Harding, Vincent

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Vincent Harding


Educator, social activist, author

For more than fifty years, the scholar Vincent Gordon Harding has been on the forefront of efforts to achieve racial harmony and equality in the United States. A close friend and adviser to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harding, after King's death, served as the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, documenting the King legacy for future generations. Widely acclaimed as an author and teacher, Harding is also the founder—with his late wife, Rosemarie—of the Veterans of Hope Project, an innovative effort to publicize the stories and insights of social-justice activists from around the world.

Born on July 25, 1931, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Harding was the fiercely intelligent only son of Mabel Lydia Broome, a single parent who worked long hours as a cleaning woman. Many years later Harding described to Jean Torkelson writing in the Rocky Mountain News the sacrifices his mother had made on his behalf. "Seared into his memory," Torkelson wrote, "is the day he came home from college to see his mother bent over an ironing board with a mountain of unfinished ironing at her side—other people's ironing. Unbeknown to him, she'd been taking in extra work to pay his college expenses." Harding's childhood revolved around school, church, and his mother. At church, Harding told Torkelson, "people made it very clear to me they had wonderfully high expectations of me."

By the time Harding was in high school, he and his mother had moved to Morrisania, a thriving, middle-class community in the Bronx. Though Morrisania was predominately African American, the local high school was well integrated, with a mix of races drawn from nearby neighborhoods. Nearly fifty years later Harding told David Gonzalez in the New York Times of the value he found in that diversity. Speaking of the school's principal, Harding said, "What I remember about him and the school is that he was very self-conscious about trying to make this growing racial diversity taking place at the school a positive and to see that as something of educational value.… It was a source of great benefit and inspiration to me because I always found myself at ease in diverse populations."

After high school Harding entered City College of New York, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in history, graduating in 1952. Within a year he had a master's degree from Columbia as well. Two years of compulsory army service then followed. Released from the army in 1955, he moved to Illinois and entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, with the goal of becoming a professor of church history. In addition to his course work, Harding began working as a lay minister—someone who fulfills many of the duties of a minister but has not been ordained by the church, often because he or she has not yet been fully trained. The churches he served were on the South Side of Chicago, a predominately African-American area, and included Seventh Day Adventist and Mennonite congregations. The Mennonites had a particularly strong tradition of nonviolence and social activism, and in the racial unrest of the 1950s their activist efforts were increasingly focused on ending segregation and other racial injustices. In 1958 Harding made his first visit to the southern states, traveling as part of a racially mixed observation team from Chicago's Woodlawn Mennonite Church.

It was on this trip that Harding met the man who would have a profound influence on his thinking and on the course of his career: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As Harding later described the meeting to Rose Marie Berger in Sojourners: Faith, Politics, Culture, "He and Coretta [King's wife] were very gracious when they found out who these people were who just came knocking on their door. Martin said particularly to me and to the guys with us, ‘You ought to come down here and work with us.’ So that call reverberated." Harding went back briefly to Chicago, married fellow activist Rosemarie Freeney, and then returned with her to the South, where they worked as the Mennonite Central Committee's liaisons to other groups on the forefront of the civil rights movement, notably King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality. The base Harding and his wife established in Georgia—Mennonite House—was, wrote Berger, "the first interracial community center in Atlanta."

After three years in Georgia Harding and his family moved back to Chicago, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1965. They returned to Atlanta, and Harding became chair of Spelman College's department of history and social sciences. He remained there until 1969, though the last year of his tenure was largely occupied with the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination in April of 1968. Harding served as the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center but left the King Center two years later in 1970 to oversee an offshoot, the Institute of the Black World. Four years later the family moved to Philadelphia, where Harding accepted teaching positions at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. It was during this period that Harding began to publish prolifically. The Other American Revolution, a concise history of the African-American struggle for equality, appeared in 1980, and a fuller, widely acclaimed treatment, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, was published the following year. It was also in 1981 that Denver's Iliff School of Theology offered Harding a position as professor of religion and social transformation. Harding accepted, taught at Iliff for more than fifteen years, and became professor emeritus. He has also served on several editorial boards and, from 1985 to 1990, as senior consultant to the widely seen PBS civil-rights documentary Eyes on the Prize.

At a Glance …

Born on July 25, 1931, in New York, NY; son of Graham Augustine and Mabel Lydia Broome; married Rosemarie Freeney, 1960 (died, 2004); children: Rachel, Jonathan. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55. Education: City College of New York, BA, history, 1952; Columbia University, MS, journalism, 1953; University of Chicago, MA, history, 1956, PhD, history, 1965.

Career: Lay pastor for several churches in Chicago, IL, 1955-61; Mennonite Central Committee, Atlanta, GA, worked on racial equality projects, 1961-64; Spelman College, Atlanta, Department of History and Social Sciences chair, 1965-69; Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, Atlanta, director, 1968-70; Institute of the Black World, Atlanta, director, 1970-74; visiting professor at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, 1974-81; Iliff School of Theology, Denver, CO, professor of religion and social transformation, beginning 1981, became professor emeritus; Veterans of Hope Project, Denver, founder with Rosemarie Freeney Harding, 1997; has served as a consultant and on editorial boards.

Selected awards: Swarthmore College, honorary doctorate, 1987; Colorado Council of the Humanities, Humanist of the Year, 1991.

Addresses: Web—http://veteransofhope.org/. Office—c/o Veterans of Hope Project, 2201 South University Boulevard, Denver, CO 80210.

Harding's remarkable energy showed no sign of flagging as he approached retirement age. In 1997 he and wife Rosemarie founded an ambitious new social-justice project, the Veterans of Hope (VOH). Based on the Iliff campus, VOH is, according to its Web site, "a multifaceted educational initiative on religion and participatory democracy." Its primary activity is the production of video interviews featuring veterans of peace and justice movements from around the world. These interviews, and educational materials based on them, "are designed to support reconciliation, nonviolence, and an appreciation for the value of indigenous and folk wisdom for contemporary times." Though VOH cofounder Rosemarie Harding died in 2004, her husband remained the organization's chair, and the couple's daughter, Rachel E. Harding, was its executive director.

Selected works


Must Walls Divide? Friendship Press, 1965.

The Other American Revolution, Center for Afro-American Studies (University of California), 1980.

There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement, Orbis Books, 1990.

Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero, Orbis Books, 1996.


"Toward a Darkly Radiant Vision of America's Truth," Cross Currents, Spring 1987, pp.1-16.


Senior consultant, Eyes on the Prize (documentary miniseries), PBS, 1985-90.



New York Times, October 22, 2004.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), March 12, 2000, p.14D.

Sojourners, April 2007, pp.38-43.


"About Us," The Veterans of Hope Project,http://veteransofhope.org/footer/about.htm (accessed February 20, 2008).

Berger, Rose Marie, "I've Known Rivers," Sojourners: Faith, Politics, Culture, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=news.display_archives&mode=current_opinion&article=CO_040311_berger (accessed February 21, 2008).

"Biographical Note, Vincent Harding papers, 1952-74," Emory University Libraries,http://marbl.library.emory.edu/FindingAids/content.php?id=harding868_1005909 (accessed February 20, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler