Take out your earplugs and sing together
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1965)
When you stand on the balcony of the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, you can see in an instant why these hills are called the Blue Ridge Mountains. Several layers of blue roll in the distance, darker then lighter then dark again, long fields now ochre and yellow in winter fill the space between you and those mountains, and spaciousness is the word that comes to mind. It feels like a place where good thinking can be done, where there is the space for that, and where sitting in that main room in a circle of rocking chairs could save the world. I’ve been here before, for a gathering on Appalachian Anti-Racism work a few years ago, and the place worked its magic on that group that weekend, opening up conversation and infusing us with the energy to continue, to see hope, to feel an urgency about our part in it.
This space holds an important place in our history, one especially to remember on a day like today which, beautifully, is serving as the prelude to an even more special day tomorrow, when Barack Obama will be inaugurated as our first multiracial, multicultural president. Martin Luther King, Jr., would likely smile at the juxtaposition of his day with ours.
And so last Friday we drove across the mountain to the Highlander Center, Mr Brilliant and I, on a quest to speak to two people who quietly yet beautifully fueled the movement that led us to the place where tomorrow will be possible. Sometimes it is not the big names who have done the most work, or all the work themselves. Sometimes it is those whose names we don't know. We sat for hours, talking with them, and they took us up the hill from the office of the Highlander Center to lunch in its communal dining room. It is at a long table in a room full of the hot energy of young people taking on the continuing role of social justice activists, that I will begin this story.
There was a seminar in process at the Center the day we were there, and so one table and part of another were filled with interpreters, people there to learn more about being multilingual interpreters in their communities, likely for immigrant populations. They were talking about questions of voice – what it is to have a voice, and what it is to have none, and what their role is in helping the voiceless speak. They are working to create multilingual spaces where language is used democratically and as a tool of empowerment.
A visitor to the Highlander Center sat next to me. We had been introduced to her in the office, so I know she is from Minneapolis, and visiting Highlander “for some inspiration,” she said, on a road trip she was taking alone. She was dark haired and pierced, short black bangs framing her face like an old timey picture. Her vest was bright red, with small ruffles along it. She was sure of herself, and yet not. She sat with us for lunch, talking about working on social justice issues for the past few years in Egypt and Jordan and Jerusalem. She is twenty-four years old. Was I this aware at twenty-four? The answer is no.
“You should talk with Alice,” one of our hosts said, pointing to a young woman at the next table. “She has an extraordinary capacity for language and is doing some amazing work in the world,” she further explained. When Alice got up to refill her tea glass, our host called her over. “Tell us what you are doing now in Egypt,” she asked her, and Alice sat down to tell us about her work on AIDs education and with populations who have AIDs in that part of the world. She also does translation and interpretation for communities in peril, for refugee populations. She spoke passionately and eloquently about the challenges and about her work. Mr Brilliant spoke up first, “Really? I’m just a bookseller.” I chimed in, “I suddenly feel like such a slacker.” We all laughed, but there was truth in that realization of two people twice her age, us, who have not spent their life traveling the world to work for social justice.
“How do you maintain your passion?” asked the young woman from Minneapolis. “I’m just 24, but I feel so tired already. It feels like I’m not moving forward, and when I come back to the U.S., I just feel so tired.” She was despondent, really, at the enormity of the work yet to be done. I imagine many of us feel that weight sometimes. Alice took on her question, and they moved closer to continue the conversation and share email and skype addresses.
I was struck by the beauty of the moment. At that same table were our hosts, Guy and Candie Carawan, now in their early 80s, who have been social justice activists since they were in their 20s, since they were her age. They now live just down the hill from the Center, fifty years after they first came (and met) here. They are often called up that hill to talk to the groups of young activists who still come here, to teach them the songs used so beautifully in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s as anthems for the cause. It is one of those songs we have driven to Tennessee to speak with them about.
I’ve been very troubled by the presumption by many that now that Barack Obama has been elected, we are entering into a post-racial America, or that we’ve now fulfilled Martin Luther King’s dream. While we have made great progress, race still matters in significant ways in this country, and the election of this man at this time is a point at which this work can begin anew, with greater hope, not end. This is a dangerous presumption, that we have solved our problems about race. We have perhaps awakened to the very possibility of fulfilling that dream. To become complacent now would be to dishonor Dr. King and all those, like the Carawans, who worked so hard to make tomorrow possible.
It was Guy Carawan who, in 1960, first taught the song “We Shall Overcome” to the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the student group that was so influential in the civil rights era. “I’d met Pete Seeger at the time his group, The Weavers, was canceled out at Ciro's nightclub in Los Angeles because of the McCarthy era,” Guy said quietly as we talked. “They were popular, but also asking questions like ‘can we do this with humor or music’, and did whatever was needed to make a singing movement. It grew and grew."
Guy met Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and others when he was at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “I met them a lot through the music, singing about black people and working people’s problems,” he said. In 1953, Guy took an important trip through the South with two other musicians, Frank Hamilton (“he was a real strong singer and player and he became my singing buddy”) and “we met another guy named “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. We were all three different from each other, but knew a lot of songs and styles and Pete Seeger told us you’d better visit Miles Horton and the Highlander Center. Pete had come to Highlander in the 40s with Woody Guthrie.”
Zilphia Horton, the Highlander School’s music director, learned “We Shall Overcome” from tobacco workers and taught it to Pete Seeger, who changed “will” to “shall” and, adding new verses, spread the song beyond the South.
This is a song with great importance – not only in that place at that time, but in all places and in all times. It is a song whose verses have been sung in many languages around the world, a universal symbol of hope. It is, as Mr Brilliant has said, one of our greatest exports.
Candie continued the story: “In 1959, Manny Greenhill invited Guy to hear a young man named Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in Boston. Guy was so moved by his words and by the amazing black choir that sang. He called up Miles Horton afterwards and said, ‘I sense there’s something important going on in the South – do you need a volunteer at Highlander?’ That’s when Guy came to Highlander. He was here the night the school was raided by the government, and he was one of the ones arrested and taken off to jail. While they were in jail, the people in the workshop had to sit in the dark, while police when through their luggage looking for Communist literature. A young teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, was one of the folks in the workshop and in the dark, she started singing 'We Shall Overcome,' until they were all singing it. That teenager, Jamila Jones, added the 'We are not afraid' verse to the song that night."
On April 1, 1960, Highlander had hosted the first meeting of the people who had participated in the sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville and beyond in early 1960, thinking they could share information and strategies. This was at at a time when such interracial meetings were still illegal. At that meeting, Guy taught “We Shall Overcome,” “Keep your eyes on the prize,” and other freedom songs. As Candie recalls it, “We didn’t have any freedom songs up until that time. We were using spirituals and hymns and folk songs and love songs, but didn’t have any freedom songs. So when Guy taught “We Shall Overcome,” it was extremely important for us.
Ella Baker was there and asked Guy to come to the formation meeting of the SNCC at Shaw University. “As Guy Carawan began to lead the song,” it was written, “all present began to rise from their seats singing and reaching out to join hands, and the signature song of the Civil Rights Movement was born.” “We encouraged people to bring their songs and stories,” Guy said, “and within a few months, the number of songs people knew to use grew very fast.” He was also participating, against the wishes of the U.S. State Department, in youth festivals in Russia and China, long before Nixon went to China, sharing social protest songs across borders. “We got back from China,” he recalled, “and we got a letter from the U.S. government telling us our passports were revoked.”
In the early 60s, Guy and Candie lived on John’s Island near Charleston, where very old African songs flourished. “There were a lot of children’s songs – games and plays – and folk danced to these things, sang them, they had words, they were fun for kids to do, very old songs, traditions of forming a circle – good melodies and things to dance to – take off on the meanness of slavery,” Guy explained. “They would meet up at a place called Moving Star Hall to sing the oldest forms of songs and have shouts and ways to express themselves about things they were going through.” In the years that Guy worked in the South, he sought to include the older folk so the younger folk could understand that they were adding on to a long tradition.
Our last question was about that idea of “handing one another along.” “What would you like to teach young people today?” we asked as we ended our time with them. It was Candie who answered: “We live in such an individualist culture today,” she said, “but great change is communal. The power of song is a vast instrument to draw people together and deliver a message. I think we need to take out our iPod earphones and begin to sing together again.”
Perhaps Mr. Obama has once again opened up the space and possibility for that to happen, as did Dr. King decades before.
Guy and Candie Carawan are educators, writers, musicians, and collectors who are dedicated to preserving the culture of the South and fighting for the civil rights of its common people. Based at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, for the past 50 years, the Carawans have served as consultants to the public television productions of "Eyes on the Prize" and "History of the Song 'We Shall Overcome.'" Their books include Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life?, We Shall Overcome, and Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.