Dear Fellow-Elders: Celebration of Brother Vincent by Alan Gilbert

Dear Fellow-Elders, I am forwarding this celebration of Brother Vincent by Alan Gilbert, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver,, who also sent a poem by Brother Vincent, blazing with light, blazing with The Dark is Light Enough, that was published in 1966 but since then not well-known till now.  Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth! Rabbi Arthur Wasko
vincentharding
(Dr. Vincent Harding, July 25, 1931 – May 19, 2014)
     Vincent Harding was angered by and meditated on Jimmy L. Williams’ death in Vietnam in 1964 – Williams had served in the Special Forces – and the refusal of the “officials” (Ku Klux Klan) of Wetumpka, Alabama to bury him in the lily-white military cemetery.  See the story “Burial Rebuff Shakes Battlefront Buddies” here for statements about this by his fellow soldiers.  Vincent wrote this long poem, published in November, 1966, in Negro Digest which Sean Ray, who is writing a thesis on Tolstoy, Gandhi and King, discovered and transcribed.
***
    There was protest at the time, particularly by Jimmy Williams’ parents, and he was buried in the integrated Andersonville National Cemetery, near where Freedmen had celebrated emancipation:
       “In May 1966, 19 year old Jimmy Williams, an African American Green Beret from Wetumpka, Alabama, was killed in Vietnam. His hometown cemetery refused to allow him to be buried due to his race. His mother said, ‘My son died fighting on the front for all of us. He didn’t die a segregated death and he’ll not be buried in a segregated cemetery.’ Jimmy Williams was buried with full military honors in an integrated Andersonville National Cemetery, almost one hundred years after the Freedmen first celebrated their Emancipation only a few yards away.” (from the Andersonville National Historic Site website. h/t Sean Ray)
***
    Wetumpka’s cemetery remained lily-white…Being buried there currently is perhaps spiritually equivalent to being buried in a sewer.  Jimmy Williams is honored today at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, see here.
***
   Vincent speaks of the “gallant savagery” with which black soldiers, often abused in the well-equipped American army, murdered ordinary people in Vietnam.
***
      In 1967, Vincent authored the first draft of Martin Luther King’s memorable speech against the Vietnam War given at the Riverside Church  on April 4th.  It was a choice Martin made – being on the road 300 days a year, he asked Vincent to write it –  as an alternative to a fairly banal speech, and Vincent wrote words – listen here or  read it here  – which will live as long as American English is spoken.  For that speech is as true today of Obama’s drones, of CIA and Joint Special Operations Command secret activities – 12 raids in 70 countries every night –  as the day it was written.  For the militarized economy is “a demonic destructive suction tube” which steals resources from ordinary people, black, brown, red and white, which could be used for a common good (for an economy which works for all of us, as Bernie puts it) – and funnels them into crazy imperial, and losing wars in the Middle East and a gigantic $1.7 trillion a year war complex/militarism (short for military-industrial-corporate media-most politicians-academic-American trained and aided foreign militaries, and the like complex).
       President Johnson and the commercial media then condemned and ostracized King, a central cause of King’s murder 1 year to the day later, April 4, 1968, in Memphis.  Vincent spoke with many people, including me, of the guilt he felt that he wrote the words for which his dear friend was murdered.  James Lawson helped to lift the cross of this somewhat from Vincent who had asked him whether he felt guilty for inviting Martin to come to Memphis, and he said: no, it was Martin’s decision.
***
     From the age of 26 on in Montgomery, assassination attempts had been made against King; he told Coretta then that he would not reach the age of 40….
***
   In a conversation with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now on this speech in 2008, Vincent spoke of King’s magnificent craziness, of which there is something, as I saw in being with nonviolent village protestors in Palestine, in Dr. Harding also:
    “I think Halberstam was very, very much on the point there, Amy. I think that it is impossible to stand with the poor, to speak on behalf of the poor, without getting the kind of responses that people gave to Martin’s speech. He became a voice that was considered to be an alienated, out-of-his-arena kind of speech. And this was only natural in light of the commitment that he made. When you decide that you must go and stand and work with garbage workers, even though you have a Ph.D. in philosophical theology, it is only natural that many people who are accustomed to hanging out with Ph.D.’s in philosophical theology will say that you are crazy for hanging around with garbage workers. But Martin had a magnificent craziness about him that made him very uncomfortable for some people to understand and to live with.
