Vincent Harding, Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology, University of Denver, is a leading historian of, and activist in, the African-American freedom movement. He served as senior academic advisor to the award-winning television series, “Eyes on the Prize.” Scheduled to lecture at the Center in April on “Martin Luther King and the Future of America” as part of the spring lecture and dialogue series, Professor Harding kindly consented to visit the Center in March 1996 for an interview, which was conducted by Amy Morgante. What follows is a condensed version of his comments on values, the future of democracy, the role of religion and personal transformation in advancing social change, and the legacy of Martin Luther King.
In your book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, you pay a lot of attention to the last years of King’s life. You say he was trying to develop a “more militant form of nonviolence” that would appeal to the increasingly alienated urban black youth of America. Could you describe how this “more militant” nonviolent movement might have evolved, had it taken shape, and how it might have differed from other nonviolent movements today?
I’m not sure, and I’m fairly certain he wasn’t sure either. But he was very clear about the fact that when he left the South and moved to places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, or Detroit, he was moving into another environment — one in which there were, in many ways, deeper expressions of frustration and rage than there were in the South. It’s not that those things didn’t exist in the South, but there was a difference. Part of this difference simply derives from the urban experience as opposed to small city, small town, rural experience. Part is essentially the experience of people who are essentially migrants in a new setting, and who, therefore more off-balance spiritually and psychologically than those who, almost literally, know their place, have a grounding. Those who are grounded in a given situation are less likely to fly into a rage, and more likely to find substantive ways of fighting their battles.
King was trying to deal with the fact that there was a younger generation that needed outlets for its rage, that needed to know that its anger was being taken seriously and being addressed. In the direction he was headed, I think there would have been a much more conscious attempt to open up the movement to the whole other community — to folks who had not had the quieting effects of traditional black religion in their lives, who did not necessarily feel they were a part of the tradition that had produced the Birminghams and the Selma to Montgomery marches.
One of his major concerns would have been to find more creative uses for mass civil disobedience, to find ways in which people could engage the system by clogging it, stopping it — challenging the system with their very being. I remember him talking about what it might mean to have people go on one of Chicago’s major highways — the Dan Ryan Expressway which runs right through the city from north to south — and block it with their bodies as a way of protesting the terrible conditions under which black people and poor people were living in Chicago. He was trying to work these things out not as a solitary figure, but in consultation with his staff, with people in the local communities, and with advisors and friends from all over the country and all over the world.
What he was clear about was that change of a revolutionary depth was necessary in America. The other thing he as clear about was that if it was going to be real change, and not simply cosmetic, it had to be accomplished nonviolently. These two things, which to many people, maybe most people, seem in total contradiction, were what he was trying to think through and work through — a way of creating nonviolent revolutionary change.
One implication of the last statement is that violence can lead to cosmetic change rather than real change. Could you explain more about Dr. King’s thinking concerning nonviolent revolution? Did he believe that social change brought about force could never last?
Part of his concern was to move us away from an environment in which we believed violence was necessary for change. If your goal is to find alternatives to violence, then you can’t build violence into your process of change. If you do, that makes the results cosmetic, since you're not really changing anything about the values that you hold most strongly.
Towards the end of his life King was constantly talking about a revolution of values in American society. He focused on our dependence on militarism to solve problems, our deep engagement with materialism and what that did to us, and he was concerned about what he saw as a dangerous anti-Communism, an almost religious ideology that kept us from seeing the truly revolutionary claims made by human beings all over the world. And then, of course, there was the issue that he started with — racism and white supremacy in American society. All of these were value issues that had to be addressed, but he was wise enough to know that you can’t get at values just by saying you are going to get at values. You’ve got to get at the structures that support the values, so he raised questions about the structural transformation of American society as well.
In your writings, you suggest this “revolution of values” frees us from the barriers and institutions that hold us in bondage to “our worst selves.” How does personal transformation relate to this process of social change?
They’re fundamentally related. One of the things that Martin saw from the beginning of his Montgomery bus boycott days, for instance, was that a black community that was controlled by fear or by a lack of confidence in its own capacities to work and stand together for change, or by some kind of subliminal belief in white superiority, could not break through the barriers of legal segregation. In Montgomery he saw a kind of magnificent dialectic going on, as people decided step-by-step that they had to challenge what was going on, that it was wrong, that they could not take it. At that same moment, they were changing themselves and their assumptions; they were finding mechanisms for overcoming their fears. It was clear to him then that you can’t change institutions if you don’t have people who are at least in the process of changing themselves. I don’t stand with those who feel you first have to change people and then you can change institutions. The two are constantly moving, dialectical activities — as we challenge institutions we discover new resources in ourselves, and as we discover these new resources, we are able to mount more effective challenges.
