Vincent Harding said little when I called him in 1992. He did not want to talk about a trip he took with four other Mennonites to the South in early 1959, the very occasion of his first encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. The fact that I was writing a book in which I hoped to feature his contributions to the Mennonite community did not impress him. We spoke for less than 20 minutes. Although he was gracious and gentle throughout our conversation, it was the shortest interview I conducted for the book. When I requested a second interview more than 15 years later, he again expressed no interest in revisiting his history with the Mennonites.
Vincent Harding seemed uneasy about his Mennonite past.
I can understand why.
* * *
Harding was born in Harlem in the midst of the Great Depression. He entered this world on July 25, 1931, and was embraced by a community of West Indian immigrants in New York City.1 Both his parents had come from Barbados, but his mother raised him after his parents separated when Harding was still very young. The 80-member congregation who gathered at Victory Tabernacle offered Harding and his mother a host of spiritual and cultural resources as they, and the majority of the black West Indians who attended this offshoot of the black Seventh-Day Adventist denomination struggled to make ends meet. The members of this
nonconformist congregation expected Harding and his peers to further their education by attending college.2 Harding responded to those expectations by earning a B.A. in history from City College in New York and going on to garner an M.S. in journalism at Columbia University.3
The heart of the Cold War found Harding in the military. From 1953-55, he served in the army at Fort Dix in New Jersey.4 During that time, he remembered being more aware of high-profile developments in the civil rights movement than of the tensions between the United States and the USSR. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision ending legal segregation loomed larger than did developments in American-Soviet relations.5 Nonetheless, Harding did begin to question his involvement with the military and to seek alternatives to the
army’s campaign against our humanity.6
Harding left his military service behind in pursuit of a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago. While studying with eminent historian of Christianity Sidney E. Mead, Harding also pastored a small Seventh-Day congregation on Chicago’s south side.7 Transitioning between lectern and pulpit, Harding brought his scholarship into conversation with the streets, a bridging of the academy and activism he would return to repeatedly throughout his career.
Harding had not yet taken on the mantle of an activist himself. Although he became fully immersed in the American black experience while serving as a pastor on the south side of Chicago, he only read about civil rights events like the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to end racial segregation in that city.8 His Seventh-Day Adventist background had given him deep grounding in the black community in general and the black self-help tradition in particular, a black capitalist ethic represented by activists like United Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey.9 Harding’s church denomination, both nonconformist and unapologetically African-American, had a long history of actively evangelizing the unchurched while also protesting social evils like slavery. For the time being, however, Harding remained centered on his church and his congregation.10
As he read of those yet-distant struggles, Harding met Mennonites. While studying the history of Christianity, Harding encountered Anabaptists for the first time. Their record of self-sacrifice, commitment to nonviolence, uncompromising refusal to place the state before the church, and
radical commitment to the Christ of the open arms impressed and attracted Harding.11 He then learned to know the heirs of the Anabaptist tradition who gathered at an integrated Mennonite congregation in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, as well as a daughter of that tradition in the person of Rosemarie Freeney.
Freeney had been involved with the Mennonite community long before she met Harding. Although she was born in Chicago, her family’s roots ran deep in Georgia.12 Along with thousands of others who participated in the Great Migrations of African Americans to the North and West, Freeney’s parents had moved to Chicago in part to escape the racism and violence of the South. As a young adult, Freeney became involved with the Mennonite community, graduated from a Mennonite college with an education degree, and served for a period of time at Bethel Mennonite Church on the southwest side of Chicago.13 As of 1955, black Mennonites in general and black Mennonite women in particular still held an anomalous status in the church. African-American Mennonite minister James Lark had become the first black Mennonite bishop and, in the Mennonite Church branch of the denomination, 13 congregations had been founded to minister specifically to the black community.14 A few African-American men in addition to Bishop Lark had gained high-profile status in the church, but African-American female leaders rarely gained the church’s attention.15 Other than Lark’s wife, Rowena, and congregational leaders in Harrisonburg, Virginia, like Peggy Curry and Roberta Webb, most African-American women – like their white counterparts – served the church faithfully but with little public affirmation. Soon Freeney stood out as a shining example of how her denomination lived up to the racially egalitarian commitment made in its 1955 statement
