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December 11, 2014
Originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation on Wednesday, June 4, 2014.
When I received the news that one of my dearest mentors, “Uncle” Dr. Vincent G. Harding had passed away, I had just finished some research he invited me to do for him as he was preparing to dedicate time to a memoir he’d long planned to write. Dr. Harding had asked me to collect some of the essays he wrote in the 1960s.
When I heard of his aneurysm, I called his cell phone and left him a message saying that I was thinking of and praying for him, and that I looked forward to hearing what he wanted me to do with the essays I’d collected. As I write these words, I still have those essays on my desk, and I wish so badly that I could call Uncle Vincent and have his voice advise me on what I ought to do with them.
I miss you already, Uncle Vincent, and will hold our conversations in my heart. You would often call out of the blue, just to check on me; I had to get used to an “academic” calling me with no ulterior motive, but simply because you were concerned for me and wanted to see how my work and life were progressing. Over time I discovered that “academic,” “historian,” “activist,” “mystic,” and any number of categories and titles were not strong enough, malleable enough, or loving enough to hold all of who you were. As I labor to write my dissertation, I will not forget the words you spoke to me about the type of “academics” that our communities and world need. “This degree is not just about you,” you reminded me, “if you know, you owe.”
I am tempted to say something like, “If I can muster the courage to live with an ounce of the love and passion you shared, then…” but I know you’d never accept that. You wanted me—you wanted us—to work, search, and fight for what it means to “center down” (as you told me, referencing Howard Thurman) in our own lives. Despite the magnificent life that you lived, you never used your own legacy, work, or thought to limit the creative potential of others. Instead you were always an encouraging and inspirational spark in our lives—young and old alike—urging us to use our own unique skill sets in the struggle for justice.
In the week since your passing, many of us have come to know you for the first time. Some have come to know the courageous, majestic work that you did during what is popularly called the Civil Rights Movement. But I am hopeful that many more of us will come to know your uneasiness with that label: “Civil Rights Movement.” I hope that many more will come to know that you thought of “the civil rights movement” as a “convenient journalistic term” incapable of describing all of what was at stake during that era and during our present.
You taught us that the movement—which continues even today—was not merely about civil or human “rights.” The attainment of legal rights was certainly a part of the work you and so many others did (and is important to the work that many of us are doing now), but in remembering the movement you highlighted the importance of gaining and maintaining dignity and proclaiming full humanity in the face of white supremacy. Thus I hope that many more will learn—in deep ways—why you preferred referring to “the civil rights movement” as “the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America”!
Others among us will learn that you were a valued mentor and friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of us will be surprised to hear that you drafted the speech he delivered on April 4, 1967 (a year to the day that Dr. King was assassinated) titled “A Time to Break Silence” in which Dr. King unequivocally declared himself an opponent of the Vietnam War. Yet I hope that many more will come to understand why you referred to Dr. King as “The Inconvenient Hero,” and why you thought it so important to resist reducing him to a sound clip from the “I Have a Dream” speech. You highlighted the final years of Dr. King’s life in which he clearly spoke and worked against the tripartite evils of racism, materialism, and militarism, and you did so to resist a dangerous form of amnesia. I hope that many will come to understand the vital importance of engaging what you referred to as “the tougher, more difficult King.” In engaging the King that you believed it so important not to forget, I hope that many of us will realize (again?) that we cannot hope to fulfill “the dream” of a better nation without the work and struggle required to make the dream a reality.
I still don’t know what to do with the essays sitting on my desk. But as I remember you, Uncle Vincent, and as I recall our conversations, as I remember your ability to move effortlessly from laughter, to tears, to deep reflection, I am empowered to move on. As I remember the tireless yet humble work that constituted your life, I can feel myself beginning to move from mourning towards refreshed, dedicated action. As I recall the lunches we had at Poppies restaurant here in Denver, I am reminded that being thankful for the beloved friends and family that life has brought my way is a precious, precious practice. No, I still don’t know what do with these essays, Uncle Vincent. But because of you, I am beginning to sense a way forward. I love you, and will try my hardest to honor your life with my life. Rest in peace.
Ben Sanders, III is a doctoral candidate at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a board member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Click here for Ben's blog.