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2014-05-26

Remembering Vincent Harding, the Civil Rights Activist Who Wrote MLK’s Speech Against Vietnam War

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Today we spend the hour remembering the pioneering historian, theologian and civil rights activist Dr. Vincent Harding. He died on May 19 at the age of 82 in Philadelphia. He lived in Denver, but was in Pennsylvania where he had been teaching at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center. Harding was a close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and wrote King’s famous antiwar speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." King delivered the address at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 — exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis.

"By the last years of his life, [King] was saying that America had to deal with what he called triple evils: the evil of racism, the evil of materialism and the evils of militarism," said Harding in this Democracy Now! interview in 2008. "And he saw those three very much connected to each other."

After King was assassinated, Harding became the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and of the Institute of the Black World. He later became a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Iliff Professor George "Tink" Tinker described Harding as "the most important civil rights leader not everyone has heard of." Democracy Now! interviewed Vincent Harding on April 1, 2008, three days before the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. The interview took place during Barack Obama’s historic run for president. Hear Harding in his own words and an excerpt of King’s "Beyond Vietnam" speech.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour remembering the pioneering historian, theologian and peace activist, Dr. Vincent Harding. He died May 19th at the age of 82. Harding was a close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King and wrote King’s famous antiwar speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." King delivered the address at Riverside Church here in New York, April 4th, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harding was involved in numerous civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. After King was assassinated, Harding became the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and of the Institute of the Black World. He later became a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Iliff Professor George "Tink" Tinker described Harding as, quote, "the most important civil rights leader not everyone has heard of."

I interviewed Vincent Harding in our firehouse studio on April 1st, 2008. It was three days before the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. It was in the middle of Barack Obama’s historic run for president. I began by asking Dr. Harding to talk about where he was when he learned that Dr. King had been killed April 4th, 1968.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I was sitting with my wife and a friend from New York, Wilfred Cartey, at the famous Paschal’s Motel and Restaurant in Atlanta, and the three of us were having dinner that evening. And the owner of Paschal’s came over to me, whispered in my ear the first word that had come about Martin being shot. And that’s where I was, and that’s where I will never forget being.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts at that time? You didn’t even know he was dead at that point.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: No, no. But I was very worried that that is what might be taking place. And my wife and Freddy and I just began to talk about the significance of it. I don’t remember anything about what we said. I do remember the jolt that it was to me at the time, and then as the word began to go around the restaurant, it was clear that there was something passing through all of us who were in that restaurant at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You had known Dr. King for 10 years.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You met him in ’58?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet him?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Oh, it’s a long, long story, Amy. But let me see if I can be unusual and say that five of us who were members of an interracial church in Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago, Woodlawn Mennonite Church, had decided that we wanted to really test out our own convictions about brotherhood, as we termed it then—three white, two black—got into an old station wagon and started out in Little Rock, Arkansas, to drive across the South to pledge to each other that we would not allow ourselves to be separated, because we believed deeply that we were brothers in some God-given way. And as we were driving, we came into Alabama, and it was clear to us that we shouldn’t be in Alabama without seeing Martin King. And so, in those days of non-cellphones, non-computers, non-anything, we simply called his house and told Coretta, who we had not met, that this crazy bunch of folks were driving through, and we wondered if we could come and see him.

AMY GOODMAN: In Montgomery.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: In Montgomery.

AMY GOODMAN: When he was head of the Dexter Avenue Church.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: And more than that, he was recuperating at that time from the wound that he had sustained here in New York City, and he was in bed. Coretta told him that these five guys were there and wanted to know if they could come and see him. And Martin, in his wonderfully gracious way, said, "Why not? Sure, come on in." And when he heard that we were an interracial group and that we were driving through the South, he was just eager to encourage us. And so, we went in to meet him then, and he was in his pajamas in his bed, and we took about an hour or so of his time, and we had a great time. And—

AMY GOODMAN: This was a few years after the—

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Montgomery Bus Boycott, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks sitting down—

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —on the bus, and he led the Montgomery Improvement Association. So when you went to see him, just recovering from a bullet, he addressed that in his—

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Not a bullet, a letter opener, as a matter of fact. He had been stabbed at that time—

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, right.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: —while he was on a book-signing tour.

