Losing a Gentle Prophet: Vincent Harding

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman *

 Last week, in Philadelphia, one of the great lights of the Southern Freedom Movement – Dr. Vincent Harding -- died. He was an extraordinary gentle, persistent, clear, loving, and prophetic voice for peace and justice in America and in the world. And he was our beloved friend.

He died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He was 82.

He had been there for ten days, arriving with an aneurism near his heart. He was in Philadelphia with his wife Aljosie because they had been teaching at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center near Philadelphia.

 When he felt sharp chest pain, he had gone to a hospital near Pendle Hill.  Then he was transferred by helicopter to HUP. He laughed -- “First time I’ve been in a helicopter since the Army in World War II!” Especially funny because he had become deeply committed to nonviolence, deeply opposed to war.

We met Vincent at the first gathering of The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, & Sarah (Jews, Christians, and Muslims learning and taking action together after 9/11). . He spoke at those gatherings slowly, always listening carefully to others before he spoke, and then with calm and loving wisdom.
He spoke the same way when he and Aljosie took part in our Passover Seder a few years ago – and on the telephone meetings of the steering committee of the Council of Elders that he helped found -– and at the Heschel-King Festival held at the Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Philadelphia in January 2013 where he spoke in deeply moving spiritual unfolding of what Dr. King might be doing now – and what we could be doing now.
He wrote a chapter for our book Freedom Journeys on the meanings of the biblical Exodus and Wilderness stories across millennia – a chapter on the presence of the Exodus in Southern Black Christian culture. He wrote a wonderful essay especially on how Exodus pervaded Black songs from slavery days till the Freedom Movement. (He called it “the Black-led multiracial Freedom Movement,” not limited to “civil rights” or racial justice.)
And he never left that Movement. Through his writing and teaching he kept it alive.   As he said again and again, it was and is the constant struggle to renew and expand democracy – against all the forces of domination and destruction.
When we saw him in the hospital he said that at Pendle Hill he had begun work toward an autobiography. It would have been a profoundly important gift to us all of a life well and fully lived.
He and his first wife Rosemarie (who died ten years ago) moved to Atlanta in 1960 to join the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  -- and in that work he became a close comrade and occasional first-draft-writer of some of Dr. King’s speeches. He worked especially on the most profound of them, the Riverside Church speech of April 4, 1967, to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, in which Dr. King not only spoke passionately against the Vietnam war but also warned that the deadly triplets of racism, militarism, and materalism were endangering America.
Vincent was insistent that the wisdom that came from the struggles of the mid-century must be kept alive and newly living by contact between the elders of that movement and the far younger activists of today.

To that end he founded the Veterans of Hope project at Iliff University in Denver, where he also taught  for more than twenty years as Professor of Religion and Social Transformation.  And with the same intention, he was a co-founder of the National Council of Elders, bringing together veterans of all the mid-century movements for social transformation.

And it was not just the USA. Two years ago, he and Aljosie joined with Dorothy Cotton, another veteran of the Freedom Movement, and Rabbi Brian Walt on a journey to meet with nonviolent Palestinian freedom-struggle activists in the Occupied West Bank.
And he wrote with the same hope, to transmit old experience into new minds and hearts:   Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero; Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement; We Must Keep Going: Martin Luther King and the Future of America; There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America.
He put his whole heart into love and justice – and in the end his heart gave out. The memory of this inwardly just and peaceful person who was also activist for peace and justice in the world will remain a blessing and a teaching to us all.

  • * Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center. Rabbi Phyllis Berman  founded (1979) and directs the Riverside Language Program in New York City. They have co-authored several books, including Freedom Journey: Tales of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011)


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