We Are Creating a New River
Whenever I leave Atlanta to drive home to see my grandmother in Live Oak, Florida, it never escapes my thoughts that I am passing through history. I pass Macon, I leave the interstate and travel down the smaller, darker roads. This time of year the fields in this part of the state are white with little bulbs of cotton. I notice how tender the tips of my fingers are and remember that I’ve never had to pick it. I drive past Tifton and head towards Albany, and think of W. E. B. Dubois’ description over a hundred years ago in The Souls of Black Folk: “At Albany, in the heart of the Black Belt … Two hundred miles south of Atlanta, two hundred miles west of the Atlantic, and one hundred miles north of the great Gulf…”
The Atlantic is where my brother and father live, in Savannah, that port city that bore witness to those early atrocities: men, women, and children, sold, traded, raped, and beaten. The Gulf is nearest my mother, grandmother, cousins, aunts, and uncles. When driving past Albany, I swear I can hear voices in the cotton fields. They are not frightening but familiar. The ancestors are buried here and I am convinced that the clay is redder for their blood. As city lights fade in my rearview mirror, perhaps it is they, the ancestors, who help me see while driving at night. I do know the prices paid so that I might safely drive here at night.
Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding lived for a season in Atlanta. They followed the Spirit all around Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South. And Rosemarie’s family was from these parts, Macon and Leesburg.
When I flew to Denver, Colorado, in September 2010 to interview Harding, the great teacher, mentor, father to so many – the friend of Martin and Coretta, of James (who he calls “Jimmy”) Baldwin, and so many other saints – I learned that in order to get to know people he always asks about our mother’s mother. Grandma never liked to drive those dark roads alone at night. I can remember when, as a kid, my mother was woken during the night to the news that a Klansmen had tried to run my grandmother off the road and onto train tracks. This was 1995, not 1965.
It was my mother, my aunts, and my uncles who as schoolchildren witnessed and participated in the integration efforts. I probably heard Martin Luther King’s voice at the same age that my parents did. They heard him live on the radio; I heard him on audiocassettes played during road trips down those same roads to visit my grandparents. I would often imagine myself in the church or at the march. I peppered my parents with questions about “where they were when.” Dr. King’s voice seemed to pierce my soul. I didn’t just hear but felt him, and everyone around him, calling, drumming, marching the beloved community into existence.
At 29, it’s all I can do to show younger generations a glimpse of what I’ve learned. Yet, I still have so much to learn.
Lucas Johnson: Dr. Harding, I appreciate the opportunity to come here and talk to you on behalf of Fellowship magazine. The Southern freedom movement often used the language of the “Beloved Community.” What does the Beloved Community look like for you today? Has the image changed in any way?
Vincent Harding: Lucas, I want to play with the question a little bit.
I am not sure that the movement as a whole felt as close to and as comfortable with that language as Martin [Luther King, Jr.] and a lot of the folks who were particularly committed to nonviolent action and nonviolent living. All that said, it was very real for those who did move that way – and I certainly include myself among them.
For right now, what I am fascinated by is that I think that I am hearing that language more than I have heard it for a long time. And I think it has something to do with the fact that people feel a deep sense of need for community at this point in American history, in world history. Why that is, how that is – we probably don’t have enough time, or life, to get into all of that.
But right now, when I think of the Beloved Community, I think of the fact that the term which came out of the movement, and particularly out of what we might call the Kingian elements of the movement and the nonviolent elements of the movement, I think that now what that means for people is something that we must create. Not something that automatically comes when you get 7,300 laws passed, against segregation, for instance.
What we’re discovering is that the Beloved Community is something that you work at, and work at, and structure. And create as a result of being really in love with each other, and in loving concert with each other, and in loving commitment with each other, to create something far better than we have now. A far better way of being human. A far better way of living in connection with each other. A far better way of creating cities, of creating living spaces, of creating institutions. Of manifesting what love in community could look like, feel like, sound like.
I think that, as I feel it, Lucas, in the 21st century, we may be at a point where we can just give thanks, praise God, the ancestors, everybody, Buddha and all of the saints. And thank them for the fact that we went through what we went through in the 20th century – struggled for what we were calling the Beloved Community – but in the 21st century we are recognizing that that was, in a sense, a new opening of the natural human quest for a loving community. And now, in this century we have to find our own ways of getting at that. So I see it primarily as process now: as wonderful, committed, seeking folks, saying, how do we do this? How do we create this? And I see it, especially that urgent need coming from a lot of young people I know, who heard the term someplace and are now daring to dream about what it might possibly mean, and what it might possibly feel like, and can I taste some of this possibly?
