donnie betts, a dear friend of Vincent Harding’s, and I went on the trip with Vincent to Palestine. Long working with Vincent getting footage and sound for a documentary, Donnie interviewed me this weekend as one of many voices. I suspect donnie’s documentary will be a marvel…
For many of us, Vincent was and is a special force. In thinking about the interview, he came back to me this week. Before the interview, I wrote to donnie:
“As you know, I have been all my life an anti-war and anti-racist activist. My writing – Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence – reflects this. I see the revolts in Jamaica in 1760 and thoughout the Caribbean as the driving force on both sides in the American Revolution. The vigor of this revolution comes from sailors, black and white, who were impressed – forced into service – by Imperial press-gangs and whose views were written up by pamphleteers in 1760 in England (Philmore, Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade) and James Otis in 1764 in Boston – “The Rights of the British Colonists asserted and Proved – and discussed by workers and sometimes farmers in taverns in Boston, New York, Charleston and around the 13 colonies.. Vincent commented on the book and we went to Richmond to ASALH, the black historians/resistance movement conference at his invitation. Vincent was a lyrical writer about the great movement against bondage, something that lifts up, internationally, all who come into contact with it. His friend Martin King, was perhaps America’s greatest public leader, and the assassination, for having especially spoken the words that Vincent wrote at his request while he was traveling 300 days a year – along with the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, two of the 5 or 10 greatest public speeches or writings ever given in the United States (and I would number John Brown’s words captured at Harper’s Ferry or Thoreau’s celebration of the raid, or Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony to Congress or Malcolm’s speeches among them, along with say the Gettysburg address) – shook Vincent to the core. He spoke with me of this – of his brotherhood with King and the feeling that his words had led to Martin being shot down, and that powerful a spirit as Vincent was (he then founded the Institute for the Black World in Atlanta and was the first leader of the King Center), he could not – could not – take the place of his friend (no one could) or remove the ache in his heart of his loss. Vincent said Martin has “a magnificent craziness,” that has something to do with Martin’s courage in going down the line, like Socrates or Gandhi, for his great insights into suffering: to lift everyone up with him. Vincent magnificently – and also with a kind of craziness – went far along that path and helped give rise to, elder the great new movement for democracy which is realized by the leadership of black women from below in Black Lives Matter and to the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, in which the Harding-Freeney family co-led the gathering. Gloria Smith and Rachel Harding spoke – Rachel with all the fire of her parents whose love for her, and for Jonathan, one can feel -and Ruby Sales and Michelle Alexander.
Ruby and Michelle fought for telling the stories of each person – of seeing each other and healing. It was this – most – that Vincent did, his whole life. His beautiful lyric histories of suffering and struggle come from this. His listening and thoughtfulness – his palpable love for each of us as the young men from Philadelphia said to him, asked him about: “why do you love us so much?” – came from this. And now women have taken the lead. And Michelle Alexander – Vincent introduced me to her when she came to speak about The New Jim Crow in Denver – shines, as he told me, as the new Ida B. Wells. She spoke that night (with Vincent and Jim Lawson) of recognizing American imperialism and the struggle against it as a wonderful note from a follower, counseling her – “thanking her” for doing so – had suggested. She shines also, among many, in Ada Duvergner’s Thirteenth. Michelle spoke of Susan Burton, who tragically lost her 5 year old to a hit and run by an off-duty cop in Los Angeles, got on drugs, was jailed for 20 years, and came out like Mandela to found a community of a 100 apartments for black women coming out of jail and their children, an idea now being taken up across the country. Michelle wrote of her in the introduction to Meeting Ms. Burton as Harriet Tubman. There is a river here, as Vincent named his book, which runs powerfully beneath the surface of white supremacist America, and cracks through lifting up young people again and again, today led by the disabled who sit in against the potential death of medical care and compassion in Washington offices and in Colorado, as well as Bernie Sanders who is reaching out to white working peple who have fallen or lost their way (whites who actually go to fight and die in America’s horrific wars and their relatives – now ignored by the establishment – in Appalachia or Pennsylvania or Ohio sometimes supported Obama and then Trump). Bernie, Cornel West says, is, in his program, like Martin King. And millions of young people, here as in England in the Corbyn election, hear this.
There is a River says Vincent. You and I went to Palestine, roomed together, took part with Sekou and Jim Turner and Aljosie and Dorothy Cotton and all the other amazing people in our group. We were and are part of the river. I know the effort and care which you have taken with Vincent’s words, sought to trace in your filmmaking some of their deepest democratic currents. Michelle and Rachel and Ruby and Susan (and Dorothy Cotton and Ella Baker) are all part of the river. It sings from Africa in spirituals – in the dark red flowing of the Jordan of Vincent’s concluding paragraph; it is lifted up in the story of those in bondage making themselves free and is now seen in the struggles of Palestine villages and the Tamimis in Nabi Saleh. It is this movement that I hear in jazz and its many offshoots, the lifeblood of Amercian culture internationally, and in the songs sung late into the night at the encampment at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These arise, as Vincent and Martin said, against the materialism of American capitalism, against the militarism which threatens at this very moment human existence, and against the racism which denies all this beauty of individual stories.
Vincent spoke to me of how he and Rachel had understood, hearing about Little Crow in Minnesota in 1862 that indigenous people were most sharply at one with the Palestinians. There, too, I just took up what he said to me, joining in what has become a five year movement, at DU and Iliff, to rename research professorships (our professorship has now been renamed Distinguished University Professor instead of Evans, a great change, though I would have preferred Black Kettle or Silas Soule, In telling stories, university life, Iliff or DU, is a tributary to or flows into, but is not the river.
Vincent declined any physical help as he struggled up some hills in Palestine. He spoke to me of the delight of keeping on as long as he had breath. He fought and was a friend and brother and elder, and honored and listened to people to his last breath. He loved each of us, and all of us carry with us, carry on in our different ways, his friendship, his magnificent spirit.
There is a river…It is that of which I hope to speak when we meet today.”