The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.16
Within two short years, Harding had left the Seventh-Day Adventists and joined the Mennonites. On October 20, 1957, Woodlawn Mennonite Church installed Harding as their associate pastor to work alongside lead pastor Delton Franz.17 Amid much publicity and fanfare, the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC), denominational sibling of Freeney’s Mennonite Church (MC), made it known that they now had an outspoken, talented, and forthright black church leader. Elmer Neufeld, at that time a member of Woodlawn and a fellow doctoral student with Harding at the University of Chicago, described Harding as a
young, able, devoted Negro.18 To Marie Regier, another white Woodlawn member, Harding appeared as a
modern prophet sent to awaken the church.19
Such acclamation led Harding to numerous speaking engagements outside his congregation. At first the invitations came from nearby congregations like Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, about 18 miles to the southwest. At the request of Community’s pastor Ron Krehbiel, Harding preached a Sunday sermon that left many white congregants irate – so angry, in fact, that many threatened to leave if a black man ever set foot in their church again. The congregation’s leadership, however, made the decision to open their doors to all people regardless of racial identity and followed through on that commitment in subsequent years.20
Such controversy only added to Harding’s reputation and high-profile status. Despite the decision of Mennonite Biblical Seminary to abandon Woodlawn in a move to the safer confines of Elkhart, Indiana, in 1958, Harding and about 50 other members, many of them local to the area, remained in the neighborhood to continue their ministry.21 In the midst of the disruption and disappointment felt by those who stayed in the area, Harding wrote an
open letter to Mennonites in the pages of the GCMC magazine, The Mennonite. In this first formal offering to the church press, Harding demonstrated his prophetic gifts. Broaching issues he would return to time and again, he called the church to task for remaining
silent and motionless in the face of
the sins of segregation and racial discrimination.22 He found the inaction particularly egregious because the church had played politics during debates over the 1948 Selective Service Act to ensure that the legislation included an exemption for conscientious objectors; yet in 1958, that same church said they did not deal with politicians when civil rights issues came to the fore. Harding wrote as someone immersed in Mennonite history and culture but also grounded in the black freedom struggle.
Within a year, Delton Franz and Harding had organized a
Seminar on Race Relations that brought Mennonite leaders from across the country to Woodlawn. Harding gave a stirring address in which he called on the church, echoing Karl Marx, to reject an
opium gospel of salvation that did not also address racial injustice.23 He also introduced a theme he would voice over and over – Mennonites were nonconformists in name only when it came to accepting society’s racism. He declared,
[W]e have loudly preached nonconformity to the ways of the world, and yet we have so often been slavishly and silently conformed to the American attitudes on race and segregation.24 A few years previously, Mennonite Church leaders had passed a statement delineating all the worldly sins Mennonites should avoid in order to be nonconformist. As Harding inferred, however, while the list referenced union membership, secret societies, tobacco, alcohol, sports, cards, pool, dance, movies, mixed bathing, pornography,
ornate church buildings, organs, pianos, gossip, and the taking of oaths, it made no mention of racism.25
Such parochial concerns did not define Harding or his contemporaries at Woodlawn. Also in 1959, he and four of his fellow churchmen – two black and three white – travelled through the South to visit sites of civil rights activism. Although Harding’s co-pastor Delton Franz wrote about the journey in the church press and continued to press Mennonites to take action, the trip’s itinerary itself proved far more significant. The stops the team made – most likely through Harding’s contacts – evince expert knowledge of the civil rights struggle. Not only did the group drop by for a spontaneous visit with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery, they also met with school integration leader Daisy Bates in Little Rock, Arkansas, and with the staff of the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee, a training ground for civil rights leaders ranging from King to Rosa Parks.26 The meetings only served to sharpen Harding’s calls for Mennonite engagement with the civil rights struggle. Quoting an unnamed leader from Montgomery, Harding passed on this invitation to his co-religionists:
We’d be tickled to have you Mennonites come down here and teach us a few things; you’re the folks who know all about this.27
Harding at points seemed uneasy about his Mennonite identity. In 1959, college professor, church leader, and theologian Guy Hershberger noted that Harding often felt like an
exhibit on display –
our Negro Mennonite pastor.28 As Harding attended more and more national-level church meetings, a note of impatience entered his commentary as he repeated and repeated again his call for Mennonites to make their peace stance count in situations of
race tension.29 Nonetheless, he continued to speak of himself as a Mennonite and employ first-person plural pronouns – we, us, ourselves – when discussing the Anabaptist community.
