Vincent Harding’s There Is A River: The Black Struggle For Freedom In America should, in my humble reading, be a required text in schools. Sometimes the history of the States coming into being and then coming to power can seem one long racist orgy of bloodletting, of “amalgamation and capital”, of inhumanity astride a whole continent. But that the resistance to that horror show has been ceaseless, often innovative and occasionally profound.
The particularities of our history have meant that black people have been the invariable recipient of exploitation and the repression it requires as well as the vanguard of resistance to it. Vincent Harding’s work, and especially There Is A River, helped me to pivot my entire viewpoint on that history. I used to look at a map of the States and see only markers of savagery integral to its construction. It is possible now to see on that very same map everywhere signposts of struggles for liberation.
Harding is not just an historian but an activist. As confidant of Martin Luther King he largely wrote King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. All of those in Denver last month who feted King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and crowned Barack Obama as the herald of its fruition would do well to listen to that speech. Though Jesse Jackson says King would have supported the war in Afghanistan (if Obama didn’t support the war Jackson would hardly being using King in its defense) I tend to doubt it. King saw his government as the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and saw in the rebellions against that purveyance allies in the “revolution” that King envisaged.
Here Harding speaks about King as part of a lecture series on the African American Freedom Struggle at Stanford last year. His audience is largely those who benefited from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Obama’s candidacy is being hailed as the realization, and therefore the end, of that movement. Listening to Harding on King one realizes how false that proposition is.
Harding’s politics are firmly in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement; including some of its weaknesses. Non-violence as a principle sees in violence the base of society’s conflict whereas Marxism sees in violence the symptom of a conflict based on society’s division by class.* Where I see alienated labor he sees alienation from God.
That said, he is an extremely principled and observant man; radical and honest. An historian for whom history is a teacher to absorb and act on. There is a short introduction and then Harding opens with Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Would Know How It Feels To Be Free.”
* I have recently read and can’t recommend enough Isaac Deutscher on Marxism and Non-Violence. I can’t find it on line (if it’s out there please let me know). I have it in the collection Perry Anderson put together called Marxism, Wars and Revolution.