My earliest encounter with Vincent Harding was through two avenues: primary research and a scholarly monograph. He became a prominent voice in a paper I wrote last year about the 1980s, memory of the American Civil Rights Movement, and debates among the Left about its future during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His columns in The Progressive were full of hope for the future of the Left, while at the same time reminders to his readers of the need to continue to confront the issue of race as the 80s dragged on. At the same time, I began reading the book The Challenge of Blackness, where Dr. Harding was co-founder of the Institute of the Black World, an Atlanta-based think tank that during the 1970s played a major role in the development of Black Studies.
Suffice to say my academic career since encountering Dr. Harding has not been the same. I’m ashamed, frankly, that I’d never heard of Harding until I started graduate school. His impact on the development of Black Studies and Black history cannot be overstated. With his passing Monday evening, scholars everywhere have begun to talk about his legacy. Before getting to what he did for Black history, it’s important to note that Dr. Harding never saw himself purely as an academic. From the moment his career as a historian began, Dr. Harding was always on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, and never left his post while he was on this Earth.
Vincent Harding was friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the person who was tapped to write the first draft of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The “Beyond Vietnam” speech was King’s formal announcement, on April 4, 1967, of his opposition to the war and his joining in earnest with the anti-war movement. In the coming days and months, I hope to see more people talk about Dr. Harding’s work during the Civil Rights era in this capacity, as friend of, and sometime writer for, Dr. King.
For those facts alone, Dr. Harding would be worth studying, especially for American intellectual historians. But his work after King’s death in 1968 propels Dr. Harding into a class all his own. Studying Black intellectual history of the late 1960s and 1970s shows Dr. Harding on the forefront of creating the then-nascent field of Black Studies. Read issues of magazines such as Ebony or Negro Digest/Black World from that era, and Dr. Harding was everywhere. I’ve written about this era before, but I think it’s worth repeating just how crucial Harding was, as both a member of the academy and as someone who cherished the opportunity to engage the wider world through his scholarship.
His 1981 book on African American history before emancipation, There Is a River, is a classic in African American history and African American Studies. Last night on Twitter, many scholars noted that they often assigned the book. An enjoyable read filled with the passion of someone who deeply cared about the teaching of African American history as part of a larger American (and to a great extent, part of a larger transnational narrative of struggle by peoples of African descent), There Is a River is an excellent work of scholarship.
Dr. Harding’s activities as a historian and scholar should not be separated from his work as an activist. In the 1980s, for instance, Harding was one of several scholars prominent in what I’d like to call the creation of Civil Rights Movement memory for a new generation of Americans. A senior academic consultant for the PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize, Harding also shaped how Americans viewed the struggle for equality through other means. In the September 1987 issue of the Journal of American History, Harding tackled directly the issue of remembering the reasons for the movement. He wrote, “It appears as if the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia concerning who that black man really was.” Harding continued, “In other words, if as (Chester) Himes wrote, Martin King “cannot rise to challenge” those who would make him a harmless black icon, then surely we can–assuming that we are still alive.” Writing, agitating, and teaching during the Reagan years, Harding understood like other activists that memory of the movement was necessary to spark further social change and to buttress the beliefs and activities of those who stood against New Right conservatism in the 80s.
Dr. Harding wrote for a variety of audiences. Again, his flexibility in who he wrote for—not to mention his tireless intellectual work—makes him an important voice for African Americans and for the American Left from the 1960s until his death in 2014. Harding’s voice in The Progressive during the 1980s, as I mentioned before, provided a link between 1960s struggles against racism, militarism, and poverty and 1980s debates about the same issues. “King was shaping a new role for himself, leader of a nonviolent revolutionary army/movement, one which he also saw connecting with the oppressed peoples of other nations,” Harding wrote at one point, again trying to shape for contemporary readers a vision of King as a radical force in American life.
Scholars and intellectuals based within the African American experience are at a crossroads. In recent years we’ve lost John Hope Franklin, Manning Marable just after he completed his Malcolm X biography, and Richard Iton, a promising scholar whose life and career were snuffed out at the early age of 51. Now we’ve lost Vincent Harding too, a man who was a living link to King and the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, debates about “where we go from here,” to quote the title of Dr. King’s last book, continue to occupy African American intellectuals. Harding’s voice was always crucial to such debates. Now that he is no longer with us, it will be up to a new generation of African American scholars, intellectuals, and activists, to continue his legacy.
I am not sure if we are up to that task. But we must try. Meanwhile, for the sake of intellectual historians, Harding is a key voice that represented an era of intellectual ferment and debate for African Americans. Harding built institutions that spoke to the African American experience. He also engaged in larger debates in American society about race, poverty, and the future of the nation. Harding as an intellectual, historian, and activist, is someone who should and will garner further study. He’s someone who, hopefully, will also inspire people to agitate, investigate, and push forward for a future that lives up to the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement.
I don’t think I’ve done his legacy justice in this post. But, I hope I’ve spurred you to learn more about the man. That’s all I can ask you to do.
 Vincent Gordon Harding, “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, no. 2, p. 468-476, quotes from pg. 469.
 Vincent Harding, “King and Revolution,” The Progressive, April 1983, p. 17.