Our Martin Luther King holiday weekend was filled with the sounds of "We Shall Overcome." Three men sang it in church, accompanying themselves with guitars and trumpet. At the birthday rally at the Bo Diddly Community Plaza, we all joined hands and sang it together. I turned around and was thrilled to see Amanda holding hands with her two friends, and singing out.
I have always thought of We Shall Overcome as a gospel song, but it never mentions God or Jesus. According to Wikipedia, it was a union protest song derived from a gospel song, and part of its tune is from the spiritual, No More Auction Block for Me. It shares with gospel the expression of faith, and like gospel it offers the solace and encouragement of a candle in the darkness.
I was 17 the first time I heard the song: January, 1965, my first semester at the University of Michigan, an all-night teach-in against the war in Vietnam. What 17-year-old, new to college, wouldn’t welcome the chance to stay out all night?
There were informative workshops, with maps and pointers, in small seminar rooms. I went to a couple, but mostly I joined the crowds of students milling around outside in the cold. At midnight we stood in a big circle on the Diag, holding lighted candles and singing We Shall Overcome.
In high school I had longed to join the freedom riders on the buses going south, though I was probably secretly glad my parents would never allow it. The teach-in was my first taste of protest, and it fed my inchoate longing to make a better world. I only dabbled in those days - a few protests in Ann Arbor and Detroit, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago - but the spirit caught me.
In my 60's I'm still a child of the 60's, though the media claims we've all moved on. My watchword is “Light a candle AND curse the darkness.” I haven't lost an ounce of idealism, and most people I care about haven’t either. I know a whole bunch of gray-haired, wrinkled-y people who feed the homeless, carry peace signs, act for social justice and speak truth to power.
Amanda first heard "We Shall Overcome" a couple of months before, when we watched Eyes on the Prize. She had come home from school angry. “Why do they always have to talk about Black people and slaves and all those bad things that happened to them?” I had the sense that beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, she had heard nothing of the Black heros and achievers. I stammered something about Dr. Charles Drew and blood banks, Benjamin Banneker and the design of Washington D.C., but I especially wanted her to know of the many thousands of people who were the Civil Rights Movement. So I bought Eyes on the Prize from PBS.
I should have screened it myself first. I had forgotten that it included the graphic image of Emmitt Till’s body, the pictures of the strange fruit hanging from southern lynching trees. But most of the first hour was about courage and strength and organizing. Our conversations since then, as well as her frequent singing of Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, reassure me that the movie, though strong medicine, was helpful to her.
After we came home from the rally and march, I told Amanda that many of the old people she saw there had been part of the Civil Rights Movement she learned about in the movie. They had marched, sat in at lunch counters, been the first black kids at all-white schools, gone to jail for the cause. And she said, “This might be wrong to say, but they were lucky. I wish I could have been there and seen how it was. I wish I could be part of it.”
Arlington, VA sit-in. crmvet.org
She has the idealism of so many children, the fierce desire to help, to do something that matters. When Joe can’t be home to watch her on Thursday nights, she rides the HOME Van with me. click click She’s happy as long as she gets to distribute candles and batteries, and she connects with polite friendliness to everyone she encounters.
I assured her the struggle is not over. There’s still plenty of work to be done, plenty of justice yet to be achieved. Who knows what Amanda will become - I can see her as a comedian, a child-care worker, a track star. I will be delighted if she grows up to be competent, kind and reasonably happy, with a life full of challenges and joys. And just maybe she will join the community of those who work for justice.
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Next post: February 15 "A Valentine for Joe"