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January 22, 2001

Harding calls MLK
'different kind of hero'

By Eric Rangus

Vincent Harding made sure his King Week keynote address was interactive, as the professor of religion and social transformation at the Iliff School of Theology turned the event into an intimate conversation.

“As I have gotten older, I’ve gotten less and less excited about lectures,” Harding said to a small gathering in Cox Hall, Jan. 16. “But I have gotten more and more excited about dialogue.”

So, following his 40-minute monologue about King, Harding took a seat and fielded several questions about his views, the meaning of King and even the academy’s place in such dialogues.

Harding spoke slowly throughout, allowing his words to hang in the air. And he used verbal irony to maximum effect, constantly referring to King as “our hero”—after bringing up qualities of his character and actions a mainstream audience may not see as “heroic.”

Harding called King an “inconvenient hero.” Not coincidentally, that term makes up the backbone of the title of one of Harding’s books—Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.

Throughout his speech, Harding gave examples of how the wholly middle-class King constantly identified with (and eventually gave his life for) poor people, while it is the primarily the black middle class now who holds him as its hero.

“It’s this lifestyle that’s not especially popular in our culture today,” Harding said: “Looking out for the poor, staying with people pushed to the margins, identifying with people called ‘the enemy.’”

Harding gave other examples of King’s ironic personality, such as his relationships with whites. “He spoke openly and clearly about [white racism],” Harding said. “He saw it as a great sickness for all society that had to be taken care of.

“Here’s the tricky part. He was willing to work against white racism and at the same moment nurture white friendships in his own life and work without contradiction. The challenge is to figure out how in a society it is possible to struggle against racism and put our arms around everyone who wants to go with us.”

The point of Harding’s words throughout his speech was quite clear: King’s actions may not jibe with current mainstream society because that society has yet to reach his level. The challenge is for that society, both black and white, to struggle to get there.

“We mush approach [King] a little more slowly, a little more regularly and a lot more deeply,” Harding said.

While he has been at the Iliff at the University of Denver since 1981, Harding is not unfamiliar with Atlanta. He once taught at Spelman College and was the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center. He and his wife, Rosemarie, were confidants of the King family in the 1960s, and Harding often referred to the civil rights leader as “Martin” during his speech.

Harding also has some experience at Emory. Not only are several of his papers archived Special Collections, Harding has spoken here several times, and he sharply recalled his first time on campus for his listeners. After asking how many students were in the audience, he lauded the handful in attendance who raised their hands.

He thanked them for their efforts in attending. “As I understand it, you’re not supposed to be here,” he said, referring to the fact that class did not start until the next day.

“My first time on the Emory campus, in 1961,” he deadpanned, “I wasn’t supposed to be here either.”


Back to Emory Report Jan. 22, 2001