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Vincent Harding: An Open Letter to President Obama

Vincent Harding, a key figure in the civil rights movement and the author of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech condemning the Vietnam War, tells of his reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death and his hopes for a just peace.

MLK, photo from Library of Congress

Photo from Library of Congress

I was attending a conference on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, a conference focused on the education of black children, when I heard in my hotel room the first raucous news from CNN announcing the murder of Osama bin Laden; then came the words and images of the celebrations that followed. I become almost physically ill; and after attempting to express my distress to my deeply empathetic companion, I began to write these words:

Dear Martin, we hear you, again, wisely, lovingly warning us that the triumph of militarism leads surely to the defeat of humanism and democracy, to the loss of soul.

The CNN anchor calls this time of the killing “the president’s finest night.”  Oh, beloved Barack, are the brutalized crowds mocking you when they gather in front of the White House and chant, “USA, yes we can”? Have “we”—you and us—now created a more just and compassionate nation, a more perfect union? Have “we”—you and us—contributed to the building of a new world that takes us beyond the ancient, bloody goals of retribution, of killing for killing, of destroying our enemies?

Our brother, Martin, used to say, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leads nowhere other than to a blind and toothless generation.”

My beloved younger brother/son, what are you teaching the nation, this very needy nation? I feel something deeply tragic in all of this. I am terribly saddened to hear that the keepers of conventional wisdom are praising you for your “gutsy decision” to return evil for evil. What are we teaching our children, my dear son? What is the lesson for all the young men of the black and brown street communities? Could it be that our first president of color shows us how to deal with our enemies, demonstrates what it means to have “guts”? Will you now glory in this “victory”? (And what are the lessons here concerning what “victory” really means and how it is achieved?) And where do you think Jesus was? Where do you think Gandhi was? Where do you think Fannie Lou and Martin were when you went forward, locking arms—and steps—with your/our “intelligence community,” not even suggesting, as you sometimes sadly do, that some evils are necessary? But instead, apparently rejoicing and accepting praise for your “gutsy” decision to render and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a death for many deaths.

Break the Cycle of Violence, photo by Tania Liu
Time to End the War

Even before the death of Osama bin Laden, Americans  felt it was time to
begin bringing our troops home.

What is the message to the young boys, dear brother? Could those millions of young men (and increasing number of their sisters) in our schools, in our homes, in our prisons possibly think that OUR president really believes that you’re a punk if you don’t destroy your enemies—by any means necessary? Dear Brother Commander-chief, we now need you much more to be Teacher-in-chief. We need you to teach the children that vigilante action is not the pathway to humane, democratic development as a nation, or as individual citizens. Now that you have proven (to somebody) that you are capable of being Commander, we need you, the children and the adults need you, to offer guidance in the creation of a more perfect union. We need you to break out of the damaging, conventional lock-step to find and teach another way.

Somehow, my son, strange as it may seem, the “elite” Seals’ breaking into the bin Laden family quarters (with your permission) to perpetuate the ultimate invasive acts of retributive “justice” reminds me too much of all the terroristic lynch mobs we have known in our past. Where is the change? Where is the hope? Did your beautiful daughters ask you about bin Laden and the cheering crowds? What did you tell them?  What did the teachers at their Quaker-based school teach them? Is all this part of the face of the democracy that their grandparents—including the gutsy Stanley Ann Durham—dreamed for them, for you, for us? Our brother, Martin, used to say, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leads nowhere other than to a blind and toothless generation.” Is there nothing better for Malia and Sasha, for the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for the children of Chicago—for the children and grandchildren of bin Laden?

(A few days after that outpouring of questions, concerns and cries of the heart I knew that I needed to speak again from my heart to our president, my adopted son [who was born almost exactly 30 years after me—another Leo]. I remembered that it was not long after his inauguration that I had made a public promise to him that I would, whenever possible, try to accompany him through all the treacherous paths that I knew were ahead of him and us. [See my Hope and History, second edition, 2009, pp. 200-201.] So I felt I could not, as uncle, father and elder brother simply leave him with the questions. This final segment emerged out of my attempt to walk with him in integrity and hope.)

Dear brother, son, and beloved teacher-in-chief,

When you decide to explore another narrative, another set of lessons that may help you to open our nation—especially our young people—to the transformative, humanizing possibilities that sometimes exist within the tragedy of terrorism, please consider this:  If you and the family were able to look at the excellent documentary film Freedom Riders that appeared on PBS this week, you saw that magnificent, courageous and unsung hero of the Freedom Movement, Diane Nash, a native of your adopted hometown, Chicago. 

