Vincent Harding, 1931-2014 – An Appreciation

My heart skipped a beat when I spotted Vincent Harding’s obituary in the New York Times.

I only met Harding a couple of times (although I felt that I’d “met” him long before through his powerful writingThere Is A River in particular). His effect on me in person was electrifying, reminding me of the dictum attributed to Irenaeus of Lyons: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Not surprisingly, this extraordinary scholar-activist died with his boots on: of an aneurysm while on an East Coast lecture tour. Harding retained the energy of a person half his age right to the end of his days.

What was that energy made of? I felt it as a moral energy, an ethical energy, joined to a quicksilver mind and a big heart.

At a large gathering in Cincinnati a couple of years back—a gathering convened by Marian Wright Edelman, another civil rights hero—I had the privilege of chatting briefly with Vincent Harding about the emerging movement against racialized mass incarceration. In just a few well-chosen words, Harding sketched both the possibilities and the pitfalls facing the new movement. He was one of those rare individuals who achieve what we might call a ninth stage in Erik Erikson’s scheme of psychosocial development: the stage of transparency or theophany.

It was characteristic of Harding’s creative energy and imagination for him, along with the Brothers Lawson, to have been one of the architects of the National Council of Elders during the Occupy insurgency.

I’ve heard some people who knew Harding well talk about what they say was his obduracy and prickliness in certain situations. Honestly, I don’t care. I’ve never known a great-souled person who is completely without any tics or complications.

May this wonderful exemplar of the kind of restlessness that Dr. King called “creative maladjustment” now find his rest in Abraham’s bosom.


Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” perhaps Vincent Harding’s most well-known piece of writing.