Vincent Gordon Harding (July 25, 1931 – May 19, 2014)
I was greatly saddened to learn last May that “the Great Soul, Dr. Vincent Harding, left this world” after surgery to repair his heart. It is difficult to imagine that this courageous, nonviolent warrior has departed us. Vincent was an invaluable contributor to the African American freedom struggle, a gifted historian-educator, and one of the few remaining living links to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vincent was a longtime friend as well as historical, political, spiritual advisor to me and many others who were fortunate enough to know this dedicated scholar and mentor. He was a member of the national Advisory Board of the King Papers Project since its inception. During the 1960s, Vincent and his late wife Rosemarie had a close relationship with the King family, who lived nearby in Atlanta. He was a committed activist and was the person Martin chose to draft the first version of his controversial Riverside Church speech opposing the war in Vietnam. He was also close to many of the SNCC activists I knew, and shared Ella Baker’s belief that self-reliant grassroots leaders were essential to overcoming the Jim Crow system of legalized racial segregation and discrimination.
Although I first met Vincent during the early 1970s, when he directed the Institute for the Black World, our relationship deepened in 1985 after he became a founding member of the national Advisory Board of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project. At crucial moments in my sometimes strained relationship with King Center presidents Coretta King and Dexter King, I relied on Vincent’s soft-spoken guidance that was partly rooted in his own uneven relations with the King Center. Without his advice, I do not think that I would still be editor of King’s papers.
During the past three decades, Vincent has remained a treasured friend and source of wisdom. He has always been willing to accept my invitations to visit and consult with my Stanford colleagues. Watching him deliver guest lectures to my research staff and students at Stanford, I realized he was a master teacher, encouraging students to listen closely and speak honestly in ways that I could only hope to engender. I recall especially an amazing session in 2008 in my African American Freedom Struggle course when he encouraged Stanford students to think about King as a leader of a movement to achieve democracy. He began the session with probing questions that showed me how little I knew about some of the students I had been teaching.
In 2010 he played a major role in a nationally broadcast symposium the King Institute sponsored on the Stanford campus. Among a group of veteran activists, Vincent stood out as a singularly thoughtful interpreter of the human rights struggles of the past half century. His precise and measured way of speaking enabled him to capture the audience’s full attention and convey challenging ideas in readily understandable terms.
I also remember the week in 2012 when we traveled through West Bank Palestinian communities discussing King and his nonviolent principles. Although our delegation included a number of prominent veterans of the African American freedom struggle, Vincent was clearly our most influential member. Palestinian activists quickly learned to trust him as a mentor and friend. Although he was already in his 80’s, he displayed remarkable energy as he engaged in extended discussions with Palestinians seeking his guidance. This was particularly evident during our meetings with leaders of the nonviolent resistance movement in the villages of Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, the site of weekly demonstrations protesting the Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land.
I last saw Vincent at the Dorothy Cotton Institute Gala to celebrate International Human Rights Day held in Ithaca, New York, on December 10, 2013. When I learned that Vincent would be one of the three honored guests (the others were Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton), I knew that I could not miss being there. As was his custom, Vincent delivered brief insightful remarks that drew attention to the importance of the occasion and to Dorothy’s achievements rather than to himself. While there I learned that he was engaged to marry Aljosie Aldrich Knight, who had also been a member of the West Bank delegation. I was so happy for both of them and regretted that I could not attend their wedding in Atlanta several seeks letter.
More recently, Vincent sent a letter to “dear friends,” asking for our input regarding his decision to begin a long-delayed “autobiographical journey.” We will never know what additional reflections Vincent might have provided about his unique life journey, but, from the evidence of his heartfelt letter, we can be sure that his autobiography would have drawn attention to those he credited with loving him “into life”: the mother who raise him, the wife who sustained him, his “brother and companion” Martin King, the “sisters and brothers” of SNCC, the grassroots leaders “who risked their lives to transform the South,” and “21st century community organizers” such as those working with the irrepressible Grace Boggs in Detroit.
Vincent will be missed by his many relatives, friends, and admirers who remain committed to his mission of achieving a just and peaceful future.