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Vincent Gordon Harding, a leading African-American Mennonite pastor, scholar and civil rights activist, was born 25 July 1931 in Harlem, New York, USA to Graham Harding and Mabel Lydia Broome, immigrants from Barbados. His mother took him to a black Seventh-Day Adventist church. He got a BA in history from City College in New York and an MS in journalism from Columbia University. From 1953-55 he served in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
In 1955 Harding began PhD studies at the University of Chicago and pastored a Seventh-Day congregation on the south side of Chicago. In his study of church history he became acquainted with and attracted to Anabaptism with its message of radical discipleship and its challenge to the civil order. He met Mennonite leaders of a congregation related to the Mennonite Biblical Seminary and in 1957 accepted an invitation to become co-pastor at the Woodlawn Mennonite Church. In 1960 he married Rosemarie Freeney (24 July 1930-3 March 2004), a Chicago (MC) African-American Mennonite who had graduated from Goshen College in Indiana.
As an articulate, forthright and charismatic speaker, Harding quickly became a prominent spokesman on race relations in the Mennonite denomination. He spoke widely at Mennonite churches and conferences, and took positions on Mennonite boards. He challenged the church toward a more proactive witness for race relations. In 1959 he joined four fellow churchmen on a trip to the American South to investigate firsthand the realities and conflicts of racial segregation. The trip included a visit in Montgomery, Alabama, with civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
In 1961 Vincent and Rosemarie moved from Chicago to Atlanta, where they established “Mennonite House,” a Mennonite Central Committee voluntary service unit and a center of civil rights activism. Harding was involved with activities of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He served jail time for protests. Among Harding’s many connections was a visit to the Mennonite mission at Gulfport, Mississippi. He challenged the mission to be more pro-active in civil rights and to found a new integrated Mennonite congregation. Harding’s most famous speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” was drafted for Martin Luther King to present in April 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York. That speech denounced the American War in Vietnam and split the civil rights movement on the war issue.
Later in 1967, Harding presented a highly acclaimed speech at the Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He indicted Mennonites for their indifference to “the explosive world of color and revolution.” By that time Harding was moving beyond the Mennonite denominational orbit. He had withdrawn from Mennonite Central Committee, from the General Conference Board of Christian Service, and was not involved in Mennonite congregational leadership. When idealistic young Mennonite teachers asked about teaching at black colleges in the South, Harding advised them to stay at home and teach at white Mennonite colleges where their anti-racism was really needed.
Harding’s response to the Black Power movement illustrated his increased radicalism. In an article in 1968 he agreed with Black Power leaders that the greatest need was to build “their own black community.“ He criticized Martin Luther King for failing “to deal clearly and precisely with the central radical convictions concerning America.” Harding said that King and Black Power leaders “need each other.”
After King’s death in 1968, Harding became director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center, and later of the Institute of the Black World. In subsequent decades he was one of the most influential American scholars of the African-American experience. He taught at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Iliff Theological Seminary. Among his books the magnum opus was There is a River, the Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981). He continued to accept invitations to speak at Mennonite colleges and conferences, where he graciously used “we” language to mark his identification with Mennonite audiences.
Vincent and Rosemarie Harding had one daughter, Rachel, and one son, Jonathan. Vincent died on 19 May 2014.
Fox, Margalit. “Vincent Harding, 82, Civil Rights Author and Associate of Dr. King, Dies.” New York Times (22 May 2014): B18. Web. 7 August 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/us/vincent-harding-civil-rights-author-and-associate-of-dr-king-dies-at-82.html.
Harding, Vincent, “The Religion of Black Power,” The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. by Donald R. Cutler, Boston: Beacon Press, 1968: 3-38.
Shearer, Tobin Miller. “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites.” Mennonite Life 69 (2015) https://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-69/article/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno/. See also other articles about Vincent Harding in that issue.
Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, ed. by Joanna Shank. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2001.
Books by Vincent Harding
Hope and History, Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement. New York: Maryknoll, 1990.
Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero. New York: Maryknoll, 1996.
Must Walls Divide? New York: Friendship Press, 1965.
The Other American Revolution. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, 1980.
There is a River, the Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
This article is based on the original English article that was written for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission.
|Author(s)||James C Juhnke|
|Date Published||August 2018|
Cite This Article
Juhnke, James C. "Harding, Vincent Gordon (1931-2014)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. August 2018. Web. 17 Jan 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Harding,_Vincent_Gordon_(1931-2014)&oldid=161330.
Juhnke, James C. (August 2018). Harding, Vincent Gordon (1931-2014). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 January 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Harding,_Vincent_Gordon_(1931-2014)&oldid=161330.
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