You Need to Have a Dream, Veteran U.S. Civil Rights Activist Tells Obama After Visiting West Bank

Vincent Harding, a friend and associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, says Washington should reexamine its relationship with Israel in light of its 'official policy toward the indigenous Palestinian populace.'

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

"In one of my letters to my brother and son, Obama, I suggested to him that what he needed was the courage of his mother and the willingness to take chances that she represented in her life." The writer, Dr. Vincent Harding, is familiar to U.S. President Barack Obama, and we can assume that he also arouses feelings of affection, admiration and gratitude in him.

To Americans his name is immediately connected with Dr. Martin Luther King, because Harding was a close friend and partner of this leader of the struggle for equal rights in the United States, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The 80-year-old historian and theologian, a native of Harlem and a believing Christian, wrote (and says ) in polite words that Obama's problem is that he was not sufficiently daring.

"I quoted somebody [in the letter] who mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the ways he developed to serve the nation was that he was willing to go outside the traditional borders in search of advisors. He sought out advisors that nobody ever heard of, because he was willing to go out of the expected respectable ways.

"Obama was not able, was not free maybe to make those kinds of choices. Because, cautious man that he so often is, he probably didn't want to bring in too visible associates with him, too many people that would simply be counted as African Americans. I think he has continued to suffer from the paucity of creative inventiveness that deviate from the accepted norms."

Harding does not conceal the warm place in his heart for the black president: He formulated his opinions based on a reading of Obama's memoirs, which were written before Obama thought of running for the presidency. He saw Obama as a man of "deep integrity, intelligence and deep concern for those who were in trouble in this society and around the world," and in his opinion "he probably came into the presidency not recognizing all of the mechanism of American presidential power and responsibilities that he should take on and work with. I think he did think he was going to change much and did hope, but didn't know what a fight it would require.

"He still has a magnificent heart. What is happening to that heart, when he allows himself to be the keeper of the hit list of the CIA drones, is another deep and difficult question that I would not try to go into very much, but I often wonder what is the nature of the conversation that he has when, thank God, he tries as often as he can to sit at the dining room table with his daughters and wife and mother-in-law, because his girls are going to a Quaker school [belonging to a Christian denomination that is committed to social equality and an anti-militaristic approach, which supported King and his friends] and I wonder what kind of questions are coming up about what their father is doing, in the light of what I hope the school is teaching them."

Those remarks about Obama were given three days ago in the village of Nabi Saleh, in the home of Neriman and Bassem Tamimi, among the leaders of the popular struggle in their village.

Harding is a member of a delegation that is currently visiting the West Bank, composed of American social and political activists including several veterans of the struggle for equal rights in the United States, such as Harding and Dorothy Cotton, an educator and a dedicated activist since the 1950s who worked alongside King. The initiative for the visit came from the eponymous Dorothy Cotton Institute, an education and resource center that trains leaders for a global human rights movement.

Harding wrote King's speech against continuing the war in Vietnam, which was delivered to a huge audience at a New York church exactly a year before King's murder. Harding reassures us that King usually wrote his speeches by himself, but "at the time he apparently assumed that college professors had more time than freedom leaders."

They formulated their views against the war together. Harding and King told the skeptics within the black community that "we have been very glad whenever voices came from outside the U.S., especially from the Third World, to stand in solidarity with us."

For the same reason it is natural for Harding and his friends to come now and listen to the Palestinians and Israelis who are actively fighting the occupation: In Jerusalem and Bil'in, Ramallah, Hebron, the Deheisheh refugee camp and the village of Walaja. One of the things that he learned immediately in the first two days was "how ignorant I was about what is really happening in this part of the world, how little I know and how little I have thought about how little I know - which is not characteristic of me. I come to this situation not simply as somebody who has been involved with non-violent actions of various kinds over many years, but as someone who for some known and unknown reasons, ever since I was in high school, was deeply concerned about learning about the Holocaust.

"Part of it was inspired by the Jewish teachers that I had in high school, a number of whom loved me deeply and inspired me to take my own possibilities very seriously, and then going on to the City College of New York. When I went there in 1948 it was still about 96 percent Jewish in the student body, I was surrounded by the world of the children of the Holocaust and survivors themselves, and that was all part of my reality.

"I also was closely related to some of the many Jewish people who had come to join us in the freedom movement in the South, and some gave their lives for that. So I came to this situation with all kinds of sensibilities. That's part of the large space that I have, to be deeply hurt by what I have seen and felt.

"I come from an American situation in which apartheid has been in one shape or another the reality of the country from its beginning up to the 1950s and 1960s, and then a struggle with how to get rid of it. As I have listened to my sisters and brothers here I felt familiarity and identification. I could identify on both levels - it's important to emphasize I came here as someone deeply in love with specific Jewish people, and deeply concerned by the great tragedy of the Holocaust experience. I came here as someone who experienced and fought against racial segregation and racial domination for half a century or more. So all this was very fresh and painful to me and very recognizable."

And what will you do now with what you've learned?

"I have been gifted with a great network of acquaintances, friends and colleagues, and I see a great responsibility right now to disseminate this knowledge and information in writing and by word. I will meet with lawmakers."

And with Obama? "If I could I would, if people I know, who have some access [arrange a meeting]. I believe deeply in participatory democracy, so that my focus is not simply on Obama but on the people who must push Obama for a reexamination of what our relationship to Israel is all about, in the light of the official Israeli policy toward its indigenous Palestinian populace."

But this is American policy no less than it is Israeli policy, which people in America also want.

"People wanted segregation until a major movement against it created a change." .

Harding in A-Nabi Saleh, in the Tamimi home.Credit: Amira Hass



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