AMY GOODMAN: And said, if he had sneezed...

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes. That was later that he put that together, but that was the "if I had sneezed" situation, yes, that he would have been gone at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you talk about?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I’ll tell you what I remember, Amy, and that was that just as we were about to leave, he said to the other black guy and me—the other guy’s name was George Edgar Riddick, Ed Riddick—he said, "You guys especially, you know as a result of being in this peace church, you understand what we’re trying to do with nonviolence down here. You guys ought to come down here and help us," and said that especially to Ed and myself. And I never forgot that. And three years later, my wife and I were down there in the South working in the movement and being next-door neighbors and friends with Martin and Coretta.

But I also remember, without the details, that he was joking about the fact that we were really asking for trouble driving through the South with three of the five of us like that. He had a marvelous sense of humor, always teasing people. And that was one thing that I recall. The conversation, I don’t think was full of gravitas; it was full of appreciation for each other and encouragement of each other. And as I said, his call to us, not to stay away, but to come back south.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harding, can you talk about the movements that he spearheaded, was a part of, was inspired by and then inspired, and how it changed, how he evolved in those 10 years from ’58 to ’68?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Amy, I am very glad that you put it that way, because that is precisely the way that I see the historical development. Martin had originally gone to Montgomery with an image, a vision, perhaps, of being pastor of that relatively small Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, very middle-class church, and then perhaps to be a dean at the black college there in Montgomery. And it was the action of the people, particularly sparked off by Rosa Parks, which in a deep sense helped him to revision what he was about, why he was there. Out of that, he developed a new sense of himself and at the same moment helped the people to develop a new sense of their selves. And so, this dialectic between him and the community led to an opening that became an opening for the whole country, and eventually, in many ways, for many parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened in Birmingham, how he ended up in jail there, how he ended up writing his letter? The position he took, it was not only against the white authorities, it was not only against those in governance, but also those even in the black community who felt he was going too far.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Birmingham 1963 seems light years away now, but that is the fact, that Martin had been invited to come to Birmingham by that magnificent madman, Fred Shuttlesworth, who had carried on almost a single-handed struggle to break the segregation—the violent, terrorist segregation—of that city of Birmingham, and then invited Martin and SCLC to come in. Many, many people in that city took the position that many people take in similar situations: This is terrible, but if we try to do something about it, it’s going to be more terrible, so why don’t we just let things lay as they are? And King and Shuttlesworth were quite convinced that this needed to change and that that city needed to be challenged. And the apathy of so many of the people also needed to be challenged. And I had the good fortune, with my wife Rosemarie, to be asked by Martin to come to Birmingham and to help in that situation, particularly to help in the work of finding the white people in that situation who wanted to try to take the chance to work for change.

King came especially to our attention there in Birmingham because there was a whole development in which many of the protesters were young people, and in some cases children, who came to play a crucial role in leading the struggle against segregation, partly because many of the adults were afraid to, couldn’t afford to, were worried about what would happen to them and their livelihoods if they did it. And the children took the role. They were arrested, after the dogs and the firehoses. They were put in jail. They were not able, after a while—SCLC wasn’t able to get all of the bond money that was needed to get everyone out. And King, I remember very much, one Friday afternoon, in his motel room, simply said, "I don’t know what I can do to get the money to get these folks out, young and old, but I do know that what I can do is to go in there with them." And so, he then led a march that was against the law at the time, and he was arrested and put into jail.

