Standing with the Poor: The Street Spirit Interview with Vincent Harding

by Terry Messman

Martin was attuned to the Hebrew prophets, and that was their constant message: Don’t talk about loving God or being religious unless you stand with the outcasts and the weak. Jesus said the same thing. There’s no way to understand Martin’s urgency about standing with the poor without taking into consideration his deepest religious grounding.” Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding, c. 2013; photographer unknown.

Street Spirit: In your book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, you wrote that the public seems most aware of the first part of Dr. King’s journey that culminated in his “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in August 1963. Yet, in the final year of his life, King attempted to build a far more militant movement that could challenge racism, the war in Vietnam, poverty, unemployment and slum housing. What are your reflections on Martin Luther King in the last year of his life?

Vincent Harding: Well, Terry, I think that he was, as much as anything else, a man in search. He was not simply repeating himself, but trying to develop himself. It was clear that he was responding to the world that he was living in, and the world that was coming into being all around him. I think that that element of being engaged with the world as it was developing is one of the most important things that I would see.

He was trying to speak to the developing Black consciousness that was rising up in the Black community. He was trying to speak to the younger people who probably, even more than they knew it, were responding themselves to the society’s tendency to see them simply as waste material. He was trying to understand ways in which he could help those young people to see a sense of purpose for their lives, beyond the explosive kinds of actions that they were engaged in, in the urban areas of this country.

And then, of course, he was trying to respond to his country’s imperialism and militarism. And that was something that he simply could not let pass him by. It was absolutely necessary to speak to what that militarism was doing to the country — especially as expressed in Vietnam.

Because he was a deep lover of his country, he felt that there would be no way in which he could be a person of integrity, and be silent about the damage that he saw us, as a nation, inflicting on ourselves and on other people. And, of course, in the midst of this period, he also tried to figure out how the wealthiest country in the world could respond to the growing damage that it was doing to its poor people. That whole question of poverty, and the response to poverty and the response to the poor, is another element, I would say, of his overwhelming concern.

I’d like to mention one other thing, though. And that is that if we’re talking about that last year, he is really constantly trying to understand what would nonviolent revolution be like in America. And, at least as important, how would he call the angry, explosive, young people into that kind of task — for the good of the country, for the good of themselves, for the good of the world.

This whole matter of the young people — their explosive energy somehow being called into participation in a nonviolent revolutionary change and struggle — that was something that was very much on his mind and heart, and that needs to be seen as crucial to those last years.

Spirit: In The Inconvenient Hero, you wrote, “By the time the garbage workers called him to Memphis, he saw their struggles as part of the work of peace. For peace was linked to economic justice and the radical redistribution of wealth, nationally and internationally.” How had King’s vision of economic justice evolved in that last year, and why did he come to see that economic justice is inseparable from the work for peace?

Harding: I think that at the heart of his wrestling with these issues, was a concern for the development of the best humanity in us all. What he saw in what we were doing — and not doing — to and with the poor was a kind of ignoring of their needs for their best human development, and a failure to recognize that if their needs were not spoken to, the country itself would suffer.

Whenever he talked about the necessary kind of housing that human beings needed, he always put it in that context: What kind of housing could help develop people’s best humanity? Obviously, that was not something that could be done in barracks-like towers. He was always asking: What was the kind of housing that could help nurture individual and collective humanity?

All of these things were hooked together for him so that, for instance, when he was working with the young people in their various explosive parts of the country, he always knew that they were an expression of the American tendency towards violent solutions. In a sense, they were being very American in the explosiveness of their response to their situation. To speak adequately to issues of peace, one had to speak directly to the elements of our society that did not make for peace, but that made for conflict and made for a sense of desperation.

I remember the story that Andy Young told me of what happened when Martin went out to Watts in response to that explosion. [The six-day Watts riots, or Watts rebellion, began on August 11, 1965, in the Watts area of Los Angeles, triggered when the police arrested a young, African American man, Marquette Frye. TM]

When he got out there, Martin did not have any kind of plan in his mind. He simply knew that he needed to be out there in the midst of those young people, especially young men, and their sense of a need to explode. As he was talking to them, he was visiting while their communities were still living with the smoke all around them. Martin was asking them, essentially, to talk to him about why they felt that they had done this. And one of the young men said to him, “We won!”

Martin said, “What do you mean, you won? Look at your community, look at your neighborhoods, with the flames still practically consuming them.”

And the young man said, “Well, at least we got them to pay attention to us.”

Now to me, that’s one of the most poignant statements to come out of that whole period. These young men were responding in a very human way to the lack of attention to their needs. They knew that nobody was paying humane attention to them — police attention, yes, but not the healing attention. King was always concerned about giving healing attention to the problems of poverty, homelessness, brokenness, in American society.

Spirit: Poor and homeless people universally report, sometimes in despair, that they are not being heard, and that they are nearly invisible. Poverty casts people into oblivion. Was that why the Poor People’s Campaign tried to make legislators finally pay attention by forming an encampment of poor people in their midst?

Harding: What King was hoping for was not simply that that those of us who were more advanced, progressive, and humane would camp the poor people in the midst of Washington’s inattention. What he was ultimately getting at was that the poor people would camp themselves there — that they would, through their own actions, come and say, “You must deal with us. We are part of this country!” I think it was so important to keep that element of self-affirmation, and self-recognition.

So it was not simply King as a miracle worker doing something for them. Martin was constantly trying to figure out how he could do something with them — so they could know that this was really their Poor People’s Movement. It was not a movement developed by the non-poor for the poor, but he was trying to help them understand that this was their movement, and that was a necessary development in order for poverty to be overcome in American society.

Spirit: What did you personally think of the plans for a Poor People’s Campaign at the time, in 1968, and what do you think of it now, in retrospect?

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968, with Poor People’s Campaign poster; AP photograph by Horace Cort

Harding: The logic of what Martin and others who were working with him, like Marian Wright Edelman [a civil rights activist who helped organize the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 and founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. TM], were feeling, is a logic that makes great sense. They were saying on a deep level: “The poor, who have been pushed aside from the priorities of the country, have to push for a rethinking of, or a repositioning of, their condition in the country’s agenda.” They were saying some things I know I have thought about much more recently than I was thinking about then, but it seems to make sense to me now. The Poor People’s Movement was trying to take seriously the whole idea of the preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States,” have as our major job the creation of “a more perfect union.” Poor people were being encouraged to recognize that they were “We the People”— and that they could address those who were not working for a more perfect union, and who were working on all kinds of other agendas, some of them called “stopping Communism.”

The Poor People’s Movement was essentially saying, “America, our major task is to create a more perfect union.” That’s what we Americans are supposed to be for. And we can’t have a more perfect union with the kind of poverty that benights our society everywhere — Mississippi, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

So I think at that time, though I may not have put it in those words, I was fairly clear that it was the right thing to do — to try to organize poor people to challenge our government about what are the most important kinds of works that the government of this country should be devoted to.

It is really impossible to develop an imperial-power country
stretching its tentacles all over the world,
and at the same moment, speak to the deepest needs of its own people.

And it is still, I think, a magnificent challenge. Because one of the things that comes very, very clear to me in the 21st century is that it is really impossible to develop an imperial-power country stretching its tentacles, as it were, all over the world, and at the same moment, speak to the deepest needs of its own people.

That does not ever work, and it has never worked for any imperial power. And as long as we choose to be an imperial power, and as long as there is no counter-push against that, then we are headed towards real trouble.

King understood that, and that is why, among other reasons, he felt it was absolutely necessary to organize the poor, and to say — not just, “America, take care of your poor people” — but to say, “America, find your sense of direction. Find what you’re really supposed to be existing for. You must give your attention to those who are poor, to those who are weak, to those who are broken in your own society, and not turn your major energy towards establishing yourself as the leader of the free world.”

That is the challenge that King was putting forward. I think it is still a challenge that needs to be put forward — as much to President Obama as it was to then President Lyndon Johnson. That is a critical role that the poor, and the allies of the poor, can play, as King was trying to set forward back in 1968.

Spirit: In The Inconvenient Hero, you also wrote, “His call was an urgent invitation to turn sharply away from our commitment to an ever-ascending higher standard of living and to set our faces in compassion toward the poor of every color, of every land.” Yet, even today, seeking justice for the poor seems to be nearly the last priority even for progressive activists. Can you tell us what led King — on a personal level, or a political or spiritual level — to feel this burning urgency to seek economic justice for the poor?

Harding: Although this is not necessarily a popular way to look at things, I think that, at this point in history, Martin was, as much as anything else, a deeply compassionate pastor. He saw himself, ultimately, as pastor to a country, and as one who tried to help the country develop its most humane possibilities. And he understood that we could not become our best and most humane self, as a country, if we ignored the poor.

Martin was very much attuned to the Hebrew prophets, and that was their constant message: Don’t talk about loving God or being religious unless you stand with the outcasts and the weak. Jesus said the same thing.

I think that there’s no way to understand Martin’s urgency about standing with the poor without taking into consideration his deepest religious and spiritual grounding. There’s no way to understand King, the human rights leader, without seeing first — as he tried to say in his Vietnam speech — King, the pastor, the follower of Jesus, King, the believer in the family of God, the community of God.

He was just, in many ways, a radical humanist, a radical believer in the family of God. I choose that word more and more, rather than the kingdom of God, because I think in a democratic society, that’s not where we ought to be placing our descriptive attention. King believed in the family of God, that God the Almighty was indeed our parent and that we were meant to relate to each other as sisters and brothers. So I think that is a deep part of what we have to look at in order to be able to respond to your question.

Spirit: In your view, what happened with Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of King’s assassination? I know there was still a wonderful statement of resistance. But just looking at the news coverage of people trudging on, trying to soldier on at that moment, I wonder how heartbroken they were. I know the movement was far larger than just this one leader, it was made up of all the thousands of people that came to D.C. But did that assassination break people’s hearts and demoralize them? Or did they just run into the terribly repressive power of the federal government?

Harding: I certainly feel that Martin’s assassination did break the hearts of many, many of the folks who were involved in the organizing of that attempt of the movement. In addition to that, the federal government clearly was seeking, by both obvious and subversive methodologies, to undermine that organizing as much as they possibly could.

And then, of course, it rained and rained. That was a very important part of the breaking of people’s spirits too.

I think that one of the factors that we always have to look back on is that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its allies had never attempted to organize something that today we would call “Occupy D.C.” The kind of planning that was necessary for the carrying out of “Occupy D.C.” simply had not been done in the midst of everything else — especially, of course, in the midst of the response to the assassination.

So there were all kinds of things that were going on that made it impossible to focus the kind of planning on the Poor People’s Campaign that was required. It was a great experiment in American social movements. And like all experiments, it could fail or succeed.

Most of what happened in terms of its goals was not a success. But the idea itself of black, white, brown, red, poor people coming together to challenge the country around the issue of poverty was a powerful idea that, in many ways, without copying it, needs to be paid attention to at this point in American history — especially in the light of the kind of consciousness that Occupy has helped to raise in the country concerning economic oppression and the deep unfaithfulness to the needs of the country’s poorest people and its middle-class people, who I am less anxious about than I am about the poor.

Spirit: I’m still blown away by that revolutionary vision. It’s still breathtaking to me that the SCLC dreamed up a showdown with the federal government in a way that could conceivably have forced the government to grant the Economic Bill of Rights. What do you think King would say today about the historic levels of poverty in America?

Harding: I need to go back for just a moment and see the Poor People’s Campaign as not exclusively Martin Luther King, because the whole idea of that kind of campaign for the movement came out of not only a Marian Wright Edelman, but even before that, out of a James Lawson and James Bevel and Diane Nash. I think it’s psychologically and historically important to keep reminding ourselves that we do not need to wait for another Martin Luther King, Jr.

What we have to keep recognizing is that those ideas came out of a community of people. And now we need to refocus ourselves on the concerns and the commitment that this community represented and that Martin so wonderfully explicated for the country and the world. I have a great concern that we take seriously the words that a wonderful poet from this part of the country wrote: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Spirit: The words of June Jordan?

Harding: Yes. I would want to stubbornly insist that we do not tie the Poor People’s Campaign only to Martin because, in a deep sense, Martin will never return. But there are people who can, in a sense, show up, and we have to spend as much time as we can figuring out what it means to talk in the 21st century about the issue of organizing the poor.

The most important thing now is not how do we repeat King’s actions, accomplishments, and concerns, but how do we nurture the issues that were part of the community that he was a part of, the community of those who saw the need for a more perfect union. And we saw that there could not be a more perfect union unless the needs and the possibilities of the people that we call poor were brought into the life of the democracy.

“America, you must be born again. You cannot continue without being reborn,
and if you’re not reborn, you’re headed towards a terrible, terrible death.”