Harding’s marriage to Freeney seemed to seal their Mennonite identity. On Aug. 7, 1960, Franz, lead pastor at Woodlawn, and Paul King, lead pastor at Bethel Mennonite, conducted the wedding together.30 The Hardings’ choice to have two white pastors of integrated Mennonite congregations officiate at their wedding sent a clear message:
We are Mennonites. Although no longer the spectacle that the occasion of a
Mennonite colored wedding had caused in 1947, the Hardings still drew attention in church leadership circles.31 Where Harding had already been an asset as a single man, he now took on new levels of respectability not only by entering the institution of marriage with a highly respected black Mennonite woman but by simultaneously removing the threat that he might end up wedding a white Mennonite woman. White Mennonites in 1960 still feared the
bogey of intermarriage.32
As a couple, the Hardings then dove deeper into both the Mennonite community and civil rights activism as they moved from Chicago to Atlanta in 1961. At the invitation of the Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), they accepted an assignment to work at
interracial reconciliation.33 Modeling their initial efforts after John and June Yungblut’s activist center known as
Quaker House, the Hardings established
Mennonite House at 540 Houston Street, just around the corner from Martin and Coretta King’s home.34 Even as Martin Luther King, Jr., had reached out to Mennonites the previous year when he accepted speaking engagements at Bethel College in south-central Kansas and Goshen College in northern Indiana, he reached out to the Hardings and regularly employed them in the campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).35 Although the Hardings managed Mennonite House and placed the voluntary service workers who came to live their in a variety of social service agencies in the city, they also heeded King when he called upon them to travel to Albany, Georgia, or Birmingham, Alabama, to assist in SCLC’s efforts.36
Much of the time their civil rights and Mennonite agendas dovetailed. As Mennonites, both Hardings placed a strong value on, in Vincent’s words,
reconciliation… where mistrust, and fear, and prejudice have so long prevailed.37 Expressed both in the practical matters of living in a racially integrated household and in meeting behind the scenes with white leaders in order to open a way forward in the midst of highly contentious civil rights campaigns, the central value of reconciliation held together their civil rights activism and their Mennonite identity. Even as Vincent maintained an active speaking ministry in the Mennonite community with engagements ranging from the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Eastern District to his old haunts in Chicago, he and Rosemarie made widespread connections with civil rights leaders.38 The list of those hosted at Mennonite House during the first half of the 1960s included some of the most influential activists of the period including
Freedom Singer and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, activist historian Howard Zinn, white Southern organizer Anne Braden, and long-time organizer of the citizenship school movement Septima Clark.39 That the list included so many women from a movement often riddled with misogyny and sexism speaks as well to the egalitarian values modeled by the Hardings.
Yet by 1962, tensions had already begun to appear. MCC’s Peace Section administrator Edgar Metzler emphasized in written reports that the Hardings served primarily in a
pastoral capacity to civil rights groups like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and SCLC in order to avoid any
blanket endorsements of such groups.40 That same year, a Mennonite in Canada objected to statements Harding had made in support of interracial marriage by parroting old arguments about natural law as evidenced in the animal and plant kingdoms and out of concern for the offspring of mixed-race couples.41 Even as debates about interracial marriage remained unresolved, so did disagreements over whether Mennonites should be engaged in activism. Some leading theologians of the era as well as many congregants at the grassroots felt that participating in marches or sit-ins – indeed any sort of demonstration – violated the community’s commitment to nonresistance because they ultimately relied on coercive force, even if a nonviolent variety.42 The Hardings’ support of nonviolent civil rights campaigns, despite being offered in a pastoral mode, compromised the church’s witness in the eyes of many more traditional white Mennonites. In Atlanta, the tension between activist demonstration and quietest withdrawal became embodied in the respective ministries of the Hardings’ Mennonite House and the fledgling Mennonite Fellowship led by conservative Lancaster Mennonite pastor Elvin Martin, who declared that the
church of Jesus Christ overlooks race.43
Such tensions erupted into the larger Mennonite community after Harding’s arrest in Albany and his subsequent speech before the Mennonite World Conference. According to Rosemarie Harding, King gave the Hardings the original invitation to support SCLC’s work when he said,
You must come down to Albany and help keep this a Christian movement.44 In the city to discourage violence and keep communication open between whites and blacks, Harding – like so many others in the Albany movement – made the decision to risk arrest while praying on the steps of city hall.45 After spending three nights and two days in jail, Harding was signed out of prison at the request of King and Albany sheriff Laurie Pritchett in part to help quell violence in the streets.46 Although his immediate supervisor supported Harding by sending bail money, other church leaders expressed greater caution after Harding reflected on his time in jail when speaking at the Mennonite World Conference, Aug. 6 in Kitchener, Ontario.47
Harding intensified the debate over church-sponsored activism as he talked about his time in jail. Rather than avoid what he knew to be a sore spot – one that caused his MCC supervisors no small amount of discomfort – Harding pressed down hard on the need for Mennonites to become engaged with the black freedom struggle. His words bristled with prophetic barbs.
