This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Pastor nudged church to act on civil rights

Vincent Harding, a civil rights activist and former Mennonite pastor who wrote Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” antiwar speech, died May 19 in Philadelphia. He was 82.

Vincent Harding speaks at an Eastern Mennonite University chapel service Feb. 26 in Harrisonburg, Va. Harding spoke at Bethel College in 2010, Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2012 and EMU in 2014.  — EMU
Vincent Harding speaks at an Eastern Mennonite University chapel service Feb. 26 in Harrisonburg, Va. Harding spoke at Bethel College in 2010, Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2012 and EMU in 2014. — EMU

Harding served as co-pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago from 1958 to 1961 before moving south to work in the civil rights movement, often behind the scenes.

He was a neighbor and close colleague of King. In Atlanta, Harding and his first wife, Rosemarie, led a Mennonite Central Committee-supported voluntary service unit around the corner from King’s family from 1961 to 1964.

The Hardings served at Mennonite House in Atlanta until the mid-1960s, when they returned to Chicago so he could finish his doctorate in history while living at Reba Place Fellowship, an Evanston, Ill., Mennonite intentional community. It was an experience that shaped King’s April 4, 1967, speech in New York City.

“One of the reasons why King asked him to write that speech [was that] he knew Dr. Harding was looking at history, but he also knew Harding had connections to Mennonites who were working in Vietnam,” said Joanna Shenk, Mennonite Church USA associate for interchurch relations and communications.

King knew Harding’s knowledge of the war’s “triple evils” — poverty, racism and militarism — cited in the “Beyond Vietnam” speech “was like reading MCC worker reports from Vietnam, and that was coming through living at Reba Place,” Shenk said.

Shenk interviewed Harding in 2011 for the book Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship. Over two days in Denver, where Harding was emeritus professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology, they discussed his life and Mennonite connections.

Shenk said an encounter with Mennonites at Woodlawn during his studies in Chicago helped Harding connect social concerns and justice with faith. In 1958, an interracial group of five men from the church — Elmer Neu­feld, Glen Bayes, Delton Franz, Ed Riddick and Harding — traveled to the South and ended up meeting King in his bedroom, where he was recovering from a stab wound. It was at this meeting that King’s and Harding’s collaboration began.

“King invited all of them to continue the work and said, ‘You Mennonites know about peacemaking, and we need that,’ ” Shenk said. “This trip was really pivotal in [Harding’s] sense of vocational calling in the Mennonite movement. But I would say the majority of the Mennonite church didn’t want to get involved, didn’t want to get caught up in conflicting situations.”

The reluctance frustrated Harding, who in a speech at the 1967 Mennonite World Conference assembly in Amsterdam challenged Mennonites to take a more active role in confronting injustice.

“He never stopped being Mennonite,” Shenk said. “He saw changes in his work — a shift, a deepening or broadening of what had been planted by the Mennonite church. . . . He really carried that formation with him throughout his life.”

A meal shared

One of the people who contributed to that formation was Titus Bender, who with his wife, Ann, led a Meridian, Miss., ser­vice unit for volunteers rebuilding burned churches.

Bender and Harding often crossed paths and shared a favorite memory of first meeting in 1964.

“The first thing we did was gather around the supper table,” said Bender, of New Hope, Va. “The neighbor was a little worried.

He didn’t understand this thing. There were a lot of things you might do with African-Americans, but the whole question of eating — I guess eating together is the way to get close, but it wasn’t what you were supposed to do.”

The neighbor came knocking, not once but three times, to borrow salt or pepper or something else, always checking to see what was going on.

“Looking back on his passing, that two-hour supper wasn’t our last supper but it was the most beautiful, the symbolism of it,” Bender said. “It was the time that our friendship began, and the last thing we did was have supper when they were here [visiting Eastern Mennonite University] in February. It doesn’t seem real to me that he’s gone.”

Harding struggled with a much more abrupt sense of loss after King’s 1968 assassination. In 2010 Harding said, “That bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him.”

Bender said: “I don’t know if he used the word guilt, but he had helped compose the speech that probably played a great deal in the murder and certainly the timing of his death. He felt God called him to do it, but he felt pain. Could there not have been some other way? To see his friend die 365 days after that speech, it was a painful experience.”

Harding found ways to honor King’s sacrifice, serving as the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, promoting black studies as a course of study in universities and penning books on King and the black struggle for freedom in America.

Bender said Harding believed in working at civil rights consistently and without drama.

“It’s not going to depend on one big push,” Bender said, describing Harding’s philosophy. “There need to consistently be people who need to call our church and our nation to justice in a number of areas. We just can’t wait. We may have to wait for the final answer, but we can’t wait to get to work.”

Survivors include his second wife, Aljosie Aldrich Harding, daughter Rachel and son Jonathan.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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