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Global Perspective

America Will Be!

Conversations on Hope, Freedom, and Democracy—Vincent Harding and Daisaku Ikeda

Dr. Vincent Harding speaks at the seventh annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 2010. Photo by Marilyn Humphries

Ikeda Sensei has had dialogues with leading figures throughout the world to strengthen and advance the path to peace. To date, 80 of his dialogues have been published in book form. This new series highlights one dialogue a month.

The following excerpts are from America Will Be!, a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and Dr. Vincent Harding (1931–2014), historian, civil rights activist and confidant to Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Harding and Ikeda Sensei meet at Soka University, Tokyo, April 1996. Photo by Seikyo Press.

“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.”

Daisaku Ikeda: People with conviction and resolve to fulfill their mission find their courage. They have a fearless fighting spirit. And courageous people are always lighthearted and cheerful. Mahatma Gandhi observed: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”[1] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embodies this statement. You seem to be saying that so many people were attracted to Dr. King because of his extraordinary character and courage.

Dr. Vincent Harding: Martin’s courage was displayed in various ways, and the courageous actions that are especially noteworthy seem to be concentrated in the last year of his life. He was, of course, aware that he was a target and could be shot and killed at any moment. The great evidence of his courage was his refusal to turn away from his commitment to the struggle. He would not allow the threat of death to stop him from being a public figure and champion of the causes that were so important in his life and for so many people.

In a talk I was giving not long ago to teenagers at a Denver middle school, I mentioned that King knew that he could well be killed if he continued to speak and act on his beliefs. But I didn’t go into detail about it because I didn’t think it was necessary. Afterward, one young man came right up to me as I was preparing to leave.

He said, “Dr. Harding, I have a question to ask you.”

I told him: “Please ask. I love questions.”

He asked in a wonderfully youthful and challenging voice: “I want to know this: If Dr. King knew that he could be killed at any time, why didn’t he just chill out for a while?”

I paused for a moment, trying to think of a good way to explain to the boy what courage and commitment are. Just then, up walked a young girl about the same age, and she made it absolutely unnecessary for me to say anything. She said to her young classmate: “What do you mean ‘chill out’? He couldn’t chill out—he had work to do.”

This summed it up well. Martin’s courage came from his dedication to the work he felt was his to do on this Earth.

Ikeda: This explains it all, doesn’t it? I can picture you in this conversation with the earnest young man and the wise young woman.

In Dr. King’s words: “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it.”[2] Dr. King stood up to the evils of society and was prepared to accept the consequences. His determined action ignited a roaring blaze of courage in people’s hearts. The emergence of such an exceptional leader as Martin Luther King created the historical context and stage for a movement truly of the people, by the people and for the people.

The British historian Arnold Toynbee made an unforgettable observation about the requirements for leadership. He said in effect that the absolutely indispensable conditions for successful leadership are courage and confidence, as well as the ability to inspire these sentiments in the people’s hearts.

Toynbee added that it is also, of course, necessary for leaders and the people they lead to be linked by a common cause that appeals to the heart. If the appeal is sufficiently strong, leaders can inspire people to follow them into any venture, no matter how seemingly impossible.[3]

Courage is a value that is frequently emphasized in Buddhism. In the Lotus Sutra, which represents the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, courage is affirmed in expressions such as “They have exerted themselves bravely and vigorously”[4] and “the power of the buddhas that has the lion’s ferocity.”[5] We Soka Gakkai members have come this far by fearlessly embracing this spirit.

Without courage, we cannot create a just world. In addition, cowardliness may ultimately result in aiding and abetting the forces of evil. As my mentor often said, “It can be hard to summon compassion, but courage can take the place of compassion.”

Harding: At the same time, my friend, it is important for us to remember that it was often the courage and determination of the ordinary people that helped to inspire King to his best leadership. This was certainly the case in Montgomery, where he first arrived in 1954 as a twenty-five-year old graduate student and found a community already determined to work for change. People like Mrs. Parks (see Conversation Seven) helped Martin to discover his capacity for leadership, helped him to develop his courage. I have always felt that Martin’s life could be summed up in these four Cs: courage, commitment, creativity and compassion. These were at the heart of his being. (America Will Be!, pp. 59–61)

Photo by Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images


Editor of the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., and founding director of the King Institute at Stanford University

I have long known that Vincent Harding is the most profound living interpreter of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. His extended dialogue with internationally renowned Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda is packed with valuable insights about what Vincent calls the movement to “expand democracy in America.” These two extraordinarily wise, generous and compassionate intellectuals reveal their own backgrounds and experiences as they shed light on the contributions of major leaders such as King, Gandhi and Obama, while also calling attention to the roles played by women and “ordinary people” in social justice struggles. As Harding and Ikeda learn from each other, readers of this inspiring book can listen and be enlightened.

Photo by Earl Gibson III / Getty Images


Author, The New Jim Crow, and associate professor of law, Ohio State University

This book is a true gift. It’s a wonderful introduction to the spiritual values and moral commitments that animated the black freedom struggle, interwoven with brilliant reflections on the necessity of continuing the movement to expand and deepen our democracy. It is difficult to imagine two people better suited to engage in and to encourage such a deep, probing dialogue about the work that is required to build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy rooted in a shared awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all.

This book is available at


  1. Mohandas K. Gandhi, “The Doctrine of the Sword” in Young India, Ahmedabad, August 11, 1920. ↩︎
  2. Martin Luther King Jr., “Antidotes to Fear” in A Testament of Hope, p. 513. ↩︎
  3. Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, Choose Life (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007). ↩︎
  4. The Lotus Sutra and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, p. 56. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., p. 258. ↩︎

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