Place democracy's success ahead
of your own, says Vincent Harding

The idea of the American civil rights movement as a "dress rehearsal" for something even larger might seem incredible, considering the massive social and legislative changes that resulted. For civil rights pioneer and theologian Vincent Harding, the movement of the 1950s and '60s was a dress rehearsal for the late 20th century movement to expand democracy even more.

Nearly 100 people attended a Feb. 6 Black History Month address given by Harding, professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology, University of Denver. In his talk, titled "The African American Freedom Movement: Rehearsal for America," Harding also challenged students to do as their counterparts of 30 years ago did and place the success of a movement above their individual success.

"I am coming to your for assistance in the work I'm doing to figure out a dual obsession," Harding told his audience. "This first is a deep, nagging obsession with the future of democracy in America and the world. I think we've seen that democracy never comes in as if the winds of March, but must be fought for, struggled for, developed, nurtured and deepened for it to provide a rich life."

Harding's second obsession concerned Americans' capacity to realize their own best humanity. "We don't come to that kind of humanity automatically," he said. "It
has to be struggled for. So the question is, how do we struggle for our own best humanity?"

Harding said he has come to believe that the civil rights movement was "an initial exploration into the pro-democracy movements of the late 20th century," and may prove to be an important resource for continuing the struggle for expansion of democracy in the United States.

Just as the struggle for freedom for African Americans in the South required a variety of national and local organizations focused on that goal, Harding said the larger, more complicated struggle for broader freedoms throughout America will require even larger networks of new and old organizations committed to the expansion of democracy.

Expansion of democracy, Harding said, refers not only to the continuing struggle of African Americans, but also of all minorities as well as women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities and lower-income citizens.

"I'm not only talking about organizations, I'm talking about individuals as well, and that includes individuals not of high profile," Harding said. "There have been lots of individuals who decided it was time to make the issue of social justice and freedom the central concern of their lives." Harding said those individuals chose not to follow the path of career advancement in order to advance democracy's career in America.

"This was part of the rehearsal," Harding said. "Young people were rallying points of dedication. Do we see those kinds of individuals emerging today in the struggle for the advancement of democracy? There must be people who are willing to take themselves out of the mainstream and do something difficult. The civil rights movement was grounded in people who took themselves out of the traditional path and said, 'We've got a job to do that's more important than anything else.'"

-Dan Treadaway

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