(pictured above: Dr. Vincent Harding in conversation last week.)
Wake Forest University invited author and civil rights legend Dr. Vincent Harding to campus last week to share pearls of wisdom from his days as a foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement and insight into navigating the social justice pitfalls of today and tomorrow.
Dr. Steve Boyd, a religion professor and social justice advocate in his own right, facilitated the more than hourlong discussion, which drew dozens of students and community leaders to the Byrum Welcome Center on Friday, Feb. 21.
Harding implored the crowd to remember those who have come before them and worked to create a better society for “those who are yet to be born.”
“One of the things, my brother, that I have learned over my many decades is that there is something very empowering and humanizing about learning to live in a context of gratitude, the recognition that, just by being alive … we are indebted to all kinds of people,” he said. “We become better human beings the more we keep in our minds the fact that we are not self made people.”
Harding highlighted visionaries like Ella Jo Baker, an often overlooked civil rights hero with strong ties to North Carolina, and Fannie Lou Hamer, whom he met in South Carolina at a workshop for civil rights activists. Harding said he made an offhanded comment to Hamer that would ultimately prove to be life changing for the Alabama resident, who had recently lost her job and home as a sharecropper because she had been registering people to vote.
“I remember vividly talking to Fannie Lou and some of the others who were taking the bus back from South Carolina to Montgomery (Ala.) and, much too lightly I think, I suggested to them that perhaps this was a time that they could start their new life, by refusing to accept the segregation on the buses as they went back,” he recalled. “…The next thing I knew, there was a report that Fannie Lou and others had done exactly that.”
Harding also highlighted Rosie Mars, another unlikely civil rights heroine, who he says “didn’t let what she lacked define her.” Mars helped Chicago residents elect their first black mayor – Harold Washington.
“She was one of those extraordinarily ordinary people, a welfare mother living in a project who decided that that was not the definition of her life … that she would be a citizen and gather her children with her, as citizens,” he said. “…That’s what democracy at its best is supposed to be about. It gathers all of the people to encourage them to be ‘we, the people’ and to know that their job is to make this a better society.”
Many other unsung heroes are featured in the acclaimed PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” for which Harding served as a senior academic consultant.
For America to shed its vestiges of racism, injustice and hypocrisy, ordinary citizens must take up the fight for liberty and justice for all, Harding said. He praised the North Carolina NAACP Moral Monday protests, holding the initiative up as an example of what can happen when ordinary people come together for a cause, Harding noted.
“There are powerful injustices being done to the poorest, weakest, most vulnerable people, who do not always happen to be African American,” he remarked. “I thought it was just magnificent that in this state (that) some people have decided to say, ‘No, this is not right and we will not give our approval by being silent.’”
During a question and answer session at the end of the program, WFU student Victoria Hill questioned Harding about how he and others found the courage to stand up for justice in the face of such danger. Harding told her there is safety in numbers and those who love freedom must lean on each other for strength.
“We’re not meant to be lone rangers, but we are meant to participate in the struggle for change with others,” he said. “Not to hide behind them, but to stand with them, knowing that you could not do it without others who were willing to stand with you, hold your hand.”
The discussion rounded out a weeklong institute where Harding and his wife, Aljosie Harding, led WFU faculty and students in exploring the movement, using clips from “Eyes on the Prize,” to apply to contemporary issues.
Boyd said those who attended the institute were deeply impacted by their experiences.
“It has been a transforming experience,” Boyd said. “We may not remember and note all that was said, but I and others will never forget what we did this week.”