We let our Mennonite culture become our God, he declaimed, adding,
We have allowed ourselves to be pressed into the mold of the white, Western world, a world on the decline.48 Anticipating the white privilege analysis of Peggy McIntosh and other scholars by more than a quarter century, Harding continued,
We have taken advantage of our white skins and have used facilities denied to our darker brothers, without a word of protest.49 Such rhetoric helped enflame the very conflict over separation and engagement that, as historian Paul Toews has argued, generated essential questions and new opportunities for Mennonites in the post-World War II period.50
The avalanche of activity and criticism that followed Harding’s speech emphasizes the transformative power of the race debates that sent shockwaves through the Mennonite church. In his groundbreaking work Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, historian Felipe Hinojosa makes the case that debates over race shaped and redefined the identity and communal practices of Mennonites far more than did debates over peace and nonresistance.51 He asserts that arguments about actions taken by Harding and others led to
ethnic Mennonites becoming
white Mennonites.52 The at times messy and contentious nature of that transformation process comes through in comments made by Harding’s supervisors, grassroots church members, and regional church leaders. MCC executive Edgar Stoesz criticized Harding for his
showmanship, giving evidence of not only stereotypical thinking about black preachers but also of the conflict between Mennonite values of humility and the prominence of black leaders no longer willing to conform to values of respectability and humility.53 Demonstrating Harding’s international reach, a Mennonite from Steinbach, Manitoba, excoriated Harding for his arrest and support of interracial marriage and, again, for lacking
love, humility, and peace.54 In the same vein, Virginia Mennonite Conference executive Mahlon Blosser wrote a long and defensive letter complaining about a trip the Hardings had taken to Harrisonburg, Virginia, during which the couple had referenced Mennonite white privilege when they asserted that Shenandoah Valley Mennonites had taken
advantage of the false privilege of a pink skin by making use of facilities that are denied to their Negro brothers.55
The pace of the Hardings’ activity in 1963 reached an all-time high concurrent with major developments in the broader civil rights movement. In the same year that long-time civil rights movement organizer A. Philip Randolph realized his dream of a march on Washington and King’s SCLC desegregated Birmingham, the Hardings travelled, spoke, and organized at breakneck speeds. Harding wrote a major piece on race for the Gospel Herald in February; the following month, the couple troubled the waters at the Voluntary Service unit in Gulfport, Mississippi; that same month, they met with civil rights activists inside and outside the church throughout the Mississippi Delta; and April found Harding writing a prayer distributed throughout Birmingham during Easter Sunday kneel-ins at segregated churches.56 No wonder that Harding came down with a virus by May 4.57 But he bounced back and went on to negotiate a peace agreement in the aftermath of a May 11 bombing in Birmingham; represent both the GCMC and MC denominations at a June 1963 conclave on race hosted by President Kennedy; participate in a race meeting at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, in September; consult with Lancaster Conference leaders of Southern churches in November; and appear as the revival speaker at Broad Street Mennonite Church back in Harrisonburg.58
Even as Harding ran hard through this travel and speaking itinerary, he and Rosemarie oversaw the summer volunteers and civil rights activists who passed through Mennonite House in Atlanta. It was during this summer that Harding and one of the volunteers built a round table –fashioned from dark and light lumber – around which they sat for dinner.59 In addition to the summer Mennonite volunteers, a host of civil rights luminaries visited Mennonite House during the Hardings’ tenure. For example, due to their connections with civil rights leaders like King, the Hardings opened their doors to SNCC organizer Fannie Lou Hamer as she recovered from the beating that would later draw the attention of the nation in her testimony before the Democratic National Party’s Credentialing Committee.60 In addition to the visible agitation caused by the couple’s ability to straddle both the Mennonite and the civil rights communities, a strain of laudatory if not encomiastic comments appeared in the church press.61 One correspondent praised the Hardings for their
fearless, humble witness to the Living Christ, in Whom God is ‘reconciling the world unto himself.’ May their tribe increase.62 Whether through praise or criticism, the Hardings got noticed.