MLK Way, image by Jessica Keough

Image by Jessica Keough

I’ve know Diane since those powerful years in the 1960’s when my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were deeply immersed in the life of the southern movement. As I thought of your own calling to be teacher-in-chief at this time I remembered especially the weeks that Rose and I spent with Diane and her late husband, Jim Bevel, during the dangerous, challenging times of the 1963 Birmingham (Alabama) Movement. As you know,  those were days when children the age of your daughters played such a vital and courageous role in breaking open Birmingham and the nation to a new beginning of creative democratic possibilities beyond the destructive paths of white supremacy. Not surprisingly, it was vivid memories of those days in Birmingham (appropriately known as “Bombingham” by the African-American community) that rushed back into me when I heard of your “justice” raid on the bin Laden family quarters. 

I remembered especially the deadly terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church just a few weeks after the March on Washington. By that time both the Hardings and the Bevels had left Birmingham, but we knew that the 16th Street church had been the primary rallying place for the victorious forces of the Movement, and we remembered the insistent, enthusiastic presence of the children and young people among us and the great enthusiasm with which they had marched out of that building to face the police and the dogs, the high powered fire hoses and the jails awaiting them. 

But it wasn’t until years after the bombing, after both Rosemarie and Jim had gone on their way beyond this life that Diane told me the story of the way she and Bevel had initially responded to the horrific news of the terrorist bombing and the death of the four Sunday School girls. I pass the story on to you with loving concern and unvanquished hope.

Diane said that she and Bevel were visiting with another freedom-worker in another state when word of the bombing and the deaths reached them. Those were two of the most creative, courageous and committed practitioners of non-violent struggle in the Freedom Movement, and I still remember the deep expression of pain that covered Diane’s face and filled her voice as she told me of their immediate response to the news. It almost literally knocked them off center, and they first began talking and making plans to return to Alabama and give themselves totally to the task of discovering who had committed this atrocious crime and track them down to personally make sure that they would never live to do such an act again. They were determined to seek retributive “justice.”   

Gradually they realized that they were in danger of being sucked into the very terror that they despised. 

Then, as they talked and planned, Diane said it was as if they suddenly came to themselves and remembered who they were and what their work really was. Gradually they realized that they were in danger of being sucked into the very terror that they despised. They heard Gandhi and Jesus. They heard Fannie Lou Hamer, Jim Lawson (their powerful teacher) and Martin King. They heard the wisdom in their own hearts and knew that the best way for them to be faithful to the teachers, to their comrades, to their movement, to those four young girls, and to themselves, was to take the fire burning within them and re-direct it to an even more fierce determination to return to Alabama. Only this time they knew that they should go to Selma where the courageous black citizens of that deeply racist city were currently working with the indomitable friends and co-workers of Diane and Jim in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Working together across generations, SNCC and the Selma folks were challenging all the legal and illegal, all the internal and external barriers to black participation in the right to vote. Risking their lives to challenge white supremacy, the Selma voter registration movement was eager to have young veterans like Diane and Jim join them (Eventually of course Dr. King would also come to stand with the local forces).

As they wrestled to formulate their best response to the Birmingham terror, Diane remembered, she and Jim finally decided that the response to white terrorism that would be most fully in keeping with their own deepest convictions would be to work tirelessly in Selma and elsewhere to help place the power of the vote so fully and firmly in the hands of the black citizens of Alabama that they could create a new reality, a new setting in which such terror would never find a place again.

Celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden, photo by Andrew BossiI'm Looking for Justice, Not Vengeance
A 9/11 widow on working for peace when the world expects you to want revenge.

Of course, you realize, my teacher-in-chief, that the powerful voting rights campaign that led eventually to the iconic nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery (developed largely out of the organizing genius of Jim Bevel) and then to the historic national Voting Rights Act of 1965, provides much teaching material: In a sense, it could be said that when Diane and Jim chose not to enter the trap of “an eye for an eye” they became free to help open up vast new creative and democratic possibilities for a people , a state, a nation and a world. In a deep sense, dear brother, they opened the way for you.

I think it’s your turn now. Break free, walk free, my son. I’m sure that not only the ancestors (like your momma) and old men like me, will accompany you. Diane (still very much alive) and the girls from 16th Street Baptist Church—and Sasha and Malia—are very likely available as well.

If you start teaching free, walking free, my son, you’ll be amazed at who will walk with you and where the road may lead. Perhaps walking, leaving , teaching together we’ll even find a creative, life-giving and democratic way to remember the coming 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001. Perhaps it can even be an anniversary without drones and their “Hell-fire” missiles. 

Our children need that, don’t they, dear teacher-in-chief? Shall we walk?


Vincent HardingDr. Vincent Harding is a veteran of the southern Freedom Movement and a co-founder and co-chair of the Veterans of Hope Project

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