Vincent Harding Ph.D. has written speeches for Martin Luther King Jr., run an integrated house in the midst of the Jim Crow South, authored several books, and been a professor at both the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. This week, he is at EMU for the first time in more than 50 years.
Since his previous visit things have changed for both Harding and EMU. When he was last here, Harding criticized the complacency that he found within both EMU and the Harrisonburg Mennonite Community, writing in his 1962 “Reflections on a Visit to Virginia,” “we found that those who were made aware [of systematic racism], often reacted in this way: What can we do about it? We are nonresistant, so we can’t boycott, can’t picket, can’t sit-in, etc. . . . What are we supposed to do?”
Harding found these arguments less than convincing, responding, “these . . . responses seemed to us often to result from a frightening moral insensitivity to the sin of racial prejudice and discrimination.”
Comments like this highlight Harding’s long and sometimes rocky rela- tionship with the Mennonite Church.
After attending a Mennonite Church in Chicago, Harding became a member of the Mennonite Church. At the same time, he became an active participant in the Civil Rights movement.
By 1960, Harding and his wife were operating Mennonite House in Atlanta, Ga., as MCC representatives in the South.
This house would operate as a stopping point for Civil Rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., and would act as a lightning rod in the community because of its role as an integrated training center for Civil Rights workers.
Harding is perhaps best known for drafting King’s speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Despite his success within the movement, Harding was continually criticized by Mennonite church leaders for not strictly adhering to the principles of non-resistance.
As Harding stepped to the stage in Lehman auditorium on Wednesday morning, these old disagreements seemed forgotten. Following an extended ovation, Harding said, “Thank you very much friends, it is good be back on this campus more than half a century since I have last been here.”
Speaking to a class on Wednesday afternoon, Harding continued to talk about his relationship with the Mennonite Church, saying, “At their best, I never believe that the Mennonite community was telling me not to stand up for equality. At its best, the Mennonite Community was saying we want to stand up with you and fight for equality.”
When asked about times that the Mennonite community failed to show him their best, Harding responded, “When you see the worst in people, you have a choice to remember what they are at their best…. If you can do this, you can walk with them as they try to become better.
“I walked with many of my brothers and sisters in the Mennonite community as they tried to become better, and I realized that they were walking with me as I tried to become better too.”
-David Yoder, Co-Editor In Chief