Vincent Harding, a historian, author and activist who wrote one of the most polarizing speeches ever given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which Dr. King expressed ardent opposition to the Vietnam War, died on Monday in Philadelphia. He was 82.
His death, from an aneurysm, was confirmed by the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he was emeritus professor of religion and social transformation. A Denver resident, Dr. Harding had been lecturing on the East Coast when he died.
For more than half a century, Dr. Harding worked at the nexus of race, religion and social responsibility. Though he was not as high-profile a figure as some of his contemporaries — he preferred to work largely behind the scenes — he was widely considered a central figure in the civil rights movement.
A friend, adviser and sometime speechwriter to Dr. King, Dr. Harding was a member of the cohort that helped carry on his mission after his assassination in 1968.
Dr. Harding, the first director of what is now the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, was in the vanguard of promoting black studies as an academic discipline at colleges and universities throughout the country. He served as a consultant to television programs about the African-American experience, notably “Eyes on the Prize,” the critically acclaimed documentary series first broadcast on PBS in 1987.
As a historian, Dr. Harding argued that black Americans — and, by extension, all Americans — could not understand the social struggles that lay ahead without a deep understanding of those who had gone before. He was known in particular for two books, “There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America” (1981) and “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero” (1996).
In “There Is a River,” Dr. Harding examined the tradition of black protest — a movement he likened to a river flowing through centuries of American history — up to the end of the Civil War. Throughout the book, he adopted the dual stance, unusual for an academic historian, of impartial observer of past events and active participant in present ones.
“I have tried,” he wrote, “to provide a rigorous analysis of the long black movement toward justice, equity and truth.” But simultaneously, he continued, “I have freely allowed myself to celebrate.”
Reviewing the volume in The New York Times Book Review, the historian Eric Foner described it as embodying “both passion and impeccable scholarship.”
In “Martin Luther King,” Dr. Harding argued that in focusing toward the end of his life on social imperatives like eradicating war and poverty, Dr. King was more radical than many Americans feel secure in acknowledging.
“Men do not get assassinated for wanting children of different colors to hold hands on a mountainside,” Dr. Harding said in a 2005 lecture. “He was telling us to march on segregated housing, segregated schools, poverty, a military with more support than social programs. That’s where he was in 1965. If we let him go where he was going, then he becomes a challenge, not a comfort.”
Vincent Gordon Harding was born in Harlem on July 25, 1931, and reared by his mother, Mabel Lydia Broome, who worked as a domestic. They moved to the Bronx when Vincent was a youth, and after graduating from Morris High School there, he received a bachelor’s degree in history from the City College of New York and a master’s in journalism from Columbia.
After Army service — an experience, he said, that made him a committed pacifist — he earned a master’s in history from the University of Chicago, followed by a Ph.D. in history there, writing his dissertation on Lyman Beecher, the Protestant minister, antislavery advocate and father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In Chicago, Dr. Harding also served as a lay pastor in the Mennonite Church. In the late 1950s, as a church representative, he traveled to the South to observe race relations there. On that trip, he met Dr. King and became deeply influenced by him.
In the early ’60s, Dr. Harding and his wife, the former Rosemarie Freeney, moved to Atlanta, where they established Mennonite House, an integrated community center. The site they secured for it happened to be the childhood home of the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, among the first black singers to perform with the Metropolitan Opera.
In Atlanta, Dr. Harding joined the department of history and sociology at Spelman College, becoming the department chairman. At the same time, he contributed speeches for Dr. King.
His most memorable, described in 2007 by Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, as “one of the most important speeches in American history,” was commissioned amid the United States’ escalating involvement in Vietnam.
“He wanted to make a full, clear statement on the issue, but he didn’t have the time to craft something of that depth and intensity because of his travel schedule,” Dr. Harding said in an interview last year. “So he asked me, because I knew who he was and where he was coming from.”
Dr. King delivered the address, known variously as “Beyond Vietnam” and “A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4, 1967.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he said. “And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” He added: “If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.”
The speech, which articulated what was then a relatively unpopular position, touched off a firestorm.
In an editorial titled “Dr. King’s Disservice to His Cause,” Life magazine called it “a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described the address as “a serious tactical error.”
After Dr. King’s death, Dr. Harding became the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, a post he held until 1970. He later directed the Institute of the Black World, an organization, based in Atlanta, that promotes black studies and black intellectual life.
Dr. Harding taught at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Iliff faculty in 1981. There, he and his wife established Veterans of Hope Project, which documents on video the stories of social-justice leaders from around the world.
Rosemarie Freeney Harding died in 2004. Dr. Harding’s survivors include his second wife, Aljosie Aldrich Harding, whom he married in December; a daughter, Rachel Harding; and a son, Jonathan.
His other books include “The Other American Revolution” (1980) and “Hope and History” (1990).
For all the furor that surrounded “A Time to Break Silence,” neither Dr. Harding nor Dr. King disavowed the address. But Dr. Harding would come to have profound regrets about having composed it for Dr. King at all.
“It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Dr. Harding said in a 2010 interview “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”
By MARGARLIT FOX
May 21, 2014