So all of that is part of what I think it means now. It is not a structure, it is a process of searching and becoming and tasting.
Johnson: When you say process, do you feel we are closer to the Beloved Community now than we were then? There is a tendency, maybe in my generation – I look back at the Southern freedom movement, and it may be revisionist history, it may be romanticizing a bit – but it seems like there was this clarity of purpose. Now, I know there were disagreements. I know that it was not one unified movement. But it seemed like it was a time in American society where a type of visioning was possible.
Harding: I think that with every magnificent time of human development, there is always going to be the great temptation to look back on it, and to say: Oh, if only I had been there then! I am not quite sure what we looked back on in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But I know that now there is that temptation to feel – and I have heard a lot of young people your age, and younger and older – who are longing for clarity that they thought we had! Sometimes I am not sure whether that longing is a cop-out! [Laughs.] To say, well, you guys had that, so we can’t have that, and we can’t keep struggling the way that you kept struggling!
On the other hand, I know that the longing is just as likely a deep desire for that purity of heart. And to make it exist in the past, some place, partly to tell ourselves that in some place in history we human beings could have had that kind of clarity and purity.
…[T]here were certain kinds of clarity, there were certain kinds of deep un-clarity going on at the same times, sometimes in the same breaths. And we must not allow ourselves to be captured by a romanticism about that period, and about those of us who were working, and living and struggling and growing in that period. Because part of what we were doing was growing, and therefore had a lot to learn and a lot to discover.
Example: one of the major questions that was being worked on, and there was not universal clarity of this, was: What is our goal? Now, on a certain, simplistic, ordinary level, you could say: to get rid of all of the legal actions of segregation in this society. To pass a thousand desegregation laws. To come to an integrated society.
Sometimes that goal was – we were struggling to ask the question: What does all that mean? Jimmy Baldwin, for instance – one of those that you like to quote – Jimmy used to say, “Who wants to integrate into a burning house?” That became a real, not just a metaphorical, kind of question – that became a very deep question in the movement. There was not great clarity of that. We could use that terminology, but what did that really mean?
Were we saying that we wanted to be included in the American community, as it was? King certainly, at his best, and his most mature, always saw that that was not what the goal was. In my mind, I think increasingly, I felt that what integration had to mean was something deeper than us being, quote, “accepted” by white America.
A lot of people use the terminology: Well, we want to be part of the mainstream. In my own mind, and I think that this is what I was thinking then, even though I know I have been thinking a great deal since then, but I think that at least some of that feeling, thinking, began then, that no, we don’t want to be included in the mainstream. We want to create a new river.
And all of these kinds of discussions, debates were going on: What is it that we’re after? As you know, coming right out of that period was the whole debate that had been with us for a long time: Do we even want to stay in this country? Don’t we want to go back to the homeland? That was very, very real for a lot of people, for a good while.
A lot of questions about: And how shall we relate to white people? White people who have stood against our fullest humanity; so often, who have tried to destroy our fullest humanity, who have tried to deny our participation? All of these were issues that were moving among us. …
There was a beautiful clarity sometimes. As the NAACP put it, “Free by ’63!” And you know, that’s great! That’s a wonderful organizing call. But most of us knew that it was not available to us as a real, lived experience without a lot of struggle, a lot of clarifying about “What does ‘free’ mean?”
Johnson: You and Martin helped the country see the intersections, the relationship between civil rights at home and America’s growing militarism. What advice do you have for those of us who are working today to help people to see the interrelatedness between issues. In some ways we exist as different movements, when we shouldn’t.
Harding: First of all, I give thanks for the many kinds of, let’s call them for right now, movements, that have developed over the last 30, 40 years: many of them growing out of the freedom movement period.
I give thanks for the fact that it is possible for people to stand openly and in solidarity and identify themselves as a movement that is dealing with the experience of LGBT people. That there are people who are working to find a better way to live on this planet. And to engage in a mutually-helpful way with the great resources of this planet. … I am glad that in the 21st century there are people who understand that we are in trouble around the whole issue of – my sister Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” – the role of incarceration in building a new caste in American society, or deepening some of the old castes.
I think that all of these issues, along with the older fundamental issues – of deep, deep racism in the society, of class divisions and hierarchies – I think that it is good there are some people who are trying to put their hands on all of these. And at the same moment, there are some people who are saying: This country of ours has become much too much of an armed and weapons-loving empire, and that is bad for everybody in our country and in the world.