It was in that context that he took the opportunity to work on that now-famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he was responding to people who would, in this day, be considered moderate Christian, white Christian leaders, essentially saying, "King ought not to come. King is an outsider. King is stirring up trouble. Why is he doing this?" And King tried, in that letter, to speak to those men—they were all men—trying to help them to understand what it meant for black people to live in the midst of a segregated society. And to those Christian men, he tried to make it very clear that he saw the way in which black people had been forced to live was clearly against the will of any loving god. And he was raising questions as to whether or not those who were leaders in the communities of God ought to be standing against change, or whether they ought to be in the forefront of change. So that letter was what came out of him in that Birmingham situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian, theologian, civil rights activist, Dr. Vincent Harding. He died on May 19th in Philadelphia at the age of 82. We’ll be back with my interview in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we remember today the life of historian, theologian and civil rights activist, Dr. Vincent Harding. He died May 19th at the age of 82. He was a close aide to Dr. Martin Luther King and wrote his historic antiwar speech, "Beyond Vietnam," in 1967. I spoke to Vincent Harding in April of 2008, asked him to talk about the lead-up to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and I asked him what Martin Luther King was fighting for at the time.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think, Amy, that Martin saw very clearly that this country could never achieve its best possibilities as long as it continued either to embrace segregation as a way of life or to make believe that segregation didn’t exist and try to ignore it. And so, Martin was trying to do everything that he possibly could to lift up the reality of what segregation in America meant both to those of us who suffered most directly under segregation, but what it meant as a contradiction to the claims of the country itself. And what he was trying to do in as many ways as possible was to dramatize what segregation was about, to dramatize the struggles against segregation. And he was trying—and this was part of what led up to 1963 and the march—he was trying to encourage the hundreds of thousands of people all over the South who were carrying on campaigns like the Birmingham campaign to struggle against segregation. And he was trying to call attention, as I said , saying to the country, "Look, this is your country. This is our country. We cannot ignore what’s going on here," and at the same moment, saying to the people who were fighting against segregation, "This is a holy battle, and you are doing exactly what you should do. Do not give up. Do not be despairing. We are able to overcome what is against us."

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you had people like the activist John Lewis, now congressman, from Atlanta, Georgia, whose speech was toned down.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? At 1963. He wasn’t allowed to give the address he wanted to give.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: John was trying to speak very clearly about the fact that, even though the Kennedy administration had given the impression, in many ways, that they were on the side of the movement against segregation, they were not ready to take the risks, the chances, that a political organization needed to take in order to stand with the movement to break down segregation. And John wanted to be very clear that, as he put it, those were not the allies that they claimed to be. He wanted to make it very clear that it was necessary to bring even more pressure by being even more radical in the action that was to go on in the South. And he was taking a very radicalized position, and many of the people who were on the platform there with him simply said, "We don’t want to be identified with that. We want things to be pleasant and generally acceptable to the Kennedys and to the world. And if you start talking like that, we cannot be associated with you." And so there was some calming down of the position that he was taking at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Dr. King’s relationship with the Kennedys? President Kennedy would be assassinated a few months later.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think that we could say that Martin was helping those men to get an education about what their country was really about. He was helping them to see what their role was, as leaders of the country, to bring about change. And he was certainly challenging them to ask whether or not they could continue to talk about being leaders of the free world and having a major section of the population of this country denied something as simple and as necessary as the right to vote. So King was educating them. King was challenging them. And at the same moment, King was depending upon their help and assistance and the opening of their eyes to bring in the kind of federal assistance that was needed to make possible the continued movement of the people who were struggling to change the country. It was a tough kind of situation. They respected him. They realized that he was a part of a movement that was opening the country in new ways. But they were also worried about what would happen if this got out of hand. King, on the other hand, recognized that they were learning, but he knew that they were learning too slowly, and he knew that they were learning as politicians—always watching the edges from where they could be attacked and lose their own power and constituency. So it was quite a dance that was going on between and among them.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harding, you—he worked—Dr. King worked with Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, but then he turns on him around the issue of the Vietnam War.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: King insists that Johnson recognize what great damage the war is doing, both to the people of Vietnam and to the poor people of the United States. So he—in a sense, he says to Johnson, "You must turn and see what is going on." He does not turn on Johnson. He is trying to enlighten Johnson as to what the war is doing to devastate the hopes of the poor here and the hopes of the poor abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Dr. King’s evolution in being willing to speak out publicly around the war in Vietnam. How much risk was he taking?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Let’s talk about a risk that he was very aware of from the outset. And he would put it in these terms: He was at great risk of damaging his own soul and spirit if he did not speak out against what he knew was terrible. King was, in the deepest part of his being, a pastor, caring for those who were beaten up, caring for those who were in need, and, in the great traditional ways of the Christian faith, caring for the most outcast and those who were considered poor and needy. King was always attuned to that. Had he not spoken on behalf of what the war was doing to those people in this country and overseas, he would not have been able to live with himself.

