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'Be maladjusted': King friend tells Bethel audiences the message rings true after 50 years

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In early 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood behind a podium in Memorial Hall on the Bethel College campus and told his listeners they needed to be “maladjusted.”

Fifty years later, his friend and co-worker in the Southern Freedom Movement (what the popular press dubbed the Civil Rights Movement), Vincent Harding, stood behind the same podium on the same stage to say that the message remains the same.

“It’s magnificent to remember 50 years later the presence here of that marvelous human being, Martin Luther King,” Harding said, “but I’m also trying to suggest that remembering him from 50 years ago is not enough in 2010. The best way to stay in touch with that man and his visit here is to keep asking ourselves: ‘Now, where would he be encouraging us to go from here?’ Not just remembering, but walking the way that might carry us to the place he was hoping for and working for and trying to encourage us toward.”

Harding, professor emeritus of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, first met King in 1958 when Harding was part of a small interracial group traveling across the South that stopped in Montgomery, Ala., to visit with King (see sidebar below). Harding and his late wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, later moved to Atlanta, where they worked with King. In 1967, Harding drafted a speech that opposed the war in Vietnam and that King delivered in New York exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Harding’s visit – his fourth to the Bethel campus since late 1959 – was part of Bethel College’s annual celebration of the King holiday which this year included marking the 50th anniversary of King’s speech in 1960 as part of the now discontinued Memorial Hall Series.

Harding’s address was the keynote of an evening program that capped a day of remembering the historic occasion of King’s speech, as well as the remarkable recovery of that speech.

Earlier in the day, an overflow crowd filled both the seats and the stage of Krehbiel Auditorium on campus to listen to the speech played in its entirety. As Sondra Bandy Koontz, Bethel vice president of advancement, introduced the speech, she recalled that when planning began months ago for the celebration on Jan. 18, 2010, she had gone to the Mennonite Library and Archives to get a recording or transcript of the speech, only to find that as far as the archivists knew, none existed.

That discovery was “devastating,” Koontz said. “The speech was what we had planned to build the whole day around.” So Koontz had Director of Alumni Relations Dave Linscheid send an e-mail appeal to alumni asking for any memories of the speech. That prompted Randy Harmison, a Bethel graduate now living in rural eastern Kansas, to call Koontz and say he had taped that speech on his reel-to-reel recorder and he was pretty sure he still had it – was she interested?

“I didn’t know whether to shout, ‘That’s impossible!’ or ‘That’s incredible!’” Koontz said.

“There’s a lot to be said for ignorance,” Harmison noted later during a panel of Bethel alumni remembering their associations with King and the Southern Freedom Movement. “I was unaware of ‘intellectual property rights’ when I recorded the speech, or I might not have done it.”

In addition, the tape moved with Harmison and his wife to Kansas City and Rochester, Minn., before ending up in an unheated and unventilated storage shed near Erie, Kan., where it sat in a box for more than 25 years – and still survived intact enough for professionals to recover it to CD, allowing an enthralled crowd of 400-plus to listen to all 45 minutes of it, under the gaze of television cameras from all three Wichita stations.

In that speech, King challenged his listeners to resist the temptation to go along with the status quo and allow “what was, to be” – he challenged them to be, in modern psychological parlance, “maladjusted.”

“I’m proud to be maladjusted,” King said. “I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. I call upon men and women all over our nation, and over the world, for that matter, to be maladjusted.”

Harding returned to that theme in his own speech during the evening program, which also included songs by the Newton Community Children’s Choir and an excerpt of the recorded King speech.

“The last part of the Bethel speech – in his wonderful way, he was challenging us to be maladjusted,” Harding said. “We want to be adjusted to, in step with, the world. But can you really be a Christian and be ‘adjusted’ all the time? Was Jesus ‘adjusted’?”

Harding concluded his remarks by asking: “What do we need to be maladjusted to in 2010?” Among the answers, he suggested, are “to living in fear of terrorists. Fear will destroy us unless we mal-adjust ourselves to that. We will destroy our nation and our world unless some of us become maladjusted to that militaristic view of dealing with conflict.”

We need to be maladjusted, he said, “[to] the deepening re-segregation of the schools, not in Birmingham but in New York, Wichita, Chicago, Detroit, based not only on race but also class – to the terrible way we’ve come to live separated from each other. We need to be maladjusted to our disrespect for and destruction of the environment for economic gain. We are killing the source of our life. We need to be maladjusted to the fear of our sexuality and that of others, especially when it doesn’t fit our narrow understanding of what ‘natural’ is. … We need to be maladjusted to millions of homeless people on our streets.”

He opened the question to the audience, receiving such answers as: “to the fear of immigration, and to inhumane [immigration] policies”; “to capital punishment”; “to Christians who make it about prosperity and being American, not about what Christ stood for”; and “to the idea that we can learn anything about reality from television.”

“What must we change in order to be maladjusted?” Harding said. “What can we change that we’ve never changed before or try what we’ve never tried before?

“Martin King offers us a magnificent example – reminding us not to build monuments to his name but to carry out the work of building a better world.”

Note: On Jan. 21, 2010, exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Memorial Hall at Bethel College, Rachel Pannabecker, a member of Bethel’s 125th Anniversary Committee and the subcommittee in charge of planning the King Day celebration, delivered a CD and transcript of the speech to the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel, where they will remain permanently for research purposes.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.


‘Come work with us’

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Vincent Harding met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, when Harding was taking part in an experiment that could have gotten him killed.

A native of Harlem, N.Y., Harding served two years in the U.S. Army at Ft. Dix, N.J., following his college graduation. He then began to explore conscientious objector status.

He moved to Chicago for graduate studies at the University of Chicago and joined the pastoral team at a newly forming interracial Mennonite Church which met at the corner of Woodlawn and 46th Street in Chicago.

Many of the congregants of Woodlawn Mennonite Church were students at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago or the University of Chicago. “We were working on the development of an experiment,” Harding recalled to his audience at Bethel College’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Jan. 18. “We were trying to figure out how black and white people could worship together, work for a new society together, in a neighborhood where white people were running away.”

The group decided it would be a good idea to explore interracial cooperation on “the front lines” – the segregated South, where Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the late ’50s were bringing the struggle for “Southern Freedom” to the forefront of American consciousness.

“Young people talk crazy,” Harding said. “Then we got crazier” – when, in the fall of 1958, five men from Woodlawn (three white, two black) got in a car and drove through the South, “where it was illegal [to travel in a mixed group] and sometimes people got killed for it.”

Harding, along with Glen Boese, Delton Franz, Elmer Neufeld and Ed Riddick, went to Little Rock, Ark., and then drove across Mississippi and Alabama. “We had some great adventures and some big scares,” Harding said.

When they got to Alabama, the group decided they “shouldn’t be in Alabama without stopping to see if we could meet with Martin Luther King [then living in Montgomery]. In those days, you could go to a phone booth, find a phonebook and look up someone’s number. We called from Mobile, to give him a little notice, and Coretta answered the phone. She told us, ‘Well, he was stabbed [in Harlem by a mentally disturbed woman] a few weeks ago and he’s still recuperating and I’m not sure he can see you. But come on up and knock on our door, and I’ll see if he’s able to see you.’

“When she saw who we were [an interracial group], she said, ‘I bet my husband would love to see you.’ We spent a wonderful hour or hour-and-a-half with him. He wanted to know who we were and what we’d been doing. He was a gracious host – he joked with us and asked us all about ourselves. He told us: ‘You have my congratulations for getting this far alive.’”

As was typical of King, Harding said, “he wouldn’t let us leave without challenging us – especially the two black guys. He said, ‘You’re Mennonites. You know about nonviolence. Sometime you ought to leave Chicago and come work with us down here.’”

In 1961, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding moved to Atlanta, where the King family now lived, just around the corner from them. The Hardings opened Mennonite House, which became the first interracial community center in Atlanta. It was home to numerous Mennonite volunteers over the next several years and a gathering place for the Southern Freedom Movement.


‘Democracy demands loving community’

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Although Vincent Harding had been invited to Bethel College to give the keynote address at the college’s Jan. 18 evening program honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., his main purpose for being on campus Jan. 16-18, he said, was not to speak but to listen.

At a Jan. 17 dinner in Harding’s honor, sponsored by the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR), he said, “I have become almost obsessed with the conviction that for the future of this country, and especially the future of democracy in this country, we find out, and practice, how to talk to each other. If we have to have 2,000 dinners, [we must] take every excuse to be in touch with each other.

“I can tell stories about my friend Martin King,” Harding said, “but my primary agenda is to hear and know your stories, and see how we can help each other move from the place of our stories to the place of our future and how it should look – how we can take [and learn from] this particular point in our history, with the election of [Barack Obama in] 2008 and the amazing and frustrating year we’ve just passed through.

“Martin Luther King and the other grassroots workers [in the Southern Freedom Movement] were wonderful teachers and learners,” Harding continued. “How can what they taught go on? Use me as an excuse and an opportunity to talk about your issues and stories.”

He then invited attenders, mostly long-time associates of Harding and local community leaders and activists, to say whatever was on their minds. Fear seemed to be a consistent theme: fear that the hopes and dreams that followed the 2008 election were “unrealistic”; fear that there are “dangerous continuities between why we were in Vietnam and why we’re in Afghanistan”; fear that the African-American children of Newton are not learning their own stories and their people’s history and “don’t appreciate the price that was paid.”

“What power counters fear?” Harding said. “What comes to mind is [Psalm 23]: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … I shall not fear.”

Decades ago, struggling for African-American civil rights as part of the Southern Freedom Movement, Harding said, “We were like crazy people, singing ‘We are not afraid’ when our knees were practically buckling and we knew we could be killed at any moment.

“What we meant was that we were afraid, but we were not going to let that stop us.

“What is stronger than fear? The power of people together. Democratic citizenship is a tough job. It takes work, struggle. Without that, there’s no hope. We’ll either look for a great leader who will solve everything, or we’ll give up.”

The struggle is one “that demands loving community,” Harding concluded. “We need to get together not because it’s politically correct, but because it’s necessary. I encourage you to break out of any patterns that keep you from coming together. Recognize that it’s in coming together, whether [by virtue of] DNA or loving relationships, that we achieve our best selves.”

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