Dead men make
such convenient heroes. They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives
– Carl Wendell Himes Jr.
The esteemed historian, scholar, and civil rights and peace activist Vincent Harding passed away at the tender age of 82 this past Monday. Dr. Harding is most famous for drafting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King’s controversial address declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet his life cannot be summed up in just that one speech.
Dr. Harding used the poem above to articulate his frustration with the way the nation had chosen to remember Dr. King. He lamented that we have forgotten the latter years of King’s life, insisting that “King live forever in the unbroken sunlight of that historic August day on the Mall…” (Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, vii). He sought to challenge this “American amnesia,” to reclaim the prophet of antiwar, nonviolence, and economic justice.
Dr. Harding’s lamentation has inspired my own scholarship on the American recollection of Martin Luther King Jr. While he answered the question of what we conveniently forget about King in order to elevate him to a national hero that affirms us rather than challenges us, I seek to answer the question of how and why. Thus, though I have met him only on a few occasions, I owe him much. I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to share my work with him on this side of eternity. Yet, through his scholarship, his activism, and his public statements, Dr. Vincent Harding will never be forgotten.
May he rest in the Peace he sought for all of humanity.
To learn more about Dr. Vincent Harding, see some of the following:
- Short Biography of Vincent Harding from Stanford’s King Papers Project
- Interviews with Dr. Harding on Democracy Now
- Dr. Harding explaining the rationale of his founding of the Institute of the Black World
- Clayborne Carson’s reflection on Dr. Harding’s life.