GOSHEN — A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s spoke at Goshen College Monday about King’s leadership and the civil rights work that continues today.
Vincent Harding worked with King in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, at one point also living around the corner from King’s house in Atlanta. Harding drafted the “Beyond Vietnam” speech King delivered in 1967. In 1968, Harding became the first director of the King Memorial Center in Atlanta.
Harding participated in several presentations and events Sunday and Monday both on Goshen College’s campus and in Elkhart at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
During a convocation Monday morning, Goshen College senior Yolo Lopez-Perez asked Harding about his thoughts on a number of topics, including multiculturalism.
“I think one of the first things that it means is that we have a community in which we encourage each other to share our uniqueness and not push each other to become one thing that represents one culture, one life, one community,” he said. People should bring their various experiences and cultures “and help create something new that hasn’t existed before. That is what I see as the strength and meaning of a multicultural community, a community built of many communities to create a new reality.”
Lopez-Perez also asked about servant leadership, which is the college’s theme for the school year.
Harding said that King “saw very clearly that his role had to have something to do with serving the people and not telling the people how they should be served, but hearing the people speak of how they needed to be served.”
“He didn’t come galloping into Montgomery on a steed saying ‘I am your leader’,” he said. “The people knew that they needed the kind of leadership that he could provide.”
He spoke about King’s dedication to standing with the poor, the hungry and other underprivileged groups, even if it meant suffering or death.
Harding, also a former Mennonite pastor, said that, though challenging, he continues to work in civil rights because of his commitment to following Jesus.
“I don’t see any way of taking Jesus seriously without standing with the poor, without being available to anyone who’s in trouble, without always looking around for where are the outcasts and the weak and going to stand by their side,” he said.
During the program, Harding also shared about how the work is ongoing. Following the forum, he remained for more questions from a small group of students.
“For me, freedom is not a land or something that you get,” he said. “Freedom is a process that you engage in, that you live into.”
Harding encouraged the audience to engage with one another, embracing diversity, and to support the underprivileged in society to help create a better college, city and beyond.
“I am asking you all to be free to see that we are citizens of a country that we must still be creating,” he explained, “a country where all of us are welcome, where all of us are deep participants, where all of us can sing and move and meet each other, where the oldest among of us will always know that they are cared for and the youngest among us will always know that they will be nurtured. We are citizens of that country that must still be built and I’m encouraging all of you to move into that freedom, the freedom to build the country that does not yet exist.”
Following Harding’s talk, Greg Imbur, member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day committee at the college, encouraged the audience to pledge to 40 days of peace and service. The college organized a list of ideas for participants to do on each of those 40 days, including donating blood, not complaining, visiting a food pantry and helping youths or seniors.