A graduate student in history during the late 1950s, Harding took an integrated road trip through the deep South with fellow Mennonites. They were welcomed at the Dexter Ave Baptist Church parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama, where Coretta King informed them that her husband Martin was home recovering from a stab wound he had received at a book signing in New York. After conversation about nonviolence and the struggle for human dignity in the Jim Crow South, Dr. King said to Harding, “You’re a Mennonite. You know something about nonviolence. We need you down here.”
Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, moved to Atlanta in 1960, ending up neighbors to the Kings through the turbulent years most often referred to as the “Civil Rights Movement.” But, as Dr. Harding often said, “I never heard anyone sing, ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on civil rights.'” Harding knew well the great tradition of struggle which he chronicled in his monumental work, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom In America. The resistance that began when the first slave ships set sail from Africa was a river that ebbed and flowed through history. When it surged forward in the 1960s, Harding was there, paying attention. Rarely out front at the rallies, he was neither a lieutenant of King nor a “Freedom Rider” with SNCC. Harding was, instead, a friend and teacher to all in the struggle.
When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Coretta King asked her friend and neighbor, Dr. Harding, to be the founding director of the King Center. From there, and from the Institute for the Black World which grew out of the King Center’s work, Harding devoted himself to the on going task of befriending the freedom movement and telling its stories. As people like King and Rosa Parks became icons, Harding insisted that America could not celebrate their lives without continuing to devote ourselves the the work they and many others had done.
So it was that Harding became “Uncle Vincent” to so many of us who want to learn what it means to walk faithfully in the struggle for justice and freedom. An elder in the most fundamental since, he carried the wisdom of the Southern Freedom Movement in his very being. But Harding embodied that wisdom by only sharing it in the context of what he called “democratic conversations.” He always had something to say and never pretended a false humility. But Harding had learned that the most important truths must be spoken in relationship–they must be spoken to the particular moment.
Last summer, when Moral Mondays were beginning in North Carolina, I remember calling Uncle Vincent to talk about some events we were planning together. But he didn’t want to talk about the future until he heard about the present struggle. “Tell me what’s happening in Raleigh,” he would say. “Who’s there? What’s the feeling?” He insisted that what thousands of everyday people were doing here had a lot more to do with Dr. King and his vision than most of commemorations and celebrations that bore his name.
I received the news of Uncle Vincent’s death yesterday, after a day of meetings and preparations for the return of Moral Mondays to Raleigh. Though we didn’t know it, the Movement here in North Carolina was making its silent march through the State House as Uncle Vincent was crossing over from this life to the next. Given the life he lived, I can’t imagine a better sending.