The Common Good

I've Known Rivers: The story of freedom movement leaders Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding

Date: September 18, 2002

"It all started with my slave great-great-grandmother who they say was brought over as a young child from the West coast of Africa," recalls Rosemarie Freeney Harding. "We called her 'Mama Rye.' She lived to be over 100. In an article she wrote for a newspaper down in South Georgia, she said that while she was in slavery she prayed that all of her children's children's children's children would be blessed. Oh my, yes. I think we have been reaping those blessings."

Every culture has an origin story, and most origin stories begin with the phrase "There is a river…." In West Africa, it is the Congo that holds the four serpents of creation. In India it is the Ganges, called by Lord Vishnu sansartarini or "Savior of this world." In the American southwest it is the Rio Grande, which gave birth to the Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo people through one of its underground lakes. In the Harding family, it is not an actual river that sustains them-though they live near the banks of Cherry Creek in Denver-but the river of blessing poured out on their lineage by "Mama Rye" from her slave days.

Rosemarie and Vincent Harding, founders of the Veterans of Hope Project, have been at the heart of movements for social change for the past 40 years. As Vincent says, "You can't start a revolution-only prepare for one." With their lives, and the powerful blessings of Rosemarie's "Mama Rye," they have laid groundwork of nonviolence and social justice that is rooted in radical spiritual freedom. In essence, they see themselves as servants of the ongoing movement for democratic transformation.

The Hardings met in Mennonite church circles in Chicago in the late 1950s. Rosemarie, a Chicago native with deep roots in South Georgia, was teaching elementary school and running a church-based social work program. Vincent had grown up in Harlem; after getting a degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York and a two-year stint in the Army, he came to the University of Chicago to get his master's degree in history.

During that time he also was part of an interracial pastoral team at Woodlawn Mennonite church. In the fall of 1958, a group of five men decided to try to drive through the South together. "We wanted to live out our convictions concerning race and brotherhood in the South for at least a little while without allowing ourselves to be separated as brothers," Vincent explains. They drove an old station wagon from Little Rock to Atlanta. Along the way they stopped in Montgomery and here Vincent met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time.

VINCENT REMEMBERS THAT KING was recovering from a serious wound he'd received that September in Harlem while on a book tour. A mentally ill woman had stabbed him with a letter opener. "He and Coretta were very gracious when they found out who these people were who just came knocking on their door. Martin said particularly to me and to the guys with us, 'You ought to come down here and work with us.' So that call reverberated." Within three years Vincent and Rosemarie were married and moved south to Atlanta. Officially they were there as representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee to the southern freedom movement. By chance and by grace the real estate brokers they were working with found them a large house at 540 Houston Street. It had been the childhood home of Mattiwilda Dobbs- the first African American to sing opera at La Scala opera house in Milan-and it was located right around the corner from Martin and Coretta King. "Martin and I renewed our acquaintance from the Montgomery visit," recalls Vincent. "Rose and I were often in their house and Coretta often came over to our place at Mennonite House." Like the activist center Quaker House run in Atlanta by John and June Yungblut on which it was modeled, Mennonite House aimed and succeeded at being "at once a school of contemplation and a hotbed of nonviolent revolutionaries." Because many of the Mennonite volunteers who came to live with the Hardings were white, Mennonite House became the first interracial community center in Atlanta. "We had some interesting visits from the police in the early days," says Vincent. "That became our base. Rosemarie and I went from there to work in many places in the South. Sometimes Martin would ask us to go with him to different places, specifically in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama."

ROSEMARIE RECALLS SOME of the people that came through Mennonite House: social activist Anne Braden; populist historian Howard Zinn and his wife Roslyn; Freedom Singer founder Bernice Johnson Reagon; and labor historians Staughton and Alice Lynd. Septima Clark, founder of the citizenship school movement, lived at Mennonite House and gave valuable counsel and spiritual leadership to the young residents.

There was also the firebrand activist and songleader Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer had been with Vincent at one of Septima Clark's citizenship training workshops in South Carolina when she made the commitment that she was not going to sit in a segregated bus. Soon after she was hauled off a bus in Winona, Mississippi, and beaten within an inch of her life. After that she came to Atlanta to be interviewed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and stayed at Mennonite House. Rosemarie recalls her beautiful spirit and sense of humor. "She was saying to Vincent, 'You know, if it hadn't been for you I wouldn't have got in all that trouble!' Her face was all swollen. She could hardly speak. Her eyes were mostly closed. And yet she could joke and laugh and her spirit was just wonderful."

The Hardings also had a close relationship with Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia. Koinonia was founded in 1942 by Florence and Clarence Jordan as a pioneering interracial community where blacks and whites could live and work together in a spirit of partnership. Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Koinonia Farms withstood firebombs, bullets, Ku Klux Klan rallies, death threats, property damage, grand jury investigations, and economic boycotts.

