freedom's sacred dance
by Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding
Nearly 40 years have passed since the summer of 1961, when we left Chicago
to enter the powerful and transformative world of the southern Freedom
Movement. We had just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Rosemarie,
who was born in Chicago, was working as an elementary school teacher and
church-based social worker when we met. Vincent had come to Chicago from
New York to study history at the University of Chicago and to serve as
interim lay pastor at a small, southside Protestant congregation.
As representatives to the movement from the Mennonite Churches of America,
we moved to Atlanta, where we served as founders and co-directors of an
interracial movement center called Mennonite House. From there we traveled
throughout the South, participating in this spiritually grounded people's
All during that period, our children, Rachel and Jonathan, were with us.
They were often in our arms or on our backs during the marches. They slept
through the long meetings, but not before they had been greeted by our
friends and co-workers who became their uncles and aunts along the way. And
everywhere in the South they shared with us the marvelous hospitality of
black and white homes. They eventually grew old enough to participate in
such activities as leafletting on behalf of the first African-American
mayor of Atlanta. Deeply embedded in them were the songs of the movement
and the spirit to which those songs gave witness.
This movement for the expansion of democracy, the breaking of the long-held
power of legal segregation and white supremacy, and the reconciliation of a
shattered human community cannot adequately be encompassed in the term
"Civil Rights." It reached far deeper than any legalistic category, taking
its participants into an amazing human adventure that opened the way to a
transformation of persons, communities, a region, and a nation.
From our earliest days in that struggle, we realized that the world of
deep religious seeking and the world of expansive democracy-building were
one world, grounded in the grandest hope and possibilities of the human
spirit. Indeed, for many of those active in the Freedom Movement, the
motivation to enter the struggle, the courage to move relentlessly forward
as nonviolent soldiers against the terror of the white status quo, and the
vision of a new, desegregated social order were all fueled by great
spiritual and religious resources.
So when some leaders, like our friend Martin King, identified a central
goal of the movement in terms of "the beloved community," and others, like
our friend Ella Baker, envisioned and modeled a participatory, expanding
democracy, we knew that politics and spirituality belonged together, two
manifestations of the same empowering reality.
Everywhere we went, this dialectic of hope, this sacred dance between the
spiritual and political, appeared at the heart of the movement. In the
jails, where songs and prayers overcame moans and shrieks of pain; in the
church-based mass meetings, where action reports and sophisticated
strategizing melded into freedom songs, fervent prayers, and testimony
sessions; on streets and roads, where protest marches became spiritual
pilgrimages "moving on to freedom land," the dance continued.
During the system-changing march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, John
Lewis, whose life had already been profoundly changed, experienced "a great
sense of community," not only with his fellow marchers, but with the black
men, women, and children who dared to break from the roadsides with food
and drinks for the marchers, sharing a movable communion feast with
Protestants, Catholics, atheists, and other divine dancers.
And at the close of one day's march, Rabbi Abraham Heschel could testify
that "I felt as if my legs were praying."
In the closing years of the 1960s, many movement participants began to
speak and act as if spirituality and democratic political action were
opposed to each other. But we knew that we were called to another vision.
In classes, retreats, and onferences, and in published writings and private
conversations, we encouraged our movement sisters and brothers and others
to nurture the healing interplay between religion and democratic
We were encouraged in this dance not only through encounters with southern
movement veterans such as Bob Moses, but with other veterans of hope, such
as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; Julia Esquivel, the Guatemalan poet and
pro-democracy worker; Grace and James Boggs, the Detroit-based political
philosophers and organizers; Delores Huerta, the powerful farm worker
Howard Thurman, the African-American mystic and visionary; Jim Wallis of
Sojourners; Sulak Sivaraksa, the lay Buddhist pro-democracy leader from
Thailand; and our longtime friend, the poet Sonia Sanchez.