In response to the question you raised of what would King be thinking, feeling, saying in response to what is going on now, I think that in the light of what we said about who he was, and where his concerns came from, and who he was focused on, it’s pretty obvious that he would still be saying what he was saying at the end of his life: “America, you must be born again. You cannot continue without being reborn, and if you’re not reborn, you’re headed towards a terrible, terrible death.”

I think he would be saying that out of love, and out of deep commitment to the possibilities of this country, and out of a deep, deep belief that the country does not have to give in to what he called the triple evils that were so dangerous to us: racism, materialism and militarism. All over, if he were around today, he would see the continuing manifestation of the triple evils.

And he would probably be trying to figure out where are the folks who are trying to work on these things, and if he had the capacity to, he would be joining those people and encouraging those people: “Work on, work on!”

Spirit: What could a Poor People’s Movement look like today? Is the Occupy Movement a good example of how it could emerge?

Harding: Whenever I hear a question like that, my mind goes immediately to something that one of your fellow Californians wrote to some of us elders a few months ago. Gus Newport wrote these words: “The great American experiment in building a multiracial democracy is still in the laboratory.”

I find that a source of great encouragement. At this stage in my life, and in the life of the country, and in the lives of those of us who are concerned about building a community of God’s children, I find it very important that we don’t have to know exactly how to do that yet. But what we do have to know is that we must do that. And that has become the most important thing. Not in the way of, “What is the answer?” But how do we nurture the question in such a way that we can work together on these issues?

I’ve been thinking and talking a great deal with my beloved Aljosie about some of the things that are so clearly needed in America today. We were just looking at an article about the needs of the elderly. There are so, so many more of us now. That whole arena of how to deal with the elderly is an amazing area of need. At the same moment, it is clear that at least as much energy and creativity has to go into how you help children to become whole, humane, human beings. And how do you build cities that will encourage human development?

All of these kinds of issues, and a thousand more that focus on the creation of a more perfect union, for me, are part of what surrounds that question of organizing the poor. Organizing the poor is one central, crucial matter. The larger question is organizing “We the People” to create a more perfect union. It has to do with the care of the children. It has to do with the care of the elderly. It has to do with the care of the so-called disabled.

All sorts of things that need our focus and our attention are present as challenges, and I think as wonderful challenges to move us towards the kinds of things where King and the movement were saying to us: “Stop acting like we are in charge of the world, and act in faithfulness to our responsibility to create a more perfect union.”

I keep thinking of my president now when I say this: There are all kinds of ways in which, if we paid attention, and made this the focus of our attention, rather than lots of other things — materialistic and militaristic things — that we give attention to, if we made the nurturing of a democratic country our focus of attention, it would be amazing to ask what the possibilities are that could grow out of this.

In a way, it’s connected to Gandhi’s statement that we would be amazed by the new discoveries in destructive military forces — and what would Gandhi have to say about drones, for instance — but at the same moment, he said we can allow ourselves to be amazed and surprised about the advances that could be made in nonviolent healing forces. For those of us who see ourselves in the realm of the nonviolent forces, not only should we continue to call our country and our fellow citizens to move against the things that make for damage to human beings, but we’ve got to encourage ourselves to see the possibilities that there are to create alternatives. We need to create more communities of hope and more communities of experimentation in nonviolent struggle.

Remember, we started this conversation with the fact that Martin was still, to the very end, trying to understand what would nonviolent revolution in America be like, and who would take the leadership. I think that is still the challenge to us — that even though it is scary, or maybe because it’s scary, it’s exactly what we need to keep our minds on.

Spirit: You have written that calling it “the Civil Rights Movement” doesn’t do full justice to what was really at stake. Why does calling it “the Freedom Movement” better express the spirit of that community of resistance?

Harding: You’ve actually caught me in the midst of continuing to rethink what is the best terminology, and I’d like to suggest where I am at this particular time. Let me mention to you something about “the Freedom Movement” first. I feel that one of the ways in which people in movements most deeply express themselves is in what they sing about. We sang in the South not, “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on civil rights…”

Spirit: “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

Harding: Again and again, when we needed one word to say what it was that we were struggling for, that word was freedom. I think we need to give the initiative in identifying the movement to the people who were part of the movement, and who expressed themselves not necessarily in 47-page essays, but in one song, one line, one statement. That’s one of the reasons why I think that is so important.