What he did was to then realize that a struggle was going on within himself and outside of himself. Johnson had, in a sense, made this his war and was determined to carry it on as long as seemed necessary. In addition to that, before the antiwar movement really built up, there were all kinds of wonderful, liberal people, mostly white but also some black, who really were with Johnson on the war. So King knew that if he—as he stood up against the war, he would be going against not only Johnson, but against a lot of people within the civil rights community and a lot of the people who gave money to the civil rights community. People said to him that it was absolutely dangerous to run the risk of moving against those kinds of people. But King, on the other hand, said that if he really loved this country, he had to speak about what this country was doing to the Vietnamese, doing to its own people, what this country in a sense was doing to itself. And as pastor, as patriot, as lover of the country, he had no other choice but to speak out very clearly and make it plain that what was going on in Vietnam was wrong from every point of view. And he knew that that was a risk. He knew that that would anger Johnson. He knew that that would cause him to lose support from many people in the liberal communities, both black and white. But that was what he knew he had to do.

AMY GOODMAN: April 4th is not only the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, but the anniversary of the speech he gave at Riverside Church here in New York, April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed. Do you think there’s a connection?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Amy, I have long felt, and I continue to feel, that it is impossible to understand Martin’s assassination by only understanding a white segregationist man who killed Martin by himself. I am deeply convinced that Martin’s two actions—one, of trying to organize the poor to challenge this government in Washington, D.C., in the Poor People’s Campaign; and Martin’s determination not just to speak out against the Vietnam, but to speak out against the entire imperialist and militarist direction of the country—all of that has to be understood when we try to understand Martin’s assassination. So, yes, I see a connection.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your collaboration with Dr. King on this speech. When did you start to talk about it with him?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: In a way, Amy, as long as Martin and I knew each other, we were talking about the kinds of things that were involved in that speech. We were talking about the tremendous damage that war does to those who participate in it, to those who are the victims of it, to those who lose tremendous possibilities in their own lives because of it. And we were always talking about what it might mean to try to find creative, nonviolent alternatives to the terrible old-fashionness of war as a way of solving problems.

And then, when Vietnam began to develop on all of our screens in the 1960s, we talked a great deal about our country’s role and a great deal about the role of those of us who were believers in the way of nonviolent struggle for change and what our responsibility was both as nonviolent believers and as followers of the teachings and the ways of Jesus the Christ. So when Martin was clear with himself that he had to make a major public address on this subject, as fully as he could possibly do it, he was looking for a setting in which that could be done on the grounds of his religious stance particularly. And when clergy and laity against the war in Vietnam invited him to do that at Riverside for the occasion of their gathering in April 1967, it was clear to him that that was the place that he really ought to make the speech or take the stand in the most public way possible.