Despite this widespread attention, Harding’s vision of a Mennonite church fully engaged in the struggle for racial justice remained unrealized. One of the last meetings he went to in 1963 laid bare the growing gap between Harding and church leadership, a disjuncture that also revealed his thoughts about leaving the Mennonite community. On Dec. 4, Harding attended a meeting of the Board of Christian Service in Newton, Kansas. The gathering included leaders from both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, such as professor and author Guy Hershberger, MCC executive William Snyder, Peace Section chief Edgar Metzler, General Conference administrator Vern Preheim, and committee chair Robert Kreider. Notably, Harding was the only person of color present; likewise, no women spoke at the meeting. In discussing how the church should respond to the
racial crisis then gripping the nation, the men tossed around a variety of ideas ranging from organizing workshops to hiring a staff person to work at race relations in both denominations.63 As the other participants volleyed ideas back and forth, discussed interracial marriage, and generally avoided any substantive discussion of church-wide transformation, Harding grew more and more frustrated until finally he had had enough.
In an uncharacteristic display of exasperation, Harding erupted. A transcript of the meeting traces his mounting vexation and final display of outrage. In the first part of the meeting, Harding took a familiar tack of critiquing Mennonite prejudice and seclusion. He declared that white Mennonites in segregated communities deepened their prejudice when they said they had none, a denial that increased
the problem within us.64 He called for action because the most important questions were:
What can we do, what shall we do, what are we able to do?65 And he stressed that white Mennonites everywhere had a responsibility to engage in the race question.66 When no one responded with the passion and intensity that Harding had felt at a meeting held only a few months earlier, after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham where four young girls were immediately killed and two young boys murdered in the aftermath of the explosion, he let loose in a discourse that filled three pages of the transcript. He talked about people not really getting angry with him and therefore not being honest, about the shift in the civil rights movement toward examining the underlying economic disparities in the African-American community, about his temptation to leave the church –
I am not quite at that point yet but I am tempted pretty much [to leave the church] when I hear us talking about so many things that seem so important to us and yet in terms of the living and the dying of the people in the world it seems so unimportant to me – and about whites receiving white privilege –
We don’t realize in our Western world that we have been going out of our way to give preference to whites, in all areas of life. Unconsciously perhaps but this is what we have been doing.67 Perhaps most provocatively, he declared,
This revolution will never be complete until the church does what it was called upon to do in the first place. At the end, despite Harding’s impassioned call for the church to proactively invite African Americans into their fellowship, chair Robert Kreider simply asked,
What about the joint secretariat idea?68
Harding’s time within the Mennonite community drew to a close.
In the last of a long series of Mennonite-focused race relations conferences for which Harding would provide leadership, he and Rosemarie hosted a South-wide gathering of Mennonite leaders in Atlanta in February 1964. The conference broke little new ground. Once again those in attendance could not agree on whether to participate in civil rights demonstrations.69 Once again only men served as planners.70 Harding did bring in resource speakers from outside the Mennonite community – SCLC organizer C.T. Vivian and African Methodist Episcopal pastor Charles DeMere, for example, addressed the group.71 Although more than 100 church leaders came together, Harding’s vision of a church radically engaged in a racial revolution remained unrealized.
Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishop and secretary Paul Landis provided insight into Harding’s growing sense of isolation and separation from the Mennonite community. Landis described Harding as being a bit left in his politics and a bit harsh in his commentary, noting that Harding’s
very intelligent analyses of things were very cutting.72 After Harding made a particularly pointed remark at Landis’s expense, Landis approached Harding and said,
Vincent, may I have a couple of words? Landis continued,
I resent your prejudice against me as a white person. Everything I say you respond to as though I’m a white racist, and I don’t think I am. I’m still struggling with my own needs in that area… I’m just asking for you to be as open to me as I am to you. Landis recalled Harding’s response:
You know, just because my toes are black, I’ve always felt that you were afraid to trample on them. This is the first time I’ve really felt you’ve been a brother to me.73 In his drive to call the church he loved to action and integrity, Harding felt that few returned him the honesty he offered them.
