Feb. 13 2013 12:00 AM

'The status quo does not mean democracy'


“Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey” is an annual lecture series commemorating Black History Month featuring three speakers who have become icons of the African-American struggle for civil rights. 

Vincent Harding, 81, is the second speaker in the series. Harding is an historian, author and professor. He also wrote speeches for Martin Luther King Jr., including his famous “A Time to Break Silence” speech in 1967 that took a firm stand against the war in Vietnam. 

What will you talk about?

I’m going to try to engage the community in discussion rather than have them depend on me to give them a speech with my ideas. It’s going to be a dialogue, which is my preferred way of communication. I see myself as having a responsibility as an elder to urge (others) to think of who we are and what our job is. Answers aren’t my focus; for me, I think it’s much more important to think more deeply about the questions. 

Do you think America is where it needs to be? 

Of course not.  We are never where we need to be, either as individuals or communities. That’s the meaning of the Preamble (to the United States Constitution). We’ve committed ourselves not to create the perfect solution, but to keep working for “a more perfect union.” That assumes there’s always a better level toward which we can move. 

How did you come to write “A Time to Break the Silence”? 

I became very close friends (with King)over the last 10 years of his life. In that time, we talked about many things, including the injustice of the war in Vietnam. He wanted to make a full, clear statement on the issue, but he didn’t have the time to craft something of that depth and intensity because of his travel schedule. So he asked me because I knew who he was and where he was coming from and he knew that. He didn’t have to tell me what to write and I didn’t have to ask him. The speech was based on those 10 years together — it came from the deepest part of his heart.

He knew that until we deal with the deep problems in our society, we would always have to face Vietnams of one type or another constantly. 

(From “A Time to Break the Silence”: 

“ ... (W)e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” )

Do you feel that the Civil Rights movement accomplished all of its goals? 

My own understanding of what we were engaged with in the 1960s was the expansion of democracy in America, not just to do things for black people. I see all of us, all colors and backgrounds, still having at this moment to continue to expand democracy. It always needs expansion. My deepest concern is for the education for the poorest children — the ones who are least thought about in the rural and urban areas. There is no democracy if you’re constantly leaving people behind. 

Every generation has to move past thinking all is well because it’s well for them. People like gay, lesbian, transgender — those communities have to use their experiences to make their own contributions. Every generation has to remind the status quo that the status quo does not mean democracy. 

Is Black History Month is still relevant in 2013? 

You can use the black experience as a way of opening up American history overall — call it the New American History. That’s a story that benefits us all. The tendency is that if you’re going to be an American, you’ve got to forget your past. But I say that to create a more perfect union, you have to remember your past so we can get to where we need to go together. I am trying to get us to commit to the building of an America that will be up to the best dreams that our best people have developed. 

We’ve lived together now for hundreds of years, but it’s only in the last 50 that we’ve really tried to live as a multi-cultural nation that celebrates our diversity. In that regard, we still have a long way to go. 

“Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey”
Featuring Vincent Harding
Feb. 14
5 p.m.
Pasant Theatre, Wharton Center for Performing Arts