At the same moment, he was deeply involved in running all across the country again and again, trying to raise money for the work that was going on in the South and in the North, and he didn’t have the time to put together the kind of speech that he would want to give on that kind of occasion. And because we knew each other’s feelings, thoughts, commitments, convictions about this, he asked me if I would draft this—in a way, draft it for us, because it was our joint convictions that were being spoken. And I did the drafting, and that draft essentially became the speech, sermon, call, cry of the heart that he put forward in April 1967.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you write it?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Mostly in the basement of the house that our family was living in, in Atlanta on the corner of Ashby and Fair, not far from the Morehouse campus, not far from the Spelman campus, where I was teaching at the time. My family had gone up to Chicago to be with the larger family over the Christmas break. I was alone, working at the house, having the time just to do nothing but work on that. And that was what caught me up and engaged me for those weeks during that Christmas break.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have discussions with him about it before he delivered it April 4th?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: No. He actually vetted it with several other people who might not be as crazy as I was, to see what their kinds of responses were. There were some suggestions of some toning down of some things. But I was very glad that, in a sense, he was saying, in most cases, "This is me, and I want to stand with this." And so, we did not talk, really, about it after that process had begun. All of our talking and thinking and hoping had been done before.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian, theologian, civil rights activist, Dr. Vincent Harding. He died on May 19th in Philadelphia at the age of 82. We’ll be back with my interview in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re remembering the life of historian, theologian and civil rights activist, Dr. Vincent Harding. He died May 19th at the age of 82. He was a close aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote his historic antiwar "Beyond Vietnam" speech. Before we return to my interview with Dr. Harding, I want to turn to the part of Dr. Martin Luther’s King speech when he was at Riverside Church. It was April 4th, 1967.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word," unquote.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on." We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time, reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now, let us begin. Now, let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King delivering his historic "Beyond Vietnam" speech on April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis. The speech was written by Dr. Vincent Harding, who died May 19th this year at the age of 82. We now go back to my 2008 interview with Dr. Vincent Harding, who joined us in our firehouse studio. The date was April 1st, 2008, three days before the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and it was in the middle of Barack Obama’s first historic run for president.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King’s own organization, which you worked with also, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, voted after this speech, the board of directors, not to back Dr. King in his opposition to the war. What effect did that have?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: You know, Amy, I do not remember it as direct as that. And I will take you on that. What I do know was that there was major opposition within the organization, within the board, as I said, within the civil rights leadership community. Martin, I think, in the face of all of that, from those various points, was clearly disappointed that people were not as ready as he felt they should be to take such a clear stand, which he saw very deeply connected to the work that we were doing here on behalf of the poor. And he was disappointed, but he knew that that had to be expected, when you step out, and he was determined to keep stepping out. And that, I think, is the best that I can say about that.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about that last year and Memphis. When had you spoken with him last?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I’m not sure that I can tie that down, Amy. I know that one of my major memories of that last year, 1968, was seeing Martin in Ralph Abernathy’s church at a gathering of people who had come in from across the country to talk about the Poor People’s Campaign. And there were poor white from Appalachia. There were Native Americans from various parts of the country. There were Chicanos, Mexicanos from the Southwest primarily. There were blacks from both North and South. And I was just struck by the way in which I saw, I felt, in the faces of so many of the people there the question of "Are we really ready to go this far to bring a major challenge across these lines into the face of the nation itself?" But that was the last memory that I have of that year, and I did not speak to him directly before he went to Memphis, but I knew that he was going in, and I knew that he was going, because he was deeply committed to what the struggle of the garbage workers meant to them and meant to the country.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a lot of commentary now about ministers speaking out, like Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s minister in Chicago, quoting him saying things like "God damn America." And I was thinking back to Dr. King and what he was saying at the time, for example, saying that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth today. What about what he had to say and how he was seen at the time?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: By 1968, it was very clear to Martin and to those who were close to him that that pastoral role that he had taken on all of his life was always matched by a prophetic role, in which he had to stand up and speak truth to power and to say what he really saw was going on that was against what he understood to be the will of God for human beings and, certainly, for this country. And Martin, in that speech, for instance, was trying to say, in a variety of ways, that this country was going very wrong, doing very wrong, and doing it against the best interest of the weakest people in the world. And King had no hesitation about doing this, because King loved this country and understood that that kind of love demanded that kind of truth and that kind of honesty. And he also knew that, for a lot of people, there was no understanding of America in the way that he had come to understand America, both by being black and by being with those who were underneath America.

And I should say, at this point, by listening with a very clear and understanding ear to someone who spoke that way all the time, Malcolm X, Martin, by the time Malcolm was assassinated, was really recognizing that Malcolm, in many, many cases, was speaking deep truth about the kinds of pathways that this country was taking that were negative pathways, that were not helpful pathways, and that were pathways that needed to change. So King had that in his tradition. As you probably know, being a follower of the—what we call the Judeo-Christian tradition, the role of the prophet is very clear: The prophet stands to face the rulers with what is wrong, not to sing patriotic songs, but their great responsibility is to say, "This is what God requires. This is what you are doing. You’re in trouble, because you are going against what it is that God requires."

