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'Fresh Air' Remembers Civil Rights Activist Vincent Harding


This is FRESH AIR. The Civil Rights activist and historian Vincent Harding died Monday at the age of 82. He was the first director of what's now called the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. And his books include "Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero" and "There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America." Harding wrote several speeches for King, including King's controversial, now famous 1967 speech opposing the war in Vietnam. Here's an excerpt.


DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: This business of burning human beings with napalm or filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

GROSS: One year after delivering that speech, King was assassinated. Vincent Harding not only worked with King in the '60s, they were neighbors in Atlanta where Harding taught history and sociology at Spelman College, worked with the civil rights movement, and led workshops in non-violent resistance.

When I spoke with Vincent Harding in 1988, he told me about a non-violent protest King asked him to lead after a pregnant woman who was involved in the desegregation movement in Albany, Georgia was beaten by a sheriff. Harding described the night of the protest.


VINCENT HARDING: It looked like half of the county and state troops are in the area where they're in town in Albany, Georgia. And it was a very relatively small group of us, I think, maybe eight or 10 people who decided that night to go down there and to make that kind of demonstration of protest against what had happened.

And I remember, you know, feeling as we drove the car down to where we were going to park and then get out to go to the police station, you know, am I really going to walk into this and where is this going to lead? But there were a number, especially, of college age young people who were with me - I was in my late 20s at the time - who were so clearly ready to go and who were so clearly expecting me to lead them that I simply had to go trembling.

It's the way that we often remember that song that we used to sing: We are not afraid, we are not afraid. Well, we'd be singing we're not afraid, but our knees would be practically buckling. But what it meant to us was that we will not allow our fears to overcome what we know is necessary and what we know must be done.

GROSS: During that period in the South, you were in the position of having to introduce people to the concept of non-violent direct action. It was a pretty new concept and, really, it hadn't been practiced in the United States before it was in the civil rights movement. What were some of the ways you'd introduce the idea to people? And what were some of the reactions that you got?

HARDING: We tried to redefine what fighting was about. It was not fighting. It was fighting choosing your own weapons rather than allowing yourself to be sucked into the weaponry of the opponent that you're struggling with. We tried as much as possible, and we didn't have to work very hard on this, because many black people in their wisdom there in the South saw what that kind of weapon - love - and that romance with the gun and that militarism of the South had done to so many white Southerners, that it had warped them and their values and their capacity to really be human. And one of the critical things that we felt we wanted to do was to find a way of struggle that everybody could participate in. You didn't have to be a big, strong macho man to do it. You could be an 80-year-old grandmother. You could be a 12-year-old young woman.

And you still - operating from the center of your own being, from the strength within you - you could stand up to Sheriff Clark.

GROSS: My guest is Vincent Harding, who worked with Martin Luther King for about 10 years, and was the first director of the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. Were you totally shocked by his assassination? Or did you - thought that something like that was likely to happen in this country which is so violent?

HARDING: None of us who were anyplace nearby what was going on could be surprised. It is possible to be shocked, simply because of what it does to your own being to lose a friend and coworker in that kind of way. But I certainly was not surprised in the sense that I didn't think it could happen. Because Martin - at least from 1965 on, and in different ways pre-1965. Pre-1965, the thought was that some folks from the white racist community would do something like that in some unexpected spot or situation.

After King began dealing with Vietnam and the war, etc., and poverty and things of this sort, then more and more people began to see the possibility that there might be something much more organized and much more semi-official about the sights in which King was constantly kept.

And so none of us were surprised in that sense, and Martin himself knew and constantly referred to the fact that he was living under the threat of death. He knew that. So he was not surprised. The surprising thing was that he insisted on going on, insisted on living in an open way, insisted on not being overprotected and felt that he simply had to do what needed to be done.

And he was prepared to take the consequences, because he had come, finally, in his life by the time 36, 37, 38 years old, where he'd dealt with death, and recognized that death was a real possibility for him, and that it was, therefore, very important for him to keep living for what he believed in.

GROSS: Vincent Harding, I want to thank you very much for spending part of this day with us.

HARDING: Good. Thank you, friend. Thank you.

GROSS: Vincent Harding, recorded in 1988. The civil rights activist and historian died Monday at the age of 82. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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