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By John Pierce

Vincent Harding, who established a Mennonite ministry of justice and reconciliation in Atlanta in the ’60s, and wrote speeches for Martin King Jr., and later a biography titled, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (1996, Orbis), died this week.

News of his death brought sympathy for his family, a sobering reminder of how those in the forefront of the civil rights movement are moving on, and gratitude for spending an afternoon with this thoughtful, compassionate Christian two years ago.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Clarence Jordan (the New Testament scholar who believed what Jesus taught and put it into practice on a South Georgia farm) had a lot in common. Both were deeply committed to justice and willing to accept the high risks of living out the hard parts of the Christian gospel. And both were Baptists.

While they held the same ideals and goals, they differed some on methodologies. And during the heated struggle for civil rights the two met quietly in Albany, Ga., to discuss those differences.

That’s what Kirk Lyman-Barner, who coordinated a 2012 symposium on Clarence Jordan’s contributions, learned from Clarence’s son, Lenny. However, he also discovered that this significant story had never been published — and that it was the historian/activist Harding who had brought his two friends together for that discussion.

To my delight, Kirk invited me to conduct an interview and publish that story. We, along with videographer Scott Umstattd, met Dr. Harding at the Atlanta University Center in Atlanta where he was doing research and giving firsthand accounts of the civil rights movement to current students.

With great insight, Harding told of that December 1961 meeting in the home of an Albany physician in which the two Baptist ministers and advocates for justice debated the use of boycotts to bring social change.

King had found boycotts to be a good means by which to cripple economic systems and raise awareness of injustices. Jordan, on the other hand, had experienced the brunt of boycotts against Koinonia Farms by local businessmen who feared his embrace of racial equality.

Harding’s recollection of the passionate discussion he observed that day could well serve as a timeless model for how to constructively wrangle with opposing opinions.

He described King and Jordan as being “full of grace” and noted: “Both had developed a really impressive capacity to listen.”

While neither persuaded the other to his side, “They engaged each other with loving respect and clear disagreement.”

Too often, sadly, the former doesn’t accompany the latter. But it should.

Thank God for those who faithfully teach us — even after their earthly races have been won. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Jordan and Vincent Harding.

[The article from the May 2012 issue of Baptists Today is available here. And a video excerpt from the interview is here.]

 

 

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