Having said that, I also feel that those of us who do write 47-page essays have a responsibility to try to say what we think was going on. For me, it seems very, very clear that the idea of a “civil rights movement” is not adequate to describe what was going on.

I take my prompts from a couple of directions. One is, as you may know, when Martin and folks like Ella Baker and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and others started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they did not say, “We’ve come to work for civil rights.” They said, “We have come to redeem the soul of America.”

For me, that brings us much closer to what I understand the movement to be best described by. These days, I like to speak of it as “the Southern-based, Black-led movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America.”

That way, it’s not just about Black people and our rights. It’s not just about anybody and our rights. It’s about democracy — building the forces, the reality of democracy in America.

I like that, because then it’s not a question of, “What civil rights should we work for now?” But it’s a question of, “In what ways must democracy be deepened and expanded now?” And every generation can ask that — not copying something that was done 25 or 55 years ago — but in its own given moment, again, as happened with Occupy: What must be done to deepen and expand democracy?

I think it’s a wonderful question to put on each generation’s agenda: to let each generation know that the movement was not something that simply began and ended in the 1960s and 1970s, but the movement is an ongoing movement of “We the People, to create a more perfect union.” And for me, a more perfect union is a more democratic union. It is a union in which all of our great variety of racial, ethnic groupings can be opened to something that has never existed before.

I am sorry to give you another thing to think about beyond freedom, but I am almost obsessed by the question of what is necessary to build democracy in America. I think we’re in great danger. If we don’t build it, we go backwards.

Listen to all this discussion about what we should do with our schools. Almost everybody is talking about schools only as a place where you go to learn how to make money. What if we thought about our schools as places where you learn how to become democratic citizens? How do you prepare young people to become democratic citizens?

Spirit: Yes. How can schools prepare students for freedom — not just free enterprise. You wrote that taking part in the Freedom Movement was a transforming experience for many churches, and that many of them went on to get involved in other struggles for peace and justice in years to come. Can you explain why the movement had such a strong base in the Black churches and why church members were so much at the forefront of the movement? Why were those the people that were really on the move?

Harding: Because those were the people in this country who always understood that Jesus belonged to them — and who understood that any religion that was based on slavery could not be a real religion. So here is that song again. The original words of that song, as you may know, were: “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” They understood that Jesus and freedom was the same thing, so they understood the call of the movement as something that was simply part of the call and response to Jesus. Jesus was the heart of freedom where they were concerned. It was Jesus who said, “Deal with the needs of the poor and the outcast.”

They were the group in the country who, in their religion, were closest emotionally, physically and theologically tied to Jesus. So when you get a movement that starts projecting the same kind of calling that Jesus brought forth, these folks know: “That’s our man, this is where we belong. Let’s get out there.”

Spirit: Last night I again watched the PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders as they came into Birmingham, Alabama, and were met with the sickening level of violence and hatred that white people inflicted on black and white freedom riders. In Hope and History, you called it “the terroristic system of American segregation.” Can you help us understand how people found the strength to continue in the movement even after so many were clubbed by police, attacked by mobs, assassinated, and bombed in their churches and their homes?

Harding: I think they found strength in each other. They found it in each other. They found it in the wonderful vision that they had of what could come beyond. And they found it in the internal resources that, for some of them, was religion, was Christianity. For some of them, it was deep humanistic faith and belief in, again, the family of God. And some of them found it simply because they were determined that they were not going to let white racists turn them around.

Spirit: Thank you, Vincent!

Harding: Thank you, Terry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Vincent Gordon Harding (b.1931) is Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado and co-chairperson of the social unity group Veterans of Hope Project. In the 1960s he and his wife co-founded Mennonite House, an interracial voluntary service center and movement gathering place in Atlanta. He was a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and occasionally drafted his speeches, including King’s famous anti-Vietnam speech, “A Time to Break Silence” which was delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, exactly a year before he was assassinated. Among his many books are: Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero; Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement; We Must Keep Going: Martin Luther King and the Future of America; There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. Please consult his Wikipedia page for further information, and his page for his in-print titles.

Terry Messman is the editor of Street Spirit and a regular contributor to our site. You may consult the Editor’s Note at the end of this previous article for further information. Terry conducted this interview on 23 April 2013, while Dr. Harding was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area. He also wishes to express his gratitude to nonviolent activists David Hartsough and Sherri Maurin for their generous help in arranging the interview.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi