In the Footsteps of a Giant: My Tribute to Vincent Harding

Posted by Melvin Bray on May 26th, 2014 filed in Useful Perhaps

Words could not express the profound dismay I felt upon learning that Vincent Harding had gone on before us. At 82, he had lived a long, rich life and deserved to take his rest whenever it suited him. Still, I was not ready for him to go.

I

Born in Harlem, NY, in 1931, Vincent Harding joined the Army at the age of 22, after earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the City College of New York at a time when being degreed and negro was no small thing. It was his time and success in the military that compelled him toward the Anabaptist peace tradition.  Upon his discharge in 1955, he went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and master’s degree and PhD in history from the University of Chicago.

A follower of Jesus, Vincent pastored in Chicago before moving to the South in 1961 with his first wife, Rosemarie (deceased 2004), to start Mennonite House.  Mennonite House became one of the command centers for the Movement.  It was during that time, Vincent and Martin King became friends and confidants.  As such, Vincent was occasionally asked to write for King or to represent him in highly charged, closed-door civic negotiations, when a lower public profile proved useful.

After King’s assassination, at Coretta Scott King’s request Vincent became the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and, shortly thereafter, of the Institute of the Black World, both in Atlanta.  In 1997, Vincent co-founded the Veterans of Hope Project, a multifaceted educational initiative on religion, culture and participatory democracy at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.  He was the author, co-author or editor of numerous books, including his magnum opus There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement and his most recent, a collaborative work, America Will Be!: Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy.

A lifetime invested in the Struggle, Vincent transitioned from this life on 19 May 2014.  He is survived by his wife Aljosie Aldrich Harding, his adult biological children Rachel and Jonathan, Aljosie’s adult children and grandchildren, many friends all over the world and scores of adopted kin who lovingly call him “Brother” or “Uncle Vincent”.  His great gift was making family and teaching others to do the same.

II

I met Uncle Vincent at the inaugural Wild Goose Festival, 2011. I was actually jealous of my friend Anthony Smith that year because he was able to get Vincent to open up to him, whereas I couldn’t get Vincent to say more than two words. It wasn’t until the following year, after my family and I got to know his beloved Aljosie and taught their grandbabies how to pitch a tent and roast marshmellows, that he invited me out to dinner and extended his friendship. All I was hoping for was a single chance to pick the brain of someone who had been there. Instead, I was given the gift of a familial intimacy that I will forever cherish.

The day before he went into the hospital, Uncle Vincent and I had spoken briefly. I was calling on a whim to ask about an article he had written in the mid-70s, “No Turning Back?,” a critical reflection on black liberation theology that kept coming up in my reading of James Cone.

Whenever I would speak to Uncle Vincent, I would reflexively hurry because I lived in awe of him. With his trademark patience, however, he had been teaching me to slow down. “We must always take time to be fully human,” he would say or imply to me, as he’d ask about the family, even if we had just spoken or seen each other the day before. This time… that last time… I remembered and slowed myself down, making a point to ask about his and Aunt Aljosie’s time on sabbatical in Philadelphia. He insisted that I must bring the family someday to the Quaker Retreat Center, Pendle Hill, where they were staying.

To my pleasant surprise, he informed me that he likely had a copy of the article with him. In response to an aside that I would love to talk to him one day about black theology, he immediately suggested that I call back the next day when he would have his calendar in front of him, and we could schedule some time. That was his way; there was no time like the present for him. It was an “appointment to make an appointment,” he remarked with a grin in his voice.  We were never able to keep it.

Later that week, after word reached me of Uncle Vincent’s hospitalization, I found myself conspiring with Lucas Johnson, another of Vincent’s nephews, as to how we might help facilitate our mentor’s need to conserve his strength. Among the many things we discussed, what felt most hopeful was the idea of hosting an annual family reunion when all Uncle Vincent’s adopted nieces and nephews could come together to spend time with him and, at the same time, build relationship with each other. We figured that knowing there was a date certain each year when that generational transmittal could take place would take some of the pressure off of Uncle Vincent to have to entertain every phone call that came his way and some of the anxiousness out of each of us to have to make that phone call every time. But on 19 May 2014, the hope of being able to have that time with him died.

The news of Vincent’s passing came to me in a most unceremonious way. A friend, not knowing how close my family and I were to Uncle Vincent and Aunt Aljosie, caught me in transition as I was exiting the building of a conference I was helping to host.  “Did you see the email that Vincent Harding died?”  I had come outside to hang for a moment with the group of friends with which my informant was standing, but I just kept walking. I refused to believe it. The notice must be premature I told myself.

I made two calls: one to Aljosie, one to my wife, Leslie. Then I cried.

I need more of him. More of his 82-year-old mischievous grin. More of his full-throated, belly laugh. More of his and his beloved Aljosie’s feet under my dining room table. More of the love in his eyes and gentleness in voice toward my children. More of his appreciative interest and investment in the work Leslie is doing with our kids and other homeschooling families. More of his magnificent use of language. More of his favorite adjective—”magnificent”. More of his stories. More lessons on what it means to live with a big heart. More of the perspective of years he was able to provide. More of his closed-eyed thoughtfulness…. More of his wisdom.

Getting to know Vincent Harding over the past three years has made me more mindful of many things, not the least of which is the urgency to connect with those elders who lived the history that made the world I know possible. When I was in college, many of them were still active in their careers, but even at my HBCU, there was no one coordinating a national program that had us going from state-to-state in a series of 2-week seminars with the likes of Vincent Harding and Maya Angelou and Ozzie Davis and Grace Lee Boggs. At this point, so many have gone on and many who are still with us just can’t manage the stress of that sort of engagement like they used to. But there are those who can, and we need to do whatever it takes to glean from them all we can before the opportunity to do so has passed us by.

I will miss Uncle Vincent. I am grateful for the time we had; perhaps even more so when I remember that he wasn’t just my “Uncle Vincent”. You see, when you only wear a size 10.5 like I do, it’s hard to imagine being able to fill shoes the size of his all by one’s self. But when I remember his gift for making family and helping folks see they are not alone, I realize I don’t have to fill his shoes all by my lonesome. If we all step in with both feet, together we can fill the socially transformative shoes he left for us on the way to beloved community. Knowing him, that’s the way he would want it in the first place.

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5 Responses to “In the Footsteps of a Giant: My Tribute to Vincent Harding”

  1. leslie Says:

    beautifully stated.

  2. Gareth Higgins Says:

    Brother. You are a true writer, and I know Uncle Vincent considered you a true friend. Peace to you.

  3. Ami Worthen Says:

    Very touching, thank you for this. Love.

  4. Mitch Says:

    This is a very moving piece, Melvin. I was just searching around the web for remembrances of Dr. Harding and clicked on this on. Glad I did! I didn’t know him as well as you, but I did work with him on some projects. You capture the power and the glory of the man. What an impact he had on so many! He had soul force.

  5. Melvin Bray Says:

    indeed he did! thanks for dropping by.

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