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Sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down
Songs add promise and meaning to studying the civil rights era
As Martin Luther King Day approaches, US writer and teacher Daniel Patrick Welch explores the challenges, promise and pitfalls of exposing young minds to King's unfulfilled dreams.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. If this is true, then the US is stuck in a sort of Groundhog Day time bounce, doomed forever to keep banging its well-muscled head against the walls of history, reason, and decency the world around. History, quite simply is not Americans’ strong suit. And like the proverbial child who forgets the sting of a hot stove, we seem determined to learn the hard way.
The alarming thing is that we are living in times where knowledge of that history is needed as never before; yet at the same time, the experience of two wars waged in just the last few years may be insufficient to prevent a third. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, there is no time like the present to begin steeping young minds in a strong tea of their nearly forgotten history. And so, at our school, we try to do just that.
Since young children can be forgiven for what they can’t possibly know, it is often less galling teaching them than confronting the rampant ignorance of adults on matters of history. Still, it is amazing that the vivid scenes of the struggle to end American Apartheid are so distant from their consciousness.
Students sit, wide-eyed and rapt, as they listen to tales of what life was like in the days of Jim Crow. They have not yet swallowed the America uber alles koolaid that poisons the society in which they live. Their moral senses are shocked when they hear stories and see footage of dogs, firehoses, and angry white mobs. One little four-year-old looks up at me in horror: “Why did white people do this?” “Suppressing a bit of mischief and reality shock, I don’t speak my real answer: “White people suck, honey. Whadayagonnado? But not you—you’re a nice boy.” In all seriousness, it is crucial not to let explanations slip into moral defense. Although the concrete nature of a young child’s mind makes the material difficult, it is useful to leave that moral clarity undisturbed. It will fade soon enough, and kids will, for the most part, become like their elders: hemming and hawing over issues that demand just such clarity and outrage.
For now, while we have their attention, we can plant the seeds that might linger if properly nourished. One seven year old black girl is overwhelmed by the story of Melba Patillo and the Little Rock Nine, and the tears flow readily. “She didn’t even do anything—she just wanted to go to school!” she cries. And this emotion is a powerful thing. Maybe the reason so few of us remember our history is that it is too often drained of the emotional connection that makes clear its impact on our lives.
One way we insure this connection is through music. In studying the civil rights era, fortunately, there is a wealth of oral tradition, of the recycled and revved up gospel and church songs that nourished the soul of the movement. And after a bit of practice, the kids are singing and humming them, to themselves and to each other, on the playground, at lunch, and while doing their math work. The songs are not relegated to music class or to Black History Month.
It is a gratifying response, but it is of course more than just singing songs. These particular songs allow us to delve more deeply into the spirit of resistance that fueled the movement, and to avoid the insipid hagiography that has unfortunately become all too common in school King Day celebrations. Most schoolchildren dutifully absorb the sanitized, new-and-improved version of the struggle, a sort of can’t-we-all-get-along nonsense about a good man who did good things. But standing in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome” once a year is a poor fate for the history of the most transformative period in American history.
King’s message and his agenda were about radical change, confronting illegitimate authority, and having the courage to stand one’s ground in the face of injustice. A more thorough catalogue of songs reveals these underpinnings to an eager audience, as strains of “Sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down” make their way around the classroom.
The simple lyrics are replete with accessible lessons that inform this history. The power of music to serve as performance enhancer to people facing down batons, bullets, and bully cops…”Lift up your head/Don’t be afraid/Sing ‘til the power of the Lord comes down….” The need for moral clarity and refusal to bend in the face of oppression… ”Just like a tree planted by the water/We shall not be moved…” At lunch counters and sit-ins everywhere, the need for collective action was a essential component of success. Taking a stand can be suicidal unless there is a whole line of people behind you to take the stool after you get arrested. “If I hold my peace and let the Lord fight my battles/Victory, victory shall be mine.”
And the lessons keep on teaching. The movement was keenly aware of the forces allied against it: “This world is one great battlefield/With forces all arrayed/But if in my heart I do not yield/I will overcome someday.” But always, the hubris and sense of inevitability kept spirits up…”If you miss me from the cotton field/come on down to the courthouse/I’ll be voting there…” Persistence and determination are not always rewarded, but they are crucial to success… ”The only chain a man can stand/Is the chain of hand in hand /Keep your eyes on the prize/hold on, hold on…”
Organizing and solidarity were essential…. ”Come and go with me to that land…” “…I asked my brother to come and go with me…” But of course, the struggle is long, and we can’t let periodic defeats cloud our vision… “If you can’t go/Let your children go.” And always, that vision must be concrete and clear if a mass movement is to be sustained… ”no burning churches in that land…” Such concreteness, of course, plays well to a very young crowd. The contradictions in the rhetoric about “democracy” are as ripe as the insistence on immediate redress… ”Said the Negro soldier/Me, I took a vow/I was fighting for my freedom/And I want it now, right now!”
It brings us almost to tears, watching the kids soak up this spirit of promise, of hope for a different world. Jim Crow may have ended, but racism persists; and besides, toward the end of his life, King grew more and more adamant that it could not be decoupled from the other twin evils of his day: militarism and economic exploitation—the struggle against these two are part and parcel of his legacy, and it is incomplete not to include them in exploring that legacy. He would be aghast at how both have run amok, unchecked in the generation since his death. It is impossible not to be discouraged, looking around, at how far off course we have wandered. As the kids nod and move with a vibrancy we have trouble feeling, maybe we can take something from the same songs, knowing that the struggle is long, and history has a way of setting things right: “If you can’t go/Don’t hinder me/I’m on my way/Great God, I’m on my way…”
© 2008 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to
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Writer, singer, linguist and activist Daniel Patrick Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julia
Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The Greenhouse School. Translations of articles are available in over two dozen languages. Links to the website are appreciated at