But, Amy, what I want to remember is not simply what Time magazine said or what the Washington Post said, but what I want to remember is what Nina was remembering in her song, “The King of Love is Dead, What Should We Do Now?” What I also want to remember is that great Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, just about ten days before Martin was assassinated, Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way, and we must all engage with him in his way, because,” Heschel said, “the whole future of America depends upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” I believe that. And I think that that is part of the reason why so many people were so uncomfortable, because they knew that he was calling us to a way that was very difficult, a way beyond racism, a way beyond materialism and a way beyond militarism. And those are not easy ways to go.” See here.
***
        As an historian, Vincent also wrote the lyrical There is a River, the most powerful historical account of black people and the fight for freedom and decency in America up to the new opening, the hunger of poor, newly free blacks for reading and learning at the end of the Civil War. I had the privilege of going with Vincent to the meeting celebrating the 30th anniversary of its publication at ASALH (the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History) in Richmond in 2011, and saw at a Chapel at the Virginia Theological Union, stained glass designed with the picture of a black woman reading against a fence (see here.
***
    Vincent’s writings will live as long as people consider the struggle against the  long American genocides and its corrupt, imperial – and  self-destructive – wars.  This epic poem is part of the journey which Vincent made in writing these other works.
***
       Until Sean found this poem in The Negro Digest, I had not known that Vincent wrote poetry.  Published  in 1966, it traces four hundred years of violent oppression, celebrates Nat Turner but avoids his bloody hands, satirizes whites who murder blacks humming “John Brown’s body” (for reasons we never discussed, Vincent had a hard time coming to admire John Brown), comments sadly on blacks fighting in settler wars against indigenous people (to be slaves on the land seized) and ends on a vision of hope (Vincent founded the Veterans of Hope…)
***
     For Vincent, the way to his measured and profound nonviolence – mass nonviolent resistance – was through an anger which once sometimes sympathized with violence against the oppressor, even where he thought it unwise.  His profound nonviolence, to force oppressors to submit or hopefully change through nonviolent resistance and not to kill, a matter of spirituality and political judgment, was hard won and learned from and influenced many people, here and abroad (for instance, the courageous Bassem Tamimi – they called each other brothers –  whom Vincent stayed with in Nabi Saleh).
***
    Vincent’s poem cries out against a country which oppresses and throws away black people, uses them against native americans, celebrates them only when they “are gallant” and together with poor whites burn Vietnamese villages thousands of miles away, as King’s speech says, but will not let them live together in East Chicago or Detroit, a country which will not even  bury Jimmy Williams in the lily-white cemetery in Wetumpka…
***
     Wetumpka is still sick. There is no clear mention of Jimmy Williams even on webpage of the new Black History Museum, opened in 2015 here in Wetumpka…
***
“Or only black,” Vincent writes
                                     and dead,
                                     and gallant
                                     and slaves?”
***
     And yet even this poem soars at the end toward Vincent’s (and Martin’s) vision of a common place where everyone is recognized – who owns the water? Martin asked in 1968 –  or  a genuine democracy as Vincent would speak about in recent years…
    For King’s vision of black and white and native american and asian – all of us united in an anti-racist, multiracial democracy is the only one way forward against increasing, day by day, economic oppression and unjust wars.
***
    The racist grave yards of the South –  in Philadelphia, Mississippi, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, whose parents wished them to be buried beside each other after being murdered by the Sheriff and a reverend, leading a mob, could not be buried together…
         In response to the murders at Mother Emmanuel in 2015, the Confederate flag in Louisiana was taken down from public buildings  – Governor Nikki Haley nonetheless, deserves credit for responding to these murders – but the journey to make the South a decent place will yet take a long time…
***
    Here is Brother Vincent wrestling as a poet with America.  His dignity, and that of the great movement of which he spoke, contrasts utterly with, though it is a hope of, the America in which we find ourselves.  For America is, and remains an opponent, giving way but glacially at best, as Black Lives Matter heroically and tragically, shows (yesterday a 16 year old young man was gunned down in Utah for holding a stick – see here<http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=3BnXW2Uxqqc>).   How can Freddy Grey and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Walter Johnson and Trayvon Martin and so many others have been murdered, here and now, in America by officials as depraved and obtuse as those of Wetumpka, how can buildings still be named for the Klan-lover, segregator Woodrow Wilson at Princeton or University Presidents and other officials just not care that black folks are sometimes subject to derogatory howls in the night?

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