One of King’s greatest concerns was how to keep the issue of values at the forefront of this process. This is why, especially in the last three or four years of his life, he kept saying, “We don’t want to be integrated into the kind of mainstream that is America today. We need to change the mainstream, to create a new mainstream, because this mainstream is not good for people’s spirits or people’s lives.” King was really calling for a redemptive movement among black people themselves and among all black people’s allies, so that as we rethought our own values, our own vision, our own hope, as we asked ourselves, “What is the kind of America that we are really committed to? What do we want?”, we could shape weapons of struggle that would be consistent with the vision we’re trying to create? I think it’s absolutely clear that the relationship between personal transformation and the transformation of society was inextricable for him. How, especially in the midst of the dynamics of a mass movement, which is very powerful, very beautiful, but also very uncontrollable in many ways, do you get people to focus on what should go on inside at the same time that something is going on outside? He was dealing with this in his own life, in the lives of his co-workers, and in the life of his nation.
Martin Luther King during his last years said repeatedly that the United States was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” What did he mean by this, and would you say it is still the case today?
I think he was focusing on two or three kinds of revolutionary activity. One was the process that had begun shaking the foundations of white, Western control of the world during World War I, and that had accelerated incrementally during World War II. King was very conscious of the anti-colonial movement, which at times used the resources of Marxist ideology and the strategies of Marxist liberation struggles, but was not the same as “world Communism.” King believed that it was an authentic movement of non-white people throughout the world to stand up and demand liberation from the control and arrogance of the white West. By simply labeling it Communist, we would miss a great deal of what was going on.
He also focused on the revolution going on among peoples of the producer countries—the countries that provided raw materials and that were also, in many cases, the poorest countries in the world. These peoples had begun raising questions about their relationship to the wealth of the West. In some cases they simply asked, “How can we get some of that wealth?” But in other, more significant instances, people asked, “Why is this wealth so unfairly distributed?” King said that these were profoundly revolutionary questions. But he also felt they were profoundly spiritual questions, because he believed in the fundamental oneness of humankind. There was something absolutely wrong about one part of humankind devaluing another part, something wrong in failing to recognize that, in the long run, we are all going to have to pay for that treatment of our sisters and brothers.
And he focused on several specific geographic areas: South Africa, where for a long time the United States had supported the apartheid government; Vietnam, where we stood behind those who opposed the best aspirations of the ordinary people of that country; and the rest of the Americas — we assumed we had the right to control the resources and the politics of the southern part of this hemisphere. He saw people rising up in all of those places, calling for change, sometimes in language that other people found too Marxist, but he knew those people were asking for something that went beyond Marxism or capitalism. They were asking for a new life for themselves. He believed that is we denied them that because it threatened the white West and the capitalist centers of the world, we were on the wrong side of the revolution.
In your book, Hope and History, you describe the African-American freedom movement not as simply a civil rights movement, but as a struggle to “expand” democracy in America, and as such, unique in its contribution to the pro-democracy struggles around the globe. Since 1990, when you published that book, much of the hope for peace and freedom that emerged around the world after the end of the Cold War has been dashed. What do you see as the source of hope for democracy movements today, including our own in America?
The human experience is such that, if I am deeply involved in a struggle for democracy in the former Czechoslovakia, or in Tiananmen Square, or in Johannesburg, or in Birmingham, I am profoundly affected by it. The fact that a particular movement may not “succeed,” does not mean that it has been wiped from my memory. My life has been affected; I have tasted something very real. I have learned that certain possibilities for human relationships exist that I didn’t know about before. The fact that people experienced these things in very palpable and profound ways means that these truths now exist permanently in the universe. Energy does not go out of existence. Truth is an energy that will find its manifestation and expression in some other way, in some other place, in other people. That is one of my major sources of hope.
Another comes from the time I spend with children and young people. Even in the midst of all the difficulties they face being young in America today, I see great possibilities in them. As long as the capacity to see new possibilities exists, then there can be hope. Because, as you know, we come to new situations politically and economically and socially only insofar as people are willing to dream them first. And young people still have the capacity to dream. I find that a source of hope.
Pluralism makes a consensus on core values difficult, especially religious pluralism — which is why many people are calling for more interfaith, interreligious, and intercultural dialogue. What advice do you have for us at the Center for pursuing such dialogue?
My daughter, who is both a scholar and a poet, regularly fusses with me about our work on these kinds of things. She says, “Daddy, you people talk too much, you’re too word-oriented. You’ve got to find some way to get at these things through the arts.” I think that all of us who are concerned about such things need to hear that message. Having logical discussions about our similarities and differences only opens one level of our being, but religion operates at many levels of our being, so that we may respond to the any levels of the divine. All of us who want to find meeting points and places of joint engagement have to open up to a variety of possibilities. I would think, especially in an academic community like this, that we need to break out of the linear explication of our similarities and our differences. We’ve got to find a way to bring our spirits together.