"We used Koinonia as our retreat center," says Rosemarie. "We'd help them plant seeds, build things. We would secretly visit local sharecroppers and carry food and clothing and boards for their hole-infested cabins. Then Clarence would give us a special honor by holding forth with his ideas and concepts, many of which were later published."

In 1964, the Harding family, which now included Rachel Elizabeth, went back North, trying to get rest and renewal. They lived for close to a year at Reba Place Fellowship, a Christian community outside Chicago, until Albert Manley, president of Spelman College, asked them to come back to Atlanta to teach.

In 1966, Jonathan Barth DuBois Harding was born. Both Vincent and Rosemarie were working harder than ever, traveling throughout the south to organize and conduct workshops in nonviolence and racial reconciliation. Vincent was chair of the history department at Spelman and continuing to teach. Rosemarie was teaching elementary school. She also helped to develop Atlanta's first interracial nursery school; aided in negotiations with the school board for the integration of Atlanta's public schools; and worked with a citywide parent-community organization to ensure the hire of the first Black superintendent of the schools.

THEN CAME MARTIN LUTHER KING'S assassination in 1968. Soon after King's death, Coretta Scott King asked Vincent to work with her to found the Martin Luther King Jr. Documentation Project and the Memorial Center. He became the first director. Today it is known as The King Center-dedicated to teaching the world about Dr. King's philosophy and methods of nonviolence in advancing the Beloved Community.

In 1969, working with a group of friends and colleagues, Vincent founded the Institute of the Black World. "The Institute," he recalls, "grew out of the development of the Black power/Black history/Black consciousness movement. Our mission was to help define the field of Black studies and to give it the kind of focus and attention that those of us who had been involved in the struggle for Black freedom would want it to have." The Institute organized the first national gathering of Black studies directors and went on to provide intellectual and ideological guidance for the growing Black political movement.

In 1974, the Hardings moved again-this time to Philadelphia, where Vincent taught Afro-American studies at various universities. They lived for a time in the '70s at Pendle Hill, a Quaker-sponsored study and retreat center near Philadelphia, teaching about the relationship between the healing of the person and the healing of the society. Rachel graduated from high school and went on to Brown University. Vincent began writing There is a River-a monumental overview of the Black struggle for freedom in pre-Emancipation America-which opens with the lines "On these shores, near the mouths of these rivers, we first saw the [slave] ships."

In 1981, the Hardings received an unusual offer from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. As Vincent tells it, they recruited him as a result of reading his writings. They didn't want him to fill a slot. They wanted to adapt themselves to the direction that he deemed theological education ought to be going at that point in history. "By and large, Iliff has been pretty faithful to that promise," says Vincent. "I was the first person of color on their faculty and they made it very clear that they had no intention of my continuing to be the only one. A couple of years ago about one-third of the faculty were people of color."

It was in Denver that Jonathan graduated from high school and went on to attend the University of Denver. Eventually, he moved to Japan to teach English and now lives in South Korea, again teaching English.

IN 1997, ROSEMARIE AND VINCENT founded the Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal, which became the Veterans of Hope Project. Rachel began as the associate director and is now director. An essential part of the Project's work is videotaping public interviews with veterans of various struggles for freedom and compassionate social change in the United States, as well as pro-democracy movements from around the world. "One of our major purposes was to gather the stories of women and men who have been working for compassionate social change with some kind of spiritual ground," says Vincent. "We became convinced that it was necessary for a younger generation to constantly hear these stories that are so often devalued by the mainline American culture. Most of mainstream America has no sense of the power of religion and spirituality that were part of the Freedom Movement."

The Veterans of Hope Project staff has produced the first five video interviews with freedom movement leaders James Lawson, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ruby Sales, Gwendolyn Simmons, and Andrew Young. More than 45 other interviews with women and men from many traditions of struggle have been conducted and await funding for final editing.

In January 2002, Rosemarie and Rachel took a group of Brazilian herbalists and healers to a conference on West African traditional medicine in Benin. "I'm learning more and more about my ancestors," Rosemarie muses. "I think this great-great-grandmother [Mama Rye] is teaching me a great deal about what it really means to be compassionate. I'm mentioning this because this is the tradition that my nieces, nephews, my own children, are carrying on. I can't understand it. Where do these blessings come from? I don't think it is consciously done. Then I remember…it's those prayers [from Mama Rye] flowing over our family."

