We have just passed Martin Luther King Day (January 15th). The items on the newscasts started me thinking about the civil rights movement. I was reminded of something I wrote after attending the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival last summer. I went to my River and Bunions blog today to take a look at it and discovered that for some reason it wasn’t posted. So I’m re-posting it today, in the wake of the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s life and work and last weekend’s women’s marches:
Rev. Robert B. Jones, pastor, storyteller, teacher, musician, and activist was a joy to experience at the 2017 Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. I use the verb “experience” deliberately. It’s impossible to merely listen to Rev. Jones. Sitting in the audience at the Folk Steps Conference, singing along with him at the choral workshop, and being present for his Mainstage performance and the Sunday morning Gospel Concert, I felt that I was in the presence of an immense talent, a vibrant life force, and a gold mine of knowledge. He beckoned us to dip our toes in a deep spiritual well. When he told the stories and sang the songs of his forebears who lived in slavery, his words came from a place of profound personal connection.
I have attended this festival for twenty-six of its thirty-two years of existence. Every year, I have what I call “a Folk Harbour Moment (FHM)” – a moment that I’ll carry in my heart for as long as my memory allows. Most of my “moments” are shared by many and are readily recalled in conversations with folks who, like us, have been long-time supporters of the festival. My FHM this year was more personal and led me down a path of contemplation.
At the end of the choral workshop on Saturday morning, and then again on Sunday morning at the Gospel concert, Rev. Jones told the story of the origin of the song “We Shall Overcome.” The song probably originated as a spiritual, communally composed and changed as it was sung in the homes of slaves and in labour camps. In the early sixties, folk music legend and social activist Pete Seeger changed the melody to a marching tempo and popularized the version which became the well-known anthem for the Civil Rights movement. It was sung at marches and public protests, and in 1968, by a crowd of over 50,000 at the funeral of Martin Luther King.
As a child living in Canada, I vividly recall watching the supper hour news on television with my parents. I was horrified by the stories of lynchings and civil rights workers who went missing, their bodies being pulled from swamps days and weeks later.
I remember seeing little Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, being escorted by U.S. Marshals. She and I started school the same year. I didn’t have to walk a gauntlet of vicious white supremacists hurling obscenities and threats. I recall the grainy black and white images of the Detroit race riots in July of 1967, and the throngs of African Americans marching through the streets singing their anthem. And I can never forget the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King and the dignity and resolve of the African American people.
I replayed those news stories from my childhood as Rev. Jones led us in song, like an old reel-to-reel tape whirring in my mind.
“It became the practice at civil rights marches, for folks to cross their arms and hold the hands of the people standing on both sides of them and sway as they sang,” Rev. Jones explained. “In doing so, they formed a human chain that was more difficult for the riot police to penetrate. Let’s do this now and raise the roof of this tent with our voices.”
So we did. We crossed our arms and held the hands of our neighbours and sang our guts out. And I felt like a fraud – a white, privileged woman who has never had to fight very hard for anything. I looked around at the sea of pale, freckled Celtic faces and thought, “What are we doing singing this moving and inspirational call to mobilize the oppressed? What right do we have to appropriate a song with such historic and cultural significance?”
Then I looked a bit more closely. A couple of rows ahead of me, a lesbian couple who appeared to be in their late 60’s stood with their arms around each other, swaying as they sang, tears rolling down their cheeks. They’re justified, I thought. I had an inkling of their struggle for acceptance and respect, and the right to love and marry whomever they wished to.
We shall overcome hatred, fear, and exclusion.
I continued scanning the crowd and recognized a man who travels up from somewhere in the U.S. every year with his adult mentally-disabled daughter. He was singing his heart out, his face contorted with emotion. I could only imagine what he had to overcome on a daily basis, his constant fight for the care and services his daughter needs.
We shall overcome the stigma of mental illness.
I thought of Hubert Francis, the Mi’kmaq singer who spoke of the inter-generational damage done to his people in the residential schools. My mind moved on to the over twelve hundred missing and murdered indigenous women in this country and the heartbroken families left to mourn them.
We shall overcome racism and violence against women.
My mind meandered to the food banks and the money collected at the Gospel Concert that would go to support them. In all likelihood, none of the folks who used the food banks were at this concert. They live with the daily struggle to feed themselves and their families, to stretch every cent from one welfare payment to the next.
We shall overcome the despair of living in poverty.
Then I thought of the horrifying news out of Charlottesville, and I began to re-frame my understanding of the song. We are all walking the same road, although we come to it from different paths. It’s time for all of us, white privileged people with healthy incomes, people of all races, faiths, and ethnicity, people from the full spectrum of human sexual orientation and gender identity, people from the top, bottom, and middle social strata, to cross our arms, link hands, take to the streets and sing with all our hearts, to vanquish the beast that lurks in the dark corners and back alleys of our society, just below the surface of civility.
We shall overcome ignorance, hatred, and fear-mongering.
“Deep in my heart, I do believe
That we shall overcome someday.”