In your book There Is a River you say, “there will be no hope for a truly just society on these shores until we address the issue of the human spirit and its role in our struggle for political transformation." Can you comment on this idea?
In America today, it seems one of our major difficulties is lack of trust. Ultimately, you cannot have a democratic community, you cannot have a human, creative community, without trust in yourself, trust in each other, and trust that there is something beyond the self and others. This leads to hope — and involves issues of human spirit. One of our great challenges at this point is to figure out what we can bring into our industrialized society from the best insights of the other traditions of the world. We’ve got to be very intentional about a recognition of our need for healing. Part of that healing, of course, is related to racial and gender issues. Part of it is the fact that you can’t live in a society that keeps cutting up things and people and situations without feeling cut up inside yourself. We have to have some understanding of the people who wrote about creating a more perfect Union. There were all kinds of messy intentions there, but the best intentions are beautiful ones. The idea that the American people are to create a more perfect Union — that is really a spiritual calling. You can’t talk about it without talking about issues of the spirit.
In your writings you explore the delicate, interdependent relationship of student and teacher as well as that of follower and political leader. The Commission on Global Governance, whose ideas on UN reform formed the basis for some of the Center’s past dialogues, pointed to “a poverty of leadership” at all levels in the world today, and to an “ethical vacuum.” How do you think these two problems relate? Will the leadership appear, in other words, only when the people are ready?
Again, I go back to King as an example. It's very important to recognize that he was not operating in a vacuum, that he was operating in a situation of ferment. In Montgomery, leadership was being taken by women — ordinary, marvelous African-American women. It was those women who were prepared to respond to Rosa Parks’ personal initiative. When she refused to move to the rear of the bus, women who had been involved in various kinds of political activism were ready. One of those women ran off 35,000 copies of a stencil by herself the night after Mrs. Parks’ arrest in order to let people know about it. And she saw to it that her students passed it out in important places. King came out of that ferment — people decided they were going to let Mrs. Parks’ arrest become a catalyst for their movement as a community and they knew they needed a spokesperson.
Our difficulty with leadership today, in part, is that we have not figured out where we need to go and what is necessary to get there. We haven’t figured out what kind of “more perfect Union” we would like to move toward. Part of the difficulty here is that we have gotten so enmeshed in individualistic thinking that even the concept of a more perfect Union is elusive. Yesterday, the television was on, and I heard, “Are you dissatisfied with the quality of your drinking water?” I was only half-listening, but what I unconsciously expected to hear next was, Get together with your neighbors and find out why the drinking water is like that.” But it was a commercial for an individual filter you could by to solve the drinking water problem for the seven people or the two people in your family. That seems to me to be a perfect example of what happens when community breaks down — we all opt for our own personal solutions to what are clearly community-wide problems.
There’s a debate going on right now in America over the proper role of journalism, or rather about whether it ought to have any role, in the cultivation of civic virtues. What are your views on this question of “public journalism?”
Journalists have a major responsibility for the creation of a context of democratic engagement. Hannah Arendt said that we become most human in the process of conversation. Journalism offers a way of opening up the conversation space for the community — offering ideas, information, stimulation for the community to get involved in always richer, deeper, more informed levels of conversation about what it means to create a more perfect Union. I think journalists have this tremendous responsibility because they have access to folks in ways that many other people don’t. How this is affected by the world of the Internet I’m not quite sure, but clearly it changes the way space is made for the engagement of the public.
Do you think there’s an awareness of that today among journalists?
Let me take it beyond journalism. One of our major challenges today is that relatively few people are even thinking about what has to be done to create democratic space, to develop democratic spirit, to create appreciation for democratic values. We are supposedly a democracy, but very little in our educational, commercial, or community processes intentionally deals with what it means to live in a democracy. We simply feel that we were given one in 1776 (perhaps we returned to the issue in the 1940s or ‘50s or ‘60s) and that everything should go on its democratic way automatically. We need to know enough history to realize that democracy has to be fought for, maybe in every generation now. We don’t have a mechanism for that.
If we look around at this bastion of higher education, where is the advanced study center for the development of democracy in America? We’ve got advanced computer centers, advanced business centers, and advanced political centers — which usually do not take up issues related to democracy. One of our major challenges is to figure out how to build structures that will help us understand what democracy is supposed to be about, and to help create new democratic structures with which to continue building our society. There are so many forces at work in society that run counter to democratic responsibility that unless there is an intentional effort to teach democracy, we’ll find ourselves in a situation — maybe we’re already there — where most people in this democratic nation know almost nothing about the meaning of democracy.