His investment of energy, honesty, and commitment to the Mennonite church had reached its peak. By early summer 1964, Harding helped prepare white college students for SNCC’s Freedom Summer. Described by a participant as a
plump, bespectacled, and brilliant moderator in discussions who reacted
honestly and humorously to every question, Harding did not identify as a Mennonite in that setting.74 Although the Hardings did take a tour that summer to visit European Mennonites and then spent the better part of a year with Mennonite-related Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, upon their return, Harding’s work assignments from that point forward focused on African-American activists’ struggle for black freedom rather than on white Mennonites’ struggle with black freedom.75
Harding’s April 1965 resignation from MCC blazed with the same stark honesty that had flamed through the church. In his letter, he confessed to a
sexual undiscipline and a lack of honesty which have helped to make me many times unfaithful to God, the church and my wife, in thoughts, words and deeds.76 This level of honesty and confession to the faith community he had claimed as his own stood in stark contrast to the misogyny, obfuscation, and duplicity so often present in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s record of philandering.77 Public accounts noted only that the Hardings had terminated their assignment with MCC’s Peace Section and had returned to Atlanta, where Harding served as the chair of the history department at Spelman College.78
Though Harding had left his profession with the Mennonites, he had not yet left his pen. By 1966, both Hardings were travelling and speaking widely throughout the South on nonviolence and the black freedom struggle, even as Vincent continued his work at Spelman and Rosemarie taught elementary school.79 They also welcomed Jonathan Barth DuBois Harding into their family, a new brother for older sister Rachel. Amidst this activity, Harding somehow found time to write for the Mennonite press. His December 1966 article,
What Answer to Black Power? – printed in both the MC Gospel Herald and the GCMC The Mennonite – provided an unflinching challenge to the Anabaptist community as a whole. Harding queried whether Mennonites’ attachment to
all of their buildings and all of their churches and all of their songs and all of their liturgies kept them from true discipleship.80 In this essay, he distanced himself from the Mennonite community; no more did he write of
ours. He had separated himself from the Anabaptists.
But his pen continued to flow. In early 1967, in the pages of Mennonite Life, Harding offered one of his most profound and lyrical works,
Where Have All the Lovers Gone?, in which he explored shifts in the civil rights movement from an interracial vision of the beloved community to a racially separate black nationalism. Mennonites were not the point of this article. Rather, he wrote for a much larger audience, one as conflicted as he over whether the black community would deploy power any differently than the white community unless
something is changed with the human spirit.81 In the light of violent urban rebellions, he lamented the
failure… of nonviolence and the disappearance of
suffering servants willing to act selflessly on behalf of all society.82 And in a somber query born of loss and nearly ceaseless struggle, he concluded,
[W]ho shall preserve us from the day, from this age, from the sudden blaze of fiery light? Who will save us from the breaking in of fire, of light?83
In response to Harding’s ever more public distancing from Mennonites, some reached out to draw him back. In March of 1967, an acquaintance’s letter in The Mennonite entreated Harding to stay in the Mennonite world. Richard Schroeder wrote,
I’ve decided that we really need you, Vince.84 Leaders of the Mennonite World Conference also prevailed upon Harding to speak at the July worldwide gathering of Mennonites in Amsterdam, an invitation that proved controversial as Harding again took up the topic of revolution. In words that still ring prophetic, he asked,
What is our peace witness when we live as citizens of the nations that make peaceful revolution impossible? We cannot escape such questions by saying that we do not believe in violence when we participate in the ‘violence of the status quo.’ Nor can we affirm law and order when they maintain a situation in which men rob another people cruelly, legally and systematically and share some of the profits with us.85 In the course of his appearance in Amsterdam, he also indicted white Mennonites for their exercise of power. Once again displaying his hallmark uncompromising honesty, he declared,
Sometimes though, we clearly control the power, subtle power, like the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness. Can we recommend the way of powerlessness while we dwell comfortably among the powerful?86 Following his speech and the reprints in the church press that followed, some criticized Harding for his political declarations, but many more praised him for getting
us into the deep sea of bearing our brother’s burdens.87 One even acclaimed,
Vincent Harding… is a prophet! Let us listen to what he has to say.88
But Harding had turned his face in another direction. Already in early 1967, he had responded positively to SCLC lieutenant Andrew Young’s request to draft the anti-Vietnam War speech that King then gave at Riverside Church on April 4.89 Soon after King’s assassination one year later, Coretta Scott King approached Harding about working with her to start what would become the King Center in Atlanta. He served as the center’s first director.90 By August of 1969, Newsweek featured Harding’s work as the director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, a
think tank that drew together a group of black academics from prestigious institutions to analyze black studies.91 That same year, former SNCC staffer James Forman listed Harding as a proposed steering committee member for his ‟Black Manifesto that demanded $500 million in reparations from white churches and synagogues.92 In the midst of the hand-wringing and consternation that rippled through the Mennonite world in the manifesto’s aftermath, Harding did not intervene to assuage the evident discomfort and unease of white Mennonites uncertain about their role in society’s racism. His attention remained focused elsewhere.