My own sense is that all of those voices are voices that are healthy, democratic. … And I’m also convinced that as people like us in America, who are children, infants, in the way of really developing a multiracial, democratic society, we still have everything to learn about how all these voices can be heard, about how they can be related to each other – about how those of us who are passionate about this element of the search for freedom and justice and peace and sustainability – can engage those who are just as passionate about other kinds of issues for humanity: how we can all be engaged with each other and create in ourselves the capacity to hold each other, to encourage each other, and to stop talking about ourselves as “special interests,” but to recognize that we all have the interests of the human community as our major responsibility. …
But I am not anxious – let me put it this way – about the fact that we don’t always know how to work together, to join our causes, to be in connection with each other. I’m not anxious about that. Maybe the older I get, the less anxious I am about a lot of things. I would only be anxious if I felt we did not want to try to work our behinds off to learn how we can come together and be together. …
I think we have the capacity to know how to break over those lines and to be more human. And maybe that’s part of what the Beloved Community means: that we are in search of each other. Knowing how people who are committed to this cause can see their natural relationship to this cause, and to recognize that all causes are finally wrapped up in the cause of life itself: life for us as individuals, life for us as communities, life for us as a world community.
Johnson: What does the election of Barack Obama, as an African-American president of the United States, mean for the movement, for the struggle? What does it mean for the journey toward the Beloved Community?
Harding: I think, Lucas, that it means many, many things.
One is, I think it means that we have connected by our history, in very crucial ways. Whenever I think about my brother and son, the president, and being in that stadium when he acknowledged the nomination from the Democratic Party, right here in Denver, I was immediately drawn to another Democratic Party convention: [one] that I did not have the chance to attend myself. But that was attended by many of my dear friends and coworkers, especially from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the struggles that they carried on through great blood and sweat and tears, to get to that 1964 convention in Atlantic City [New Jersey].
And eventually, though their immediate goal of getting the total seating out of the hands of the white segregationist official Mississippi Democratic Party, even though they did not win that particular battle there, the larger struggle had been opened in a powerful way. Because that convention, before it was over, had to move to the point of saying, that the Democratic conventions would never again accept any of the Southern, lily-white delegations.
And as I sat in the stands here in Denver, I recognized the direct connection between Fannie Lou Hamer and those magnificent, heroic people of Mississippi in 1964, and the coming of Barack Obama in 2008. I am struck by the fact that we are talking about basically half a century. So I think that that’s one of the things that it means to me: that we are connected through the struggles as we carry them on.
What it also means to me, though, is that it is absolutely important that we refuse to get up to another stage of the struggle, and start huffing and puffing, and singing great songs of “completion,” when we’ve simply come to another stage. …
For those who thought that an election – even one that seemed to go on forever! – could somehow overcome the horrific wounds of more than 300 years of deep, racist experience in this country, I thought that that was – I understood it, but I was so sad about it for just a quick moment, because we don’t have too much time to be sad about such things. As I understand it, that election was primarily an invitation for the next stages of the struggle that would include the struggle against very real racism in American society.
Almost everything in the last two years has made it clear that in America in 2010, the patterns that began in the 17th century are still all-too-much with us, and will be with us, until, do I dare say it – or I dare not say it, for Fellowship magazine – that these struggles are going to go on, until we experience, or figure out what it means to be experienced, by Martin King’s constantly saying to us, “America, you must be born again!”
You don’t get “born again” in an election. It seems to me that our process of being born again into a new level of our humanity is a longer, more difficult, much more complicated process than an election. And I think we’ve seen it now.
And I don’t think we are even, any more – at least many of us – have no, even, close approximation to the idea, or the thought of a “post-racial” America. Americais deeply, deeply mired in many, many ways still in the racial morass that we created.
But again, I’m not anxious. I’m not hopeless. I had a dear friend named James Boggs who used to say, “Vincent, anything that human beings have messed up, human beings can fix up!” So I am still in the “fix-up crew,” not in any way ignoring the messing-up crew that I have been a part of at some point in my life by being a member of society.
I think the fix-up crew simply needs to know that its work is never-ending. And to look for a kind of end, when we can catch our breath and say, “Well, we made it!” I think is very immature. We make it day-by-day, as we carry on the struggle for the rebirthing of this country as a mature, beloved community.
Johnson: In some ways, the election of Barack Obama feels to me like: now we are complicit in a new way. What is it reasonable for us to expect from the president?
