Vincent Harding, an acclaimed historian, religious scholar, and activist known for his work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., believes America is a wounded nation. Even after so many years of struggle, he is convinced that America can and must get better.
Today Harding is the Chair of the Veterans of Hope Project at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, whose mission is to encourage a healing, intergenerational approach to social justice activism that recognizes the interconnectedness of spirit, creativity, and citizenship. On his 81st birthday, he spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at the Children's Defense Fund's recent conference urging all of his listeners to commit themselves to heal America and make our country what it should be.
He shared a line he heard a West African poet recite: "He made this fantastic statement that I want to pass on to you as a birthday gift. He said, 'I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.'" The poet was speaking about his homeland, which was going through political turmoil on the road to independence. But Harding said it applies to our current national spiritual and moral crisis: "We are citizens of a country that we still have to create—a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.
"I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist and that badly needs to exist. And I want to offer you the opportunity to celebrate my birthday with me by pledging deep in you that you are not going to give up this life without offering yourself totally to the creation of this country that does not yet exist."
Harding drew a comparison to the words of the brilliant African American poet Langston Hughes in "Let America Be America Again." That poem celebrates the poor, working class, and immigrant Americans from all backgrounds and colors who have always been the farmers, factory workers, and laborers on whose backs America was built.
Harding borrowed Hughes's refrain—"America never was America to me." He said: "We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. 'You've never been America to me.' But remember, Langston did not stop there. 'America, you've never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!' I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that."
Harding had a special message for people of color as we work to make America what it should be for us and every American: he said it is critical for people of color to remember "that we are no longer a minority."
As the election season winds to a close, candidates from all sides are still making their final promises about what they want America to be. Those of us who share Harding's vision—for that just, compassionate, multiracial, joyful nation that cares for children and elders, itself and the rest of the world, the earth's needs along with individual needs—must work to make that reality. Voting is always the critical first step. Then we must keep going—not only to demand our elected leaders make America what it should be, but to be leaders ourselves in our own communities for the America we want to see. We are citizens of a country that does not yet exist, but it is up to us to finally create and make it a just and hopeful land for all.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.