As Memorial Day Approaches Honoring Two Black Men Who Deserve Much More Recognition

            I have been silent here for many months and it took Amy Goodman’s article in NATION OF CHANGE to motivate me to break the silence.  She has written about two extraordinary men who “helped shape modern history,” in her estimation and until I saw the obituary of William Worthy in the NYTimes last weekend I had never heard of him and until her article I had never heard of Vincent Harding.  Both men, as it turns out, could and perhaps next year will, be in the unit I teach at the Smith College Campus School to my 6th graders entitled, African American Contributors to American Culture.
           We begin the unit by discussing why we continue to need such a unit.  One of the key elements of this conversation is the lack of recognition that many of the men and women the students are about to study have suffered from (heaped on top of the gargantuan obstacles they faced due to race and class) and the price we all pay for their going largely unrecognized by our culture – for white people the perpetuation of the belief that our race has done the lion’s share of what deserves to be acknowledged, a heinous injustice in and of itself that allows racism to flourish and for black people the on-going devaluing of their own absolutely extraordinary racial heritage filled with virtually countless contributors throughout American history.  This latter fall-out results in an even bigger struggle to feel the self-worth every individual deserves to feel based on their heritage.
          We study Denmark Vesey, slave rebellion leader along with such luminaries as Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque (thankfully the underviewed and underappreciated film, “Amistad,” affirms his contribution), Matthew Henson, first man to actually make it to the North Pole, not the least of which was a result of his befriending Inuit people, Charles Drew, inventor of the blood transfusion, Robert Smalls who made a daring escape by sea during the Civil War and went on to serve 5 terms in Congress as a senator from South Carolina and on and on ad infinitum!
          Then today I read about two more.  I will not steal Ms. Goodman’s thunder, so suffice to say that learning that Mr. Harding wrote the speech delivered at Riverside Cathedral by Dr. King a year to the day before his assassination was a revelation.  I have posted about the speech on this very blog without ever knowing about Harding’s role in its creation and I think of it as one of the greatest speeches in American history.  In it King connects so many dots, in particular and most significantly for me personally given my work on CALLED TO SERVE, the seemingly self-evident, but until he spoke it not given its due, truism that racism, classism and war are all inextricably interconnected.  This quote spoke truth to power and no doubt could have contributed mightily to King’s subsequent murder: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”  In that one sentence King raised the nation’s consciousness about the Vietnam War, its utter devastation of another country and the effects it had on the “war” we should have been fighting then and still need to wage now, to end racism and  poverty amongst our own citizenry.
          That it is Memorial Day tomorrow also feels important to highlight in this post.  So much of the hype that occurs in memorializing those who have fallen ends up being about the sacrifices those who have died have made for the rest of us to be free.  So little is said about what Dr. King via Mr. Harding’s words was conveying in the Riverside Cathedral speech – that so many of those who have died in our wars of conquest and imperialism, were sacrificed so America could extend its sphere of influence and so the 1% and other war profiteers could get even richer, not so we could be free.  Were this ever part of the message, which would give me hope that we could actually stop going to war for all the wrong reasons, then I would feel that there really was a need for such a day.  In the absence of such acknowledgment of our government’s role in the destruction of the very lives we’re honoring as well as the countless millions of lives our obscene wars destroy, displace and devalue, I choose to memorialize such men as William Worthy and Vincent Harding…
          So if you are so inclined, read about two men whose lives made a difference and who, by your reading and sharing their stories, will receive at least some of the recognition they so richly deserve.
WILLIAM WORTHY AND VINCENT HARDING:
THANK-YOU AND GOOD-BYE
by Amy Goodman
The world lost two remarkable men in May, two African-Americans who helped shape modern history, yet whose names and achievements remain too little known. William Worthy, a journalist, died at the age of 92. Civil-rights activist Vincent Harding was 82. Each was a witness to some of the most pivotal events of the latter half of the 20th century. They led their lives speaking truth to power, working for a better world.

William Worthy became a journalist, working for both CBS News and the Baltimore Afro-American. He reported from the Soviet Union and would go to North Vietnam. As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, he ignored a U.S. ban on traveling to communist China. As a result, the State Department refused to renew Worthy’s passport. He would later travel to Cuba after the revolution there, where he interviewed Fidel Castro. Upon his return, he was charged with entering the U.S. without a passport. He challenged the charges and was eventually cleared. The federal appeals court opinion stated, “It is inherent in the concept of citizenship that the citizen … has a right to return, again to set foot on its soil.” U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy chose not to appeal to the Supreme Court, Worthy said, because “he and his brother [President John F. Kennedy] were sick and tired of the case. They had had enough embarrassment over it.” He was represented by a young ACLU lawyer named William Kunstler, who later noted that the victory in this case inspired him to continue in his path as a pioneering constitutional attorney.

 

 

Vincent Harding was a close friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. Harding told us on “Democracy Now!,” “King saw the natural connection between what was happening to the poor in the USA, why young men and women were rising up in anger, frustration, desperation, saw that action as deeply related to the attention that the country was paying to the devastation it was doing in Vietnam.” It was on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before King was assassinated, that he delivered a speech drafted by Harding, a powerful statement against the war in Vietnam. Harding said of the speech, “That draft essentially became the speech, sermon, call, cry of the heart that he put forward.” King said that day at New York’s Riverside Church, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

 

Vincent Harding sought to reflect in his speechwriting King’s enduring concerns: “He was calling us to a way that was very difficult, a way beyond racism, a way beyond materialism and a way beyond militarism.” Harding continued for decades after King’s death to fight against those very problems, as the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center (now known as the King Center) in Atlanta, then as professor of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

 

These two men, William Worthy and Vincent Harding, saw immense social upheaval, revolution, struggle and loss. They dedicated their lives to challenging those in power, and to the pursuit of justice and equality for all.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

 

This article was published at NationofChange at: http://www.nationofchange.org/william-worthy-and-vincent-harding-thank-you-and-goodbye-1400937943. All rights are reserved.

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