Harding: It seems to me, Lucas, that in a nation that claims to be seeking as its major goal a more perfect democratic society – that’s what I mean by a “more perfect union” – that in that kind of a nation, what we should expect from our president, when he or she is at his or her best, is a constant word of inspiration, fussing, calling, reminding us that our major task as members of a democratic society is to stop focusing on what we expect from the president! And to ask, what do we expect from ourselves to push the president to his best possibilities, or her best possibilities.
What do we expect from ourselves as a Beloved Community? To encourage each other – all to our best possibilities in creating the best possible nation.
We are not going in that direction now. We are still trying to go towards the wealthiest nation. Towards the most physically, militarily, powerful nation. The most economically-competitive nation. But I see that what I expect from the president – when he’s at his best, when he lives up to the kind of vision he put forward in Dreams from My Father – I expect him to keep saying, “Let’s do this work together. We’ve got, as our job, to create a more perfect union. Here is the stuff that I think you should be doing much more fully than you are doing now. Let’s try to envision what is the kind of nation that we really want to be, and what kind of a world. And how much are we willing to give to create that kind of a nation.” I want that kind of a president to be in conversation with us.
I remember during the days of those horrific debates between him and Sister Clinton, I kept saying to myself, “Barack, we don’t need you to be the best commander-in-chief. Stop debating who’s going to be the best commander-in-chief! What we need from you in a democratic society, more than anything else, is the best community-organizer-in-chief! … That’s the work of a truly democratic society. To organize the community so that it can do the work of the community. And not to create horrific military kinds of forces, that are often totally out of the control of anybody in the society. So, all of that is part of my hope for him.…
My own sense is that our temptation in our kind of society, which has become much too much a celebrity-driven society, is to make the president a celebrity. And to rate him by how much “celebrityness” he shows, how he performs. When that is the kind of stuff that leads to dictatorships, that leads to the death of democracy.
Johnson: In the political realm, it seems like a lot of us fall short of working for what’s right because of what’s practical. Because we allow these notions of, well, we can’t achieve that, or that’s too much to accomplish right now. We have to do this or we have to do that, which is a measure behind what it is that’s right to do.
Harding: Sometimes we refer to that as pragmatism.
Johnson: How do we not allow pragmatism to dampen our efforts?
Harding: My immediate response to that is sort of crazy. But I think a certain craziness is necessary to avoid being overcome by pragmatism. My immediate response to that question, Lucas, is I think we’ve got to sing more. I think we’ve got to dance more. I think we’ve got to shout more. I think we’ve got to read poetry more. I think we’ve got to do all the things that arouse creative impulses in us – we’ve got to love more. I think we’ve got to do all of the non-practical things more. In order for all of the elements in our beings to be opened up, and to be told it’s OK for you to operate: we want you, we need you! Shout, dance! Even go back to the old-time breakdance! Any thing that takes us off the good old beaten, predictable paths.
But somehow we’ve got to open the channels of creativity. And then maybe we’ll find that stuff is just waiting, to press us into other directions. Maybe that’s what our sisters and brothers from other cultures around the world mean when they say: Open ourselves to the ancestors. Let them flow! Let them flow through us.
Johnson: In your work with the Veterans of Hope Project, it seems like you are calling us to a better way to remember. As we consider history, your history, of the movement – the movements – how do you see the Veterans of Hope teaching, critiquing, enhancing, what we do?
Harding: One of the most important things that I think I am constantly learning, especially at these later parts of my life, is the fact that it may not be wise to be satisfied with that traditional understanding of history: as a body of something that you’ve put someplace, and then you go and dig it up and put it out for display or for learning.
The more that I have dealt with the stories of these women and men who have given so much of their lives to the process and to the work of creating a new way for human beings to live and love and care for each other and care for the earth – the more that I have lived with those experiences that they share with us, the more I see what it is that we are really trying to pass on, and share, and call attention to. It’s not so much, quote, “history” – Boom, Boom! – but the stories, the stories of these wonderful folks who have been working, like others who worked before them. …
Our deepest intention is not just to have a great historical record of Andrew Young, or Victoria Gray, or my sister from the farm workers’ union, Dolores Huerta. Though it’s very important to have an archive of those stories – what we are more interested in is taking those stories and finding ways to share them and make them more accessible to another generation, who must continue carrying on the story, who must continue living the story.
And we’re especially trying to help them to know how these folks began. Who helped them? Who shaped them? What was it that helped them to become, from their earliest days, who they were? …
And how can Grace Boggs at 95 still be carrying on in Detroit, the place where people think everything is dying? How can she be at 95 a prophet of life, a carrier of life? How do you account for that – when she started off as a Marxist! All of this is wonderful story, and we think that that story needs to be shared with a new generation, to remind them that they did not come out of nothing. That they did not jump off of the television screen, or off of the smart phone! That they came out of a long, long story. A story that they have a great privilege of deciding whether they will continue to carry on.
And at his best – to go back to our dear brother, son, president – he understands the story experience that brought him to where he is. But there is a lot he doesn’t understand. Sometimes I wish I could get him to just sit down in front of some of these stories, and hear them being told, and help him to wrestle with what it would mean to be the community-organizer-in-chief.
But it may be that as his children go through their experience in that Quaker-sponsored school, that wonderful school that they attend in D.C., they’ll come home and tell him some stories that might help!
Johnson: Recently, I think it was the governor of Mississippi that described the way that public schools were integrated in Mississippi as something that they didn’t think twice about! He said this publicly, in a matter-of-fact kind of way. And it made me realize that we don’t hear those stories.
Harding: Two things immediately jump to my mind. One is something that I just discovered about your city [Atlanta]. One of my dear friends from the days when I used to live in Atlanta is now at Spelman [College] directing an oral history program where the students in the Atlanta university schools are going out into the black community and interviewing folks – I think that now their age standard is 90 or older, to capture their stories, and learn how to do oral history interviews. Apparently it’s been of great importance to both the students and to their elders. And maybe every community needs a corps like that.
The other thing that strikes me is that there is a masterful example of documentation of the movement that I don’t think has ever been really used adequately in most educational systems that I know of: the Eyes on the Prize documentary series… If we wanted to get deeper into the story than most of the superficial things that we find the public schools offer, the materials are there.
Johnson: Would your answer be different in any way if I had defined the “we” in my question as those of us in the movement? In other words, do we in the movement honor our stories?
Harding: I don’t think that we, who are trying to work for change now, have found yet an adequate way to intentionally tie what we are doing to the longer story of struggle. Which I guess, in some ways, my friend and brother Howard Zinn’s work is the closest thing that we have to an attempt to place the larger struggles for the truth of America into a context. …
And there again, there is nothing there that is a block against our working to share the story. And that, Lucas, is one of the reasons why I choose not to call this the civil rights movement. You know, having been deeply engaged in that process, myself, I saw too much deep and fundamental wrenching of lives and spirit and struggles for personal and political transformation going on, to feel that that can be captured in a term like “the civil rights movement.” Civil rights was a part of it, but I have chosen constantly to speak of it as “the movement for the expansion of democracy in America.”
And that gives me, then, a ground to stand on when I am talking about: and now, what is the work of the movement for the expansion of democracy? I don’t want to ask, what is civil rights work now? I know there is civil rights work now, but that is not the overarching context. The context is: Does democracy expand? And if it doesn’t expand, what happens to it? And who is going to keep the expansion going on? And that’s where the story comes. That we learn to tell the story, not as the story of how did the one race get its rights, but how we were opening up new ways of sharing the democratic vision in the American society, and the democratic reality in the American society.
And now the question is: What’s next? Or, what’s now? It gives us greater freedom, because we’re not looking constantly for: How do we re-do the civil rights movement? That is not what’s called for now. What’s called for now is: How shall we enter into that story of expansion, and carry on?
Johnson: You talked about the work of your late wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, and I am wondering how we do more to honor the legacy of women in the movement.
Harding: Well, we start by recognizing that it’s a task – it’s something we need to do. We can’t start with the “how” before we recognize that this is something we must do, this is something I must do. We must know, and we must understand, that how a movement that was based so much in the Black Church – a church that is based so much in the life-giving experience of black women – how then did black women feed the struggle for freedom in that period.
The second thing we have to do is to avoid doing the same kind of “celebrity” story – choosing 17 women who will be “the black women” and then constantly retelling their stories. This is another of those times where oral history would be very helpful to us. Where getting people’s stories would be helpful.
We are trying to model some of that in our own project. We are pulling out about 70 interviews … [and producing what] we’re calling “Women of Power.” A lot of it is introducing women who most people have not heard anything about before, but who were crucial to their part of the movement, especially, or to the larger movement. …
We interviewed one of the women who was so crucial to the Mississippi struggle. She was Gwendolyn Robinson at the time; she is now Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and has moved deeply into the world of Sufi Islam. She was telling her Mississippi story. And when she first went in there, in 1964, as with so many organizers, what she had to do was find local people who would, for one thing, just open their doors to offer a place where they could stay.
