Last Friday, about 300 of us gathered in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Vincent Gordon Harding. The event was a stunning tribute to this dear, soft spoken, gentle giant.
He would have told us that we were doing too much and that we needed to make sure that the energy being used to celebrate his life and work did not keep us from our own work. We are clear about the fact that his main words to us continue to be “carry on.” Yes, we will carry on.
As we face the trials of today’s police assassinations of African American women, men and children, as we witness school districts in California, of all places, arming their security force with AK-47 rifles, as we witness the erosion of any efforts to work toward peace in the Middle East, as we bear witness to the horrors of genocide in Iraq and the meanness of spirit that is voiced toward homeless Central American children who have somehow made it to our border, we say, yes we will carry on.
Harding was an activist, historian and teacher. He was also one of the nation’s leading authorities on African-American history and the links between religion and movements for social justice. He combined penetrating scholarship, a gentle, insightful manner and a joyful enthusiasm for inclusive democracy. He was a man whose life traversed many epochs, communities and commitments. Harding was an extraordinary soul whom many remember, especially in his later years, as a patient counselor and keen thinker who could simultaneously critique the profound injustice of America and encourage all of its citizens to build the country into its best possibilities as a multicultural nation.
During the Korean War while at Fort Dix, he experienced a transformative moment during bayonet training that led him to fundamentally question the use of violence and the justice of war -- opening himself to a lifelong search for nonviolent alternatives to conflict. In his later years, he was rarely seen without his beautiful blue and white button declaring “War is Terrorism.” His quest to seek peace was relentless.
While the speakers included Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, renowned author of “The New Jim Crow” Michelle Alexander, poet/playwright Pearl Cleage and civil rights veteran Dr. C.T. Vivian, the audience’s only standing ovation was given to 15-year-old Avery Dixon whose saxophone spoke out from his young soul. Dixon, an eighth-grade home-schooled young man, was still basking in the light of being the finalist in the “Showtime at the Apollo” competition the week before. There were also many other wonderful spoken word tributes, songs and dances. All of the tributes spoke of how this gentle giant had stood among us and how his leaving has shaken us. But all of them had the same echo: “carry on.”
Harding often asked people, “what is your greatest passion?” An intergenerational group gathered Saturday about mid-morning and spent the better part of the day answering that question while sharing who our mothers and grandmothers were. He was never too busy to ask people to speak about their mothers and grandmothers. He always wanted to know what people envisioned their lives to be about. What is your greatest passion? What a simple question to ask and what a complex question to answer.
So many people loved him and will always love him. But we know that loving him is about being the change that we wish to see in the world. We know that loving him is about proclaiming across this land and across the planet in every way that we can imagine, “Yes, we will carry on.”
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.