explain.
“King was most deeply a pastor, and King saw these issues in terms of what they were doing to the poorest, weakest, most vulnerable people in this country, as well as what they were doing to the poor of other countries, particularly, in this case, Vietnam,” Harding said in a Democracy Now! appearance in 2008.
“King saw the natural connection between what was happening to the poor in the USA, why young men and women were rising up in anger, frustration, desperation, saw that action as deeply related to the attention that the country was paying to the devastation it was doing in Vietnam,” Harding said. “And so, King was actually trying to bring the country together to sense the relationship between its sickness at home to the sickness of its policy overseas.”
King would be assassinated one year to the day after the speech.
Among other accolades that came after news spread of Harding’s passing, renowned King scholar Clayborne Carson of Stanford University tweeted, “Greatly saddened by the passing today of Vincent Harding, a great figure in the African American freedom struggle.”
Through speeches, essay and books, and through his leadership in countless classrooms, Harding never relinquished his push for justice. But he was also was also deeply capable of the engaging smile, the generous gesture, a twinkle in his eye.
Harding also lent his stature to the Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Losing Ground project, which showed that Colorado’s largest minority groups had consistently fallen further behind their white counterparts in recent decades on important measures of social progress.
In anchoring a panel discussion at Metropolitan State University last spring on Losing Ground, Harding told those in attendance he didn’t want to be viewed in a colorblind way.
“I think it is absolutely necessary for human beings to see each other, and so I don’t want anyone to be blind to who I am and to how I look and what color the great creator made available to me. I think it’s important for us to see each other and to give thanks for the great variety that there is among us, and to enjoy each other and figure out how to spend more time with each other.”
He promised to join others in “throwing my shoulder to the wheel” in correcting the deep inequities exposed by the I-News project, which looked at such measures as poverty, family income, home ownership and high school and college graduation rates.
The Denver Post reported Wednesday that Harding died from complications of a heart aneurism. A memorial service is being planned.