And for these people to do that was clearly to endanger their own lives, their own work, their own safety. But there were always people who would do it. And since women were so central to life of the household, it was women that they often met and came to find them willing to agree to take in these strange, young – Zoharah says they called them all Freedom Riders, whether they freedom rode or not, that was what they knew, so they called them freedom riders! They took them in at great risk.
Zoharah likes to tell about this woman who she was directed to. She said she went to the house. [Zoharah] had a big speech about who they were, what SNCC was, what the freedom movement was, what the Mississippi movement was. This was, I think, in Hattiesburg. Before she could get two sentences out, the woman said, “Oh, honey, come on in! I’ve been waiting for you all my life!”
So these women need to be known and remembered. Not just the hero women, but the women who were there in the spaces, on the grounds, when they were needed and where they were needed, and whose names never got into a newspaper.
Johnson: In some portraits of the movement for a more democratic society, this movement that we’re talking about, some people would also describe this movement to reclaim or to reassert black dignity. I think that there were some constructions of black dignity that were based on problematic notions of patriarchy and sexism.
Harding: Well, it’s funny that you should ask that at this particular moment, because as you were using the word dignity I was jumping back in my mind and heart to your earlier question about black women, and you mentioned the black woman that I knew best, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, my late wife. It seems to me that one of the things that Rosemarie always did in the midst of our work and the struggle was to manifest with exquisite beauty what it meant to be a dignified warrior for peace, a dignified carrier of reconciliation. Everything had a kind of precious dignity about it that was not false or made up, but deep to the core, filled with human integrity, and so I think that that kind of a model obviously has nothing to do with patriarchy.
We have gone through, and that was certainly one significant period when we participated in the patriarchy of the time, in the deep patriarchy of the South, in the patriarchy of so much of the Black Church, in the patriarchy of so much of the black community. There was a time when many black women that I knew felt, on a powerful level, that part of their role was to resurrect the supposed loss of dignity suffered by black men because they were not free to defend their women from the encroachment of the white master-class.
And somehow there was an understandably confused and confusing kind of pushing the men forward. And on a certain level that was understandable, but of course, also, on another level, that was as dangerous as patriarchy is wherever you find it. So, that was there, and that was part of our learning how to achieve dignity in one part of our community without demeaning the dignity of another part of our community.
But dignity is not a zero sum game. It’s a big, big pie, as it were. I remember how, often – for some reason, maybe because my mother was a wonderful pie baker – I was always thinking when people used to use the phrase, “We want our pieces of pie, we want to get everything white people have.” And always in me, the immediate response was, “No, I think I want to bake another pie.” …
Maybe it’s like the question of what should we expect from our president? A lot of us were in the habit of asking, “What should we expect from white folks?” And that’s the wrong question. What should we expect from ourselves? And how can we create, with any white folks who are interested, a new kind of society where that question would not even be understandable.
So I think I am constantly being pressed on to this matter of our own initiatives, our own creativity, our own sense of the possibility of developing a new kind of community. I think the 21st century is probably a time when we’ve got to wrestle with that matter of “what are the new institutions?”
Johnson: As we look at the economic systems and the collapse of the financial institutions, I’m reminded that later in the movement many of the thinkers and the writers began to write more about economics. What do you think about the assessment that part of what’s in our way is that we’re being blinded by an economic system, or an economic structure?
Harding: Lucas, what I’ve been thinking about, especially as we come into the 21st century, is that, when it comes to knowing how to build a just, compassionate, multiracial, democratic nation, we are still a developing country. We don’t know very much.
And my sense is that we are living on this edge now which is a time of “great danger and great opportunity” – which as my dear friend Grace Boggs is constantly reminding us makes up the word “crisis” in Chinese pictographs. Opportunity because it gives us the opportunity to question, “Well, what about these institutions that many would have thought of as magnificent institutions, especially if they’ve brought us benefit: financial, class, educational benefit, but are any institutions meant to go on forever?” Is this rocky, uncertain, kind of time, rocky and uncertain because the time for us to ask that question, again, or what about, this, for instance, this supposedly free-enterprise capitalism that we are supposedly grounded in. Is it really that and if it is, is that good for our children’s hearts and minds?
Do we dare ask those questions? I think that that’s the moment that we’re in, where, if we are mature enough and confident enough in our own great spirit-given capacities, then we should be willing to ask even just a simple question, “Are there some better ways to live than how we have developed in this country today?”