In the late 1970s, we spent two years on the staff of Pendle Hill, a
Quaker-sponsored study and retreat center near Philadelphia. Then in the
1980s and 1990s we began teaching at the Iliff School of Theology in
Denver. Throughout that time, we considered it our calling to gather
together veterans of the southern movement and other spiritually based
peace and justice workers, artists, teachers, and healers from this country
and overseas. We encouraged these carriers of hope to share their stories
of struggle, transformation, and healing with students, colleagues, and
At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, we led a series of
intergenerational summer workshops in Colorado. The retreats brought
together veterans of earlier movements for democratic social change
(especially in the southern struggle) with younger people. The young people
were just beginning their careers as change-makers, and they were seeking
to understand the role of religion and spirituality in their work and to
connect to the earlier struggles for change. Afterward, both younger and
older participants expressed a deep desire for continued opportunities to
gather in retreats and workshops for healing, refreshment, and the renewal
The Veterans of Hope Project is a response to these urgent calls. The
Project began in 1997 as an experiment in education for humane,
spirit-grounded social change. Based at the Iliff School of Theology, we
sponsor courses, a series of videotaped interviews, lectures, retreats, and
other programs that address the links between religion and social
The first series of the edited videos includes conversations with men and
women, almost all of whom remain deeply engaged in hard, demanding work for
^ James Lawson, the United Methodist pastor whose teaching
of nonviolent action and commitment to the poor were so vital to the rise
of the southern student movement and to Martin King's own development.
After retiring from 50 years in ordained Methodist ministry, Jim found time
this summer to be arrested in Los Angeles and Cleveland, first for
sitting-in with the Janitors for Justice and then standing with the
beleaguered community of gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in his own
national Methodist denomination.
^ Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founder of "Sweet Honey in the
Rock" who began her singing career first in church and then in southern
jails, on marching lines, and in movement mass meetings, and was
fundamentally transformed by the experience. Bernice continues to teach
for democratic change in classrooms and on concert stages.
^ Ruby Sales, who almost lost her life in 1965 when her
friend and co-worker, Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian, was murdered
during their voter registration work in Alabama. Ruby, a women's movement
and community organizer, recently completed her seminary degree and is now
directing a church-based community center in Washington, DC.
^ Zoharah Simmons, whose pilgrimage took her from a Memphis
Baptist childhood through Black movement leadership to the completion this
year of a long-sought doctoral degree. Zoharah all the while maintained her
own highly disciplined spiritual life and her commitment to justice and
peace, and is now a Sufi-based university professor of Islamic Studies at
the University of Florida.
^ Andrew Young, an ordained United Church of Christ
minister, has taken his sense of religious calling into a fascinating
variety of local, national and international political and economic venues.
Andrew commutes between the United States and Africa in a never-ceasing
commitment to the economic development of that continent.
But two of our favorite Veterans of Hope are Rachel Noel of Denver and
Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit. Having entered their 80s, these two women model
the advice of the late Fannie Lou Hamer: "Keep on Keeping On!" Doing so,
they remind us that the dance toward the more perfect union has always
depended on veterans like Noel and Boggs, who continue to put their arms
around the young folks and move on in loving determination, manifesting in
their lives the title of Grace's memoir, Living for Change.
In addition to these veterans, we have interviewed artists, teachers,
scholars, religious leaders, and activists (and some who combine all these
descriptions in their lives) whose spiritually grounded lives have focused
on transformative creativity. We have sat with sisters and brothers from
Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, and South Africa who have worked for
democratic social change. In each case the interviews have been part of a
larger process of nurturing hope and healing. Indeed, these engagements
with such committed and humane women and men have deepened our own
determination to continue and expand the working dance of healing our
friends, our family, our nation, and our world.
In the months and years ahead, our Veterans of Hope project will continue
to gather and share the sacred stories. We will offer intergenerational
retreats, focusing on the renewal and healing of those who work for
compassionate democratic change in this country and overseas. We will
continue to encourage younger artists, activists, and spiritual seekers to
engage with their older counterparts to nurture the work and the spirit of
one another, moving across lines of race, class, religion, and nationality.
And we will work with those who are also seeking to create living
connections between the search for "the beloved community" and the movement
toward "a more perfect union."
Such are the people who keep us going, and we know that our work is for
them and their great ----grandchildren. The dance belongs to us all.
---- Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding, themselves veterans of the southern Freedom Movement, are co-founders and co-chairs of the Veterans of Hope Project. Contact the Project at 2201South University Blvd., Denver, Colorado, 80210, tel: 303/765-3194.
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