The Hardings are cultivating a tradition of volunteerism, hospitality, and healing, as Rosemarie describes it. Their work continues in that spirit. It springs from a desire to experience the deep mystical underpinning of the world's spiritual traditions and to manifest that knowledge in terms of compassion for others, but also in terms of one's own spiritual development. Rosemarie recalls something her mother once told her. "You know," Mama Freeney said, "everything else passes, everything else will be destroyed, but the only thing that is going to be left is love. So when you die, don't worry. The insignificant things will all go away, but that most significant thing will stand the test."

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners magazine. Reprint only with permission of the author.


A Life Together

Rosemarie Florence Freeney and Vincent Gordon Harding

1948 Vincent graduates from Morris High School in the South Bronx, New York. Rosemarie graduates from Carver High School in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project in Chicago.

1953 Vincent serves two years at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, in the U.S. Army as a Private, First Class. He begins exploring conscientious objector status.

1955 Rosemarie graduates from Goshen College and works at Bethel Mennonite Church in Chicago, does social work, and teaches on the West Side of the city.

1958 Vincent goes south for the first time with an interracial team of five from Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. In Montgomery, they meet Dr. and Mrs. King. King tells Vincent he "ought to come down here and work with us."

1960 Rosemarie and Vincent are married by Delton Franz and Paul King on August 7 at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago.

1961 The Hardings move to Atlanta as representatives of the Mennonite Service Committee to the Southern Freedom movement. They start Mennonite House at 540 Houston Street, around the corner from the King family.

1962 Rachel Elizabeth Harding is born. The Hardings work with King on the Albany Movement and meet Bernice Johnson Reagon and the Freedom Singers.

1964 The Hardings return north and live at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois.

1965 Spelman College president Albert Manley invites them back to Atlanta. Vincent joins the Spelman faculty as chair of the department of history and sociology. Rosemarie helps establish the first interracial day care center in Atlanta and, with the Guardians-a local parent-community organization-helps hire the first Black superintendent of schools in Atlanta.

1966 Jonathan Barth DuBois Harding is born in Atlanta.

1968 Dr. King is assassinated in Memphis. Mrs. King asks Vincent to help her found the Martin Luther King Jr. Documentation Project and Memorial Center in Atlanta. He becomes its first director.

1969 Vincent is founder and director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, dedicated to defining the field of Black studies.

1972 Vincent, Lerone Bennett Jr. and William Strickland from the Institute of the Black World work with the steering committee in Gary, Indiana, to plan the first National Black Political Convention.

1974 The Hardings move north to Philadelphia. Rachel and Jonathan attended Freedom Library Day School-an independent Black school project founded by John Churchville. Vincent serves as a visiting professor at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

1979 Rachel graduates from high school in Philadelphia and the Hardings move to Pendle Hill, a Quaker-sponsored study and retreat center near Philadelphia.

1979 The Hardings lead intergenerational retreats for veterans of the civil rights movement and younger people to reflect together on the connection between spirituality and compassionate social transformation.

1980 Vincent publishes The Other American Revolution, a history of the Black struggle for freedom in America. Rosemarie travels to Brazil with the American Friends Service Committee to observe base Christian communities and meet with nonviolent organizations.

1981 The Hardings move to Denver, where Vincent serves as professor of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology. Vincent publishes There Is A River. Together the Hardings teach classes on healing, nonviolence, and transformation.

1983 The Harding family researches and retraces the trails of the Underground Railroad for National Geographic magazine. (The article, written by Vincent, was not published).

1984 The Hardings coordinate the first multiracial Witness for Peace delegation to Nicaragua.

1986 Vincent and Rosemarie are advisors for the PBS documentary television series "Eyes on the Prize (Parts I and II)" on the modern civil rights movement.

1990 Vincent publishes Hope and History. Rosemarie travels to Dharamsala, India, to study Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama and the philosophy of nonviolence among Tibetan refugees in India.

1991 Rosemarie returns to India to study the Gandhian nonviolence movement.

1993 Rosemarie and Rachel travel to Ghana with a delegation headed by Ndugu T'Ofori Atta from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

1997 The Hardings found the Gandhi-Hamer-King Center for Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal based at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. This becomes the Veterans of Hope Project. Rachel Harding serves as associate director.

2000 The Hardings and Veterans of Hope Project staff produce the first five video interviews with civil rights leaders. More than 45 other interviews are completed and await funding for final edit and distribution. Rachel, Rosemarie, and Jonathan lead a study tour to Brazil focused on Afro-Brazilian religion, culture, and activism.

2002 Rosemarie and Rachel take a group of Brazilian healers to Benin for a conference on West African traditional medicine. The Hardings lead the first annual Veterans of Hope retreat at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

2004 Rosemarie Florence Freeney Harding dies in Denver, Colorado.

2014 Vincent Gordon Harding dies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.