And that takes us all the way back to your earlier comment about what we know about the world around us, and it seems to me that one of our great dangers in this country now – as it has been for a long time – is that we have too much of the combination of arrogance and ignorance. …
And certainly in this country, with all of the kinds of folks who have gathered here – or to use maybe a deeper kind of description, who have been gathered here – it may be that we are being given the opportunity to ask, “How can human beings, from our many different kinds of origins and experiences live together in one place in relationship that we could call ‘beloved’ and ‘mutually restorative,’ and ‘connected to the restoration of the planet,’ and ‘connected to the restoration of our fellow billions of human beings’?” How can we live in that constantly connecting way? I think we have a great challenge, privilege, to try to figure that out at this point.
Johnson: Hearing that, I’m thinking about the quote that you’ve referenced from James Baldwin: “Who wants to integrate into a burning house?” What should we count as success, and by “we” I mean those of us that are committed to democratic reform, to a better world. If we look and we see that there is a system at work that is destructive, and then we say that “Oh, now that system is more diverse. Now there are more African Americans.” We can’t count that as success, can we?
Harding: Ha, I think you answered the question. I remember one of my dearest beloved fathers in the faith, C. L. R. James, the great Marxist scholar and organizer. When the whole black identity, black power wave was rising among us and in us all, not necessarily all, but among many of us, C. L. R. would lean back and say, “Oh yes, oh yes, Vincent. Blackness is absolutely necessary! But not sufficient.”
Yes, if blackness means we join in an inhuman order, then we have not moved one step forward. Especially if we join it without questioning. And especially if we join it with enthusiasm, which I think the same question can be asked, and I think it’s so important that we are having this conversation in a context of a religious organization.
One of the things that’s been on my mind and heart for several years now – and it’s related to the blackness question, but it’s not quite the same as, but definitely connected to, comparable to [it] – I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about the Christian churches in America. And thinking about the fact that we had our origins in a religious movement that was located in the greatest empire of its world. And we were the victims of that empire in many cases. We were persecuted by that empire. We had to hide away, sometimes literally, from that empire. But now, 2,000 years later, we have become participants in the empire. Apologists for the empire. Soldiers of the empire. Chaplains for the empire. What is that all about? And what does that do to our own sense of integrity? Is being called “Christians” enough, when we have a very, very different role in the empire than the folks who were first called by that name?
So maybe C. L. R. would say, “The name Christian is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. Or maybe the name Christian should like, leave us… Like our dear friend Jim Lawson. James was always saying “I’m not sure that I feel comfortable with this matter of being called a Christian in the light of all that Christianity has identified itself with over the centuries.” And he says, “I think I’d rather just be called ‘somebody-who-is-trying-to-follow-Jesus.’” And you know that that cannot be applied to drone airplanes.
Johnson: How should we think about the president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize? I’m reminded of how publicly and how often the president had to declare himself Christian. You were just describing the way in which sometimes being Christian is absolutely necessary but not enough. And we’re talking about what it means to have this role within an empire. And, while you’ve guided us well and said that the president is not the point, it’s what we do that’s the point – that’s heard – but consider the drones. I’m thinking about that decision, and that deliberation, and that weighing. Right after the president accepted the Nobel Prize is when he made the decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan – a war in which those drones have been so “useful.”
Harding: You know, Lucas, in that letter to my son and nephew the president that I called your attention to, I told him, I tried to tell him, how much his early memoir Dreams From My Father had meant to me. And still means to me.
And I tried to say that I felt that, as work that he had produced before he got deeply involved in seeking political office, I felt that there was some place for me to see who this man really was at his deepest levels, and I felt that I saw a person of great integrity there. And I saw the community organizer there, and I saw the one who really cared about the poor, and not primarily about the middle class.
And I tried to say in the letter that I understood a lot of the stuff he’d have to go through, the contortions that he’d have to develop, the kinds of courage it would take for him to do what was necessary just from the level of his humanism, to do and to be, and that because I knew it was going to be a hard, hard way, that I pledged myself, that in the tradition of things I know of in the 20th century, especially in Latin America, I pledged myself to try to accompany him the way we have so often, some of us, have accompanied people who were going through rough times in liberation struggles that we, especially very often, we Americans, would go and accompany them to make them less able to be targeted for danger and damage.
I feel that I still want to try to keep that pledge to accompany him in as many deep ways as I can. And, at the same moment, as a part of the accompaniment, to try to encourage his courage, to try to remind him if I can, without forgetting the dangers of paternalism, but to remind him of, in a sense, who he is.