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on Reverend Wright?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I am very glad that we have had Reverend Wrights all through our history in this country. I think it has been good for black people. And for those whites who would listen, it has been good for them, as well. I know Jeremiah Wright just a bit, and I appreciate him a great deal. I choose very specifically not to judge him by sound bites, but by the fullness of his life, which I have seen, from the Chicago that I know, as being a life full of service to that community, full of service in such a way that he was building people in every possible way that he could. And I respect him a great deal. One of the small things that always comes to my mind is that when my first major book, There is a River, was published back in ’80, ’81, Jeremiah Wright was one of the few pastors who, as pastor, said, "I want this book to be read by everybody in my congregation. You come here from wherever you are, Vincent, and you speak to my congregation about this book, because it is absolutely necessary that our people understand their history. You teach it to us, please." That was striking to me, a pastor who wanted to be a teacher and who wanted to help others learn from every teacher that they could. So I have a very warm place in my heart for Jeremiah Wright.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Oh, yes, and I had a wonderful time with his congregation, and they actually read it in preparation for the discussion that I had with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And your main thesis in the book?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: It was that the struggle for freedom in this country, as carried on by African Americans and our allies, has been a struggle that started from the beginning of the country and goes on throughout the life of the country, and that the country’s life is made richer and better by that struggle and by the direction in which that struggle pushes us to go.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the last actions in the last years of Dr. King was to work in Chicago. Did he know Jeremiah Wright?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: It would be impossible to do anything with religion in Chicago and not know Jeremiah Wright. That’s for sure. I can’t say for certain, but I would be strongly suspicious that he did and that they were friends, because they were walking along very similar pathways of critiquing for the good of the life of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King was building is not talked about very much.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: We know the "I Have a Dream" speech—

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and of course his last speech.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But just explain that to us, as we come to the end of Dr. King’s life.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Martin always understood that race and class were intricately involved in the life of this country. He also understood that the issues of poverty were issues that affected not only black people, but all kinds of other people, including white people. And he knew that if there were to be, as he hoped there would be, an opportunity for the building of this country into its best possible development, then somehow the issue of poverty had to be addressed, and because he was a person of both words and actions, he knew that poverty could not really be addressed unless the poor themselves took action to challenge a country that would not take action on their behalf.

And so, Martin was, towards the end of his life, you may remember, by the last years of his life, he was saying that America had to deal with three—what he called triple evils: the evil of racism, the evil of materialism and the evils of militarism. And he saw those three very much connected to each other. And by organizing the poor, he saw that—especially organizing across racial lines, he saw that as addressing those evils in a way that had to be done by somebody. And he was in a position by 1968 to probably be the only person who could have called those groups of people together and said, "Let us make a common ground to create a new America." That was his hope. That was what he was working for when he was killed. He was among the poor and calling upon the country to look and see the condition of the poor in order that we might see the possibilities of a new America.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harding, any last thoughts?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think that I am fascinated by the fact that 40 years after Martin’s assassination there should come on the scene someone who, when he’s at his best, is making his theme "Let us create a more perfect union." That, for me, was the essential message of King: Let us work together against all the things that keep us from creating a more perfect union. I think that if my friend and brother, Obama, can keep in our mind and keep in his mind the thing that we need most is to have a vision of the possibilities of a new America for us all, if that can happen, then we are on our way to something that Martin King would be very, very glad to see: the pathway to a truly new America.

AMY GOODMAN: The historian, theologian, civil rights activist, Vincent Harding, speaking April 1st, 2008. He died in Philadelphia this year, May 19th, at the age of 82. Dr. Harding lived in Denver but was in Pennsylvania teaching at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat outside Philadelphia. Visit democracynow.org to watch all of our interviews with Vincent Harding.

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