A Deeper American Dream: Wisdom from Civil Rights Veteran Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding, On Being (Creative Commons Licensed) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Black History Month, we share this excerpt from late Civil Rights veteran, Vincent Harding’s essay, “Is America Possible?” part of our Deepening the American Dream series. In it, he recalls a pilgrimage he took in 2005 to trace the roads travelled and honor the events that shaped the Civil Rights Movement.

To My Young Companions on the Journey of Hope
It is we African-Americans—when we have been at our best—who have insisted that the most authentic American dream is of a nation that does not yet exist, a transformed one whose complex richness we have occasionally sampled in harsh struggles for a new nation, one sometimes yearned for as “a more perfect union.” We sometimes courageously envision it as “the beloved community,” sacrificial experiences of persistent, redemptive work can urge the creative dream into concrete historical manifestation.

For just as “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of all the seekers for a new, just, and humane America in those days, so can “Si Se Puede” (“Yes, it can be done. Yes, we can do it!”) belong to all of us who believe in the transformative possibilities embedded in our lives and the life of our nation. So with all its awkwardness acknowledged, we may still dare to say, “Yes, we can be transformers and transformed, together with all of our newly arrived sisters and brothers.”

A Courtroom Exorcised: Commemorating the Life of Jonathan Daniels
Ruby [Sales, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker and friend of Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts who was helping register black voters] reminded me that this was the courtroom that was turned into a place of raucous celebration in 1965 when Tom Coleman was declared innocent of murder. Coleman was the local white community leader who had killed Jonathan and nearly killed Ruby before Jonathan shoved her out of the way and took the blazing shot in his own body. She remembered the time of Coleman’s trial in 1965 when she was finally allowed to come in out of the drenching rain to testify in the segregated courtroom about the murder of her friend. This was a courtroom where no black folk were allowed to sit—even to escape the rain. It was there that a man sidled up beside her to voice the threat that he would cut her throat if she testified against Coleman. But she testified and lived to continue the story.

Now, during this summer of commemoration forty years later, the same courtroom had been chosen to house the exuberant public meeting that celebrated the lives of Jonathan Daniels and other martyrs of the Alabama struggle for democratic hope….

What struck me was the extraordinary sense of exorcism that seemed to flood the courtroom on that weekend of remembrance. Both Ruby and I realized that there was a time, a very real and relentless time, when this courtroom existed in the terror-filled service of a powerful, seemingly inconquerable, and too long-lived American lie. This lie proclaimed that we are not all part of one family, one substance, one profoundly independent community of hope….

Those people who declared their lie to be the only truth of the world said in those earlier days that they had the power, had always had the power, would forever have the power, to enforce the lie, to keep it alive, to destroy all who dared live another dream, a great truth. They had the guns, the money, the color, the political power, and all the blasphemous sermons and unjust laws. 

Soldiers in the Army of Hope
But my dear young friends, those white power brokers had no songs. In the 1960’s, the songs were alive in Ruby and Jonathan and in all those who sang out at the mass meetings and on the streets and in the jails: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” And “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” And “Black and white together, we’re gonna let it shine.” Soon that August weekend in Haneyville in 2005, we retraced the path of sorrow that Jonathan and Ruby had walked from the prison to the place of his death and her traumatization—to find that the prison no longer existed. Moreover, the general store, the place of the murder, had become an altar of prayer and rededication to a new Alabama, a new America, and a new world. And the court of the upper room was a multiracial gathering place of hope where Jonathan and his martyred comrades were honored. Now Ruby stood for many in that place as she addressed the crowd, inviting us all to got through the terror of our past to create a new nation, a more perfect union, a deeper American dream. And the songs remained, calling new singers to join the world of our forbears, like soldiers in the army of hope…

The Land that Has Never Been Yet
Somehow, in a time like our own, when the capacity for imagining appears to be endangered, both by the technology of television and the Internet and by the poverty of public dreams, it seems especially crucial to introduce our students to the meaning of such a question as “Is America Possible?” And it is absolutely necessary that they discover the significance of the biblical text: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Indeed, it is precisely in a period of great spiritual and societal hunger like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision, and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the creation of new realities—especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and songs to become embodied; to take flesh, in real, hard places.

Find more Deepening the American Dream essays on fetzer.org.