A few scattered Mennonite connections evinced Harding’s lingering attachment to the church in which he had invested so much energy for more than a decade. A talk before the Mennonite Graduate Fellowship in 1968 focused on revolution; a speech at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, that same year delineated a shift from nonviolence to violence in the civil rights movement.93 Also in 1968, he offered a reflection on
bitterness in the aftermath of King’s assassination that both the Gospel Herald and The Mennonite again simultaneously published.94 In 1970, Harding had taken on an MCC Voluntary Service worker at the Institute for the Black World and hosted Mennonite Board of Education executive Albert J. Meyer.95 Harding also agreed to meet with (Mennonite) Minority Ministries Council leaders John Powell and Hubert Brown in 1971. Although Powell described it as a congenial meeting, he later reported that Harding had said he was
headed in a different direction because
Mennonites have done it to me as they have done it to others.96
Harding’s career blossomed as he continued to move away from Mennonites. Hallmarks included helping to plan the first National Black Political Convention in 1972, authoring the highly esteemed black history There Is A River in 1981, and teaching at both Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.97 His longest academic tenure would be at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a position he accepted in 1981.98 As his career continued to prosper, his peers in the historical community offered numerous accolades. Renowned cultural historian Robin D.G. Kelley noted already in 1994 that, other than luminary W.E.B. DuBois, Harding alone made a connection between
the spirit and spiritual world of African Americans and political struggle.99 In 2004, equally accomplished historian Peniel Joseph lauded Harding for calling black scholars to
speak to truth to power, no matter the cost.100 In his frequent role as mediator between activists and academics, Harding drew strong respect both inside and outside the academy.
Mennonite historians gave him less attention. Despite his prominent role in setting the race relations agenda for the General Conference Mennonite Church, Harding receives only the briefest of mentions in Lois Barrett’s history of GCMC home missions, The Vision and the Reality (1983).101 Likewise, Harding barely shows up in Le Roy Bechler’s 1986 history of the black Mennonite church in North America.102 Historian Paul Toews does give Harding a bit more attention in Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970 (1996), but here again the widespread influence the Hardings had on the Mennonite community remains underdeveloped.103 Prior to 2010, Perry Bush’s brilliant Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in North America (1998) offered the most thorough treatment of Harding when Bush wrote that this
prophet in their midst… also functioned in an equally energetic capacity in calling the church to activity in the racial struggle and in puncturing inflated Mennonite estimations of their own moral purity.104
Harding’s unwillingness to speak with me about his Mennonite past needs to be considered alongside his eventual receptivity to meet with former Mennonite Church USA staffer Joanna Shenk and his relationship with Mennonite leaders of color like MCC Central States director Michelle Armster. At the same time, the years he spent immersed in the world of Mennonites had left him with many reasons to be wary of returning – even if only through recollection – to the community that had done as much to alienate as celebrate his considerable sacrifice on behalf of the church.
The passing of a highly influential leader (May 19, 2014) offers an occasion for reflection. Harding himself returned to his core vision in a 2012 Sojourners magazine article where he noted,
We have to take our lives away from the foolishness that the society wants us to be wrapped up in and to focus ourselves on the building of a new world.105 During his time with the Mennonites, Harding poured his energies into a community he hoped could be a part of building that new world. He had been attracted to Mennonites’ ability to spurn some of society’s folly, but he became deeply disappointed and disillusioned when he discovered just how extensively the community had internalized the foolishness of racism.
Harding’s life leaves us with a difficult question. Those who remember Harding, and the many more who have only read of his ministry and witness, face the same query: Will we, like Harding, reject the racism he spoke against so vigorously or will we accept it with tacit approval? Harding felt that we are all given a
magnificent calling to wrestle with
something that is powerful.106 His life and articulation of that call give us confidence – and hope. Because of Harding’s example, we may still learn in this yet a-borning church to embrace prophets in our midst rather than to push them aside.