And for me who he is, is not at its deepest level a dispatcher of drones. For some reason, and I hope it is more than simply romantic, I am constantly thinking of where the drones go. And who lives there, along with the so-called “high-level al-Qaida operatives” or “Taliban operatives.” I constantly see, for some reason what comes to me as much as anything else, are seven- or eight-year-old children, I don’t know why that particular age group, but, I see them there with their daddy, having nothing to do with their daddy’s choice, but needing to live – to make their own choices. And I know that the drones do not leave them untouched.
So when I read, for instance, my dear brother-nephew’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, I was deeply hurt. Because I realized that he didn’t really know King or Gandhi. And what often has come to my mind since then, especially it came [contrasted] sharply with the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan … what would it mean to develop a way of thinking, a creative way of thinking, along with the courage to fight for what you think and believe, that would seek to build not the world’s greatest military, but the world’s greatest human service corps. I was told, “Vincent, that the people in charge in some of our military bases in Pakistanwould not allow their bases to be used for rescue work.” What would it mean for a country that said it honored the spirit of King, to keep chipping away at the horrendous military kind of budget and to keep, step-by-step, skill-by-skill, building this tremendous force of human service workers that could go to any part of the world to be of service in time of disaster. And maybe, in the best of all possible worlds, not necessarily to be sent unilaterally by our country, but to finally work for a United Nations that could make a new kind of base for human service.
All of that, I think that, I would like to see the great thoughtfulness and creativity and, quote, “pragmatism” of my brother-nephew president freed to start thinking in that way, to let the crisis of this time, the economic, political, social crisis of this time become an opportunity for us to think about a new way of being a great nation that has nothing to do with killing children but rescuing them, and holding them, and medicating them, educating them. And taking the risk of recognizing that we cannot possibly build our security on the insecurity of others. That life is not that way. And I think that my brother-son-nephew has the capacity to know that, but just, to keep, offering ourselves in alternative ways to press him to search that out, to wrestle with that, and to help us all to find a better way that the way of military security, so-called. For me that’s a total contradiction in terms.
Johnson: Intergenerational work has been a big part of what you’ve been doing with the Veterans of Hope Project. Would you say more about the importance of intergenerational opportunities and relationships?
Harding: As I understand the human community and our history wherever we exist, we are at our best when the wisdom and experience of the elders and the energy and creativity and strength of young people are brought together to focus ourselves on new ways ahead. That seems to me to be something that’s easy to lose in a society that so often makes such demarcations between so-called “youth culture” and everything else. So I find it very natural to look for opportunities for younger people and veterans to come together.
As a matter of fact, the VOH Project actually came out of that kind of experience. Back in the early ‘90s, [my wife] Rosemarie and I were able to get some money to make it possible for a series of summer week-long retreats where we brought together people that we now call “veterans of the struggle” and younger people who were thinking about moving themselves in that direction as far as what they wanted to do with their lives. …
In one of these sessions, Zoharah Simmons [told her story, and] a young brother just stood up in the meeting and said, “How come we don’t know that? I never heard that kind of story; that’s not in any of our books, its not on television. You’ve got to share that story with us, we need that story.” And that was the point at which Rose and I knew that, in addition to trying to bring these generations together, we needed to do something to kind of place in accessible ways those stories. So out of that came the determination to develop the VOH Project…
We think that this is going to be a powerful contribution to the nurturing of democratic leadership in this country because we’re focusing on young people of color, especially, and we’re trying to keep our arms around those who are called “at risk” young people and helping them and us to realize that “at riskness“ is not their basic and fundamental identity. Their greatest identity is that they are people who have tremendous gifts and potentials to give leadership to the building of a new America: a just, compassionate, and democratic society.
So we’re trying to gear everything in that direction: finding, building, nurturing, helping, holding younger people in the context of older people developing this Beloved Community experience, so that our country might have a chance to live.
And we are always in need of funds, and since I know that the Fellowship of Reconciliation is one of the wealthiest of organizations in the country (laughs) I send out the call through you, Lucas, to gather all of those wealthy reconcilers together and tell them that we need their money as well as their love and compassion!
Johnson: (Laughing) Well, I’ll see what I can do.
Harding: All right, we can’t ask anything more from you.
Johnson: Thank you very much, Dr. Harding.
Harding: Thank you for sharing, Lucas.
Lucas Johnson grew up in coastal Georgia, and now lives in Atlanta where he works as the Atlanta Coordinator of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. Committed to helping work for the Beloved Community, Johnson serves on FOR’s National Council and the board of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. He is also a candidate for ordination at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia.
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