DENVER (AP) — In March of 1967, taking note of anti-war protests at his alma mater, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram care of Vincent Harding to the “men of conscience” at Morehouse commending their courage and calling them his inspiration.
Days later in New York, King delivered one of his most stinging criticisms of American involvement in Vietnam. Harding, at the time an adviser to Morehouse students as well as to King, is credited with writing that speech. Harding, 82, died Monday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, according to Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, where Harding taught for many years.
In Denver, Harding’s home since coming to Iliff in 1981, he was remembered for his commitment to justice and peace, and for his modesty. Former Denver City Council president Elbra Wedgeworth said he never spoke much of his ties to King or other prominent civil rights leaders.
“He was just a real old school gentleman who experienced a lot, but never let it make him bitter,” Wedgeworth said. “He just used those experiences to help other people.”
Harding and his first wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who died in 2004, met King when they traveled from Chicago to Atlanta to continue the civil rights work they had begun in the Mennonite church. Harding became an adviser and friend to both King and Coretta Scott King. He later served as the first director of what is now known as the King Center in Atlanta.
“He was a great voice for human and social progress, very much in keeping with Dr. King’s and Mrs. King’s advocacy for social and civil rights,” Steve Klein, spokesman for the center, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. He said Harding should be remembered as a “cutting edge” historian of the civil rights movement.
In a New York Times review of Harding’s 1981 book, “There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America,” historian Eric Foner wrote that it was “more than a history of black protest: It is also a personal testament of hope and a brief for a view of the black experience as a saga of resistance.” Harding wrote several books.
Howard Zehr, who heads the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite University, remembers Harding as a visitor to his home. Zehr’s father was, like Harding, a Mennonite pastor. Hearing the two — one black, one white — in conversation helped shape the younger Zehr’s thinking. In 1966, Zehr became the first white student to graduate from Morehouse.
For many years, Zehr said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “I could sort of see Vincent on my shoulder, keeping me committed. He had a quiet way of doing that.”
Harding had been visiting the East Coast, including speaking at Eastern Mennonite University, when he died.
In 2012, Vicki Crawford, director of the Office of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, brought Harding back to Atlanta as a visiting professor. In the 1960s, Harding had taught at Spelman, the women’s college near Morehouse. Crawford said she was struck by the rapport Harding had with students.
“He was an incredible listener,” Crawford said. “His classes would be very quiet, punctuated by long periods of silence, reflective silence.”
The New York-born Harding taught at Denver’s Iliff until his retirement in 2004, and his legacy there includes a research center on social change that he and Rosemarie Freeney Harding founded in 1997.
Iliff president Thomas Wolfe said he had asked Harding to deliver the commencement address scheduled for June 4. Instead of a traditional speech, Harding suggested the kind of Socratic discussion he favored in class. Three Iliff students had been recruited to take part.
“Vincent was saying, ‘This is how we pass the mantle from teacher to student, so the student becomes the teacher,'” Wolfe said.
Instead of finding a replacement speaker, Wolfe said the three students would share their memories of Harding.
Harding is survived by his second wife, Aljosie Aldrich Harding; daughter, Rachel Harding; and son, Jonathan Harding. Funeral plans were not yet set.
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