At a long wooden conference table, 20 University of Colorado students sat silently Monday listening to every word spoken by author, teacher and civil rights leader Vincent Harding.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that focused in a class before,” said CU freshman Mike Goodger.
Harding — former friend and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. — spoke to the students of CU professor Dorothy Rupert’s Civic Engagement class at the State Capitol in Denver.
“We are sitting here with a piece of history,” Goodger said. “Somebody this important will definitely make an impact on you.”
Harding became known for authoring MLK’s anti-Vietnam speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” and has since authored several books including “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.”
Harding is chairman of the Veterans of Hope Project: A Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal, at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
“He really epitomizes civic engagement,” Rupert said. “Who better to talk to the students about what it means to engage in activism and stand up for their beliefs than someone who was so strong during the civil rights movement?”
Despite Harding’s immense knowledge on civic engagement, he spoke for less than half of the hour-long session with the students, instead focusing his attention on them.
For the first 30 minutes of his talk, Harding asked each student a list of personal questions involving their family history, future plans and what civic engagement means to them.
Harding said he was trying to create a community in the room to increase the students’ participation and understanding of the discussion.
“Community helps us be our best possible selves,” Harding said. “It’s the opportunity to hear from and talk to each other and a way of recognizing the humanity around them from which to build on.”
Harding watched intently as each student answered his questions, the pensive crease in his forehead growing deeper with each answer.
But as Harding began to speak to the students, his experiences blared through his voice as he unknowingly mimicked the words of his former friend and colleague.
“I asked you about (your future) because to have a dream means moving yourselves forward,” Harding said. “I’m encouraging dreaming partly because I’m convinced that no reality can come into being before someone can dream it first.”
Students elaborated on their “dreams” for the future and contemplated the challenges they would face realizing those ambitions.
“I like when he talked about how nothing is going to come easy, without challenges,” said CU freshman Hussna El-Yacoubi. “He made sure to encourage us to dream big but also warned us to be ready for a fight.”
El-Yacoubi said she was inspired in many ways by the words and the life of Harding.
“I wish all our speakers were that good,” she said.
The students remained in the room, asking questions and talking about his inspiration long after the allotted class time.
“I want these students to be moved to do something,” Rupert said. “Harding is an amazing man who has moved so many, and I think the students will really get a lot out of his talk.”
Rupert said Harding’s offer to speak to her class conveniently came during Black History Month.
“I want the students to realize the full opportunity they have to dream a new society and not be satisfied with this one,” Harding said. “I want them to dream more than that.”