The Council of Elders

Vincent Harding is a professional historian who also made history himself. In 1960 he and his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding immersed themselves in the Southern Freedom Movement (a phrase Harding prefers to the Civil Rights Movement), working throughout the South in the anti-segregation campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Since then he has tirelessly chronicled the movement in a series of books—including Hope and History and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero—and was the senior academic advisor to Eyes on the Prize, public television’s definitive documentary history of the movement.

Dr. Harding’s drive to tell the story of this movement was never a simple matter of buttressing its place in American history—though, in itself, this was a vital undertaking in a nation that tends to erase the experience and achievements of people of color.

More important than this for Vincent Harding has been the critical importance of harvesting the improvisational wisdom of what happened. How it caught fire, how it sustained itself, how it wove a resilient canopy of meaning and transformation, often at exceedingly high cost.

Why remember with such tender but steely precision? Because clear-sighted memory can sometimes help us scratch out the tactical lessons and the existential gumption that is needed to continue the monumental work that people like Vincent Harding, who turned 80 this past summer, set for themselves back then: creating a multiracial, democratic, egalitarian and nonviolent society.

In a strange way, “back then” is “now.” Not that the America of 2011 looks exactly like America of 1963. No, the Southern Freedom Movement made sure of that. But there is much unfinished business. The return of the repressed can only be forestalled so long.

This reverie on our past colliding with our present—and the notion that there is less separation than we might think, that the present crisis is a continuation of previous ones, and that the lessons of one “experiment with truth” are available for another—came into sharp focus as I watched a YouTube video of Dr. Harding addressing Occupy San Francisco on November 20. It was a chilly Sunday evening, and he spoke into a bullhorn, amplified by Occupy’s human mic:

I am here tonight

I am here tonight

Because I have been in places like this before.

Because I have been in places like this before.

I was a dear friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was a dear friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We were in many places like this before

We were in many places like this before

And I know that, in some way, Martin Luther King is here with you tonight.

And I know that, in some way, Martin Luther King is here with you tonight.

I come here with the Council of Elders

I come here with the Council of Elders

Just to let you know

Just to let you know

That we are with you.

That we are with you.

By now, this call-and-response communication has become a commonplace feature of the Occupy movement. Nevertheless, it is symbolically indicative of Dr. Harding’s life’s work: sharing the reality of another time and place so that it is “channeled” and made use of here and now. In San Francisco he evokes another struggle—in many ways, the founding struggle—and some of its power is present here in this frosty encampment, including the spirit of the great Occupier, Dr. King.

Vincent Harding—joined by Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Cornel West, Rev. John Fife, and Daniel Ellsberg—were here to lend their support to the burgeoning Occupy movement. But their appearance was also part of a nationwide rollout of a new project entitled The Council of Elders. On November 20, the Council of Elders made its public debut at Occupy Wall Street in New York, Occupy Los Angeles, and Occupy Oakland in addition to Occupy San Francisco.

For a couple of years Dr. Harding, Rev. James Lawson, and his brother Rev. Phillip Lawson had been ruminating on this initiative. James Lawson was the pioneering nonviolence trainer of the Southern Freedom Movement; his brother had long been a pastor and community organizer engaged in numerous struggles for justice and peace. Together they dreamed of tapping and sharing the stories, insights and power of some of the leaders of what they deemed “the defining American social justice movements of the 20th century.”

Much had been learned—in success, in failure, and in the unfolding journey—in U.S. movement building across the decades of the 20th century. Could this somehow nourish and contribute to present struggles for a better world?

As they discussed this among themselves and with others, they began to envision a Council of Elders designed to “connect together the continuing flame of the democratizing movements of the 20th century with the powerful light of the emerging movements of the present time” and to offer “the knowledge, the discipline and vision to the nonviolent movements of this day.”

Slowly this vision solidified, and an Organizing Committee for the Council of Elders emerged, composed of a host of powerful catalysts for social change: Dolores Huerta, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, Marian Wright Edelman, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. Dr. George (Tink) Tinker, Rev. John Fife, Dr. Mel White, Rev. Nelson Johnson, and Joyce Hobson Johnson, as well as the three initiators.

I first heard about the Council of Elders eighteen months ago from Dr. Harding, when it was still in the brainstorming stage. What struck me in his articulation of the project was the emphasis on dialogue and the longing to listen, especially to and with young people. While he was convinced that movement organizers from the last century have something enormously valuable to offer the present generation, he seemed to be also saying that this sharing could be a contribution to a mutually enriching conversation and partnership with those immersed in the crises of the present. The Elders, Dr. Harding seemed to suggest, are not safely confined to the past. They are engaged with the now as much as anyone.

This comes through in Vincent’s resolute love letter delivered in person in San Francisco, and the one Phil Lawson and others delivered the same day in New York.  A tone of support and gratitude is struck, as well as the sense that the energies once unleashed in a spectrum of movements over the past 60 years is being unleashed in a new and largely unforeseen way, thanks to the creative and multiplying initiatives of the Occupy movement.

This past April I experienced a mini-Council of Elders in the spirit and presence that Dr. Harding brought to a one-week course he and I taught at Soka University in Southern California entitled, “Eyes on the Prize: Whose Eyes and What Prize in 2011?” It was a marvel to experience the space Dr. Harding created, which was deeply dialogical and reverential of every student’s history, questions, and wisdom. It was in this atmosphere of respect and dignity that Dr. Harding, using videos from the Southern Freedom Movement, was able to communicate the deep truths he had witnessed and experienced in that challenging, tumultuous, and transforming time. To a person, the ten students shared how their lives had been changed by this unforgettable experience.

One of the days we were at Soka was devoted to a Council of Elders Organizing Committee planning meeting. It was powerful to observe this visioning process at close range. If my experience of Dr. Harding’s interaction with the students that week is any indication, this growing network of wise and experienced catalysts for change will offer all of us future opportunities for mutually-transformative collaboration rooted in the power of the past and the challenges of the present.

To learn more about The Council of Elders, click here.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.