Vincent Harding: King for the 21st century calls us to walk with Jesus

Friday, January 21, 2005

Vincent Harding: King for the 21st century calls us to walk with Jesus

GOSHEN, Ind. — Patrice Penny, director of the Goshen College Voices-n-Harmony gospel choir, watched as her group assembled at the front of the Church-Chapel sanctuary in front of 700 campus and community members gathered for a special chapel on Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day. She stepped to the grand piano, but found that the instrument unexpectedly locked. Rather than disassemble her culturally diverse choir or wait in impatient silence, Penny began to lead the entire assembly in singing the African-American spiritual “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed on Jesus).”

“What a wonderful, unintentional demonstration,” former King colleague Vincent Harding, keynote speaker for the day, observed later from the Church-Chapel podium. In the 1950s and 60s, he continued, “in so many places things were locked away from us. And in so many places, instead of just waiting around for someone to open up, we sang and sang and sang. There was some teaching going on there, just as with Sister Patrice. Gospel choirs on our college campuses across this country are signals of who we are and who we could be together.”

After two verses of “Woke Up This Morning,” the piano was unlocked and Voices-n-Harmony proclaimed the power of God’s love, accompanied by several student performers from the college’s Lavender Jazz band and their director Sonny Carreño; the jazz ensemble had also performed at the Community Prayer Breakfast attended by nearly 300 people at the start of the day.

Harding opened the day’s activities with an address at the Community Prayer breakfast, speaking to campus guests that included area pastors, church lay leaders, educators, civic organizers, government representatives and other engaged individuals. Then as keynote speaker for the college’s Study Day, Harding spoke for an hour on “A King for the 21st Century.” Drawing on his experiences as a teacher as well as a lifelong peace and justice advocate who worked alongside King and other Freedom Movement leaders, he drew more than one metaphor from the incident of the locked piano.

Said Harding, “There’s a lesson for us: If we lock up Martin Luther King, and make him unavailable for where we are now so we can keep ourselves comfortably distant from the realities he was trying to grapple with, we waste King. All of us are being called beyond those comfortable places where it’s easy to be Christian. That’s the key for the 21st century – to answer the voice within us, as it was within Martin, which says ‘do something for somebody.’ We can learn to play on locked pianos and to dream of worlds that do not yet exist.”

King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” so often quoted does not end with the few sentences surrounding that famous line, Harding said. The speech should be read in its entirety to truly understand King’s message for his listeners in 1963 in Washington, D.C. The speech is a challenge to make a dream of justice a reality, not a lofty description of an idealized America.

“Men do not get assassinated for wanting children of different colors to hold hands on a mountainside. King was telling us to make America what it needs to be. 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. We need to keep moving,” he continued. “Why not get close to the really tough things, hard things that people say is impossible? To do that is to stand next to Jesus … and to recognize that as a child of God, we are called to pay attention to the pain of other children of God.”

In addition to having heard King speak in a variety of settings during the Freedom Movement, Harding has delved more deeply into King’s writings and those of other theologians and philosophers during his 23 years as professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology (Denver, Colo.). With his wife, the late Rosemarie Freeney Harding, who graduated from Goshen College in 1957, he established the first Mennonite Voluntary Service unit in Atlanta, where the Hardings became intimately involved in voter advocacy and other civil rights work. Later in life, the Hardings established the Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal, which has, among other activities, initiated a video series with Freedom Movement luminaries including Andrew Young, Ruby Sales, James Lawson, Bernice Johnson Reagon and 25 others. Harding served as the senior academic consultant to the award-winning PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” and was the first director of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center in Atlanta. He is author of the book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.

Harding said that King’s articulation of a vision for a faith-inspired “new world” and active work to create it was the reason he was chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. While King was rooted in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, he demonstrated global awareness of the oppressed in other cultures as well, speaking out about apartheid in South Africa.

But it was the work of “redeeming the soul of America” ­– a phrase used by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ­– that fueled a desire to continue to confront opposition in the form of racism, poverty and war. King identified those three things in the 1960s as the main challenge for America to address then, but these themes are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago, Harding said.

King was a middle class, seminary-educated and doctoral degree-holding scholar who “died among garbage men,” Harding described for his audience of college students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. “Some people thought he was crazy. King did not accept conventional wisdom, conventional patriotism. But maybe the ‘mad’ men and women have something to tell us. Maybe that is a King for Goshen College,” he said. “When the world that King dreamed comes into existing, it will sound like that gospel choir, like Voices-n-Harmony. King did not complete that work. If he had, what would we have to do today? He is a launching pad, not a prison. We cannot lock him away.”

Goshen College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day also included afternoon seminars organized by student leaders and clubs as well as morning activities for children that included games, Freedom Movement history, dance, music and more. For more than a decade, the college has set aside “business as usual” on the national holiday celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. to hold an all-campus study day.

– Rachel Lapp

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit