Freedom songs and freedom singing were our most powerful nonviolent weapon. Songs and singing were the psychic threads that bound the us into a tapestry of purpose, solidarity, courage, and hope.
The songs spread our message,
The songs bonded us together,
The songs elevated our courage,
The songs shielded us from hate,
The songs forged our discipline,
The songs protected us from danger,
And it was the songs that kept us sane.
Singing those songs suffused each of us with the summed power of our whole. And not just on picket lines and freedom rides. They wove into a single Freedom Movement the adults who sang them in mass meetings, the young militants who carried them into jail, and the impoverished maids, laborers, and sharecroppers who raised them in small circles of courage surrounded by seas of hate and danger.
Freedom songs were the vows we made, each to other, to stand side by side through all that we had to endure. They were the pledges we took to struggle together for justice and freedom. As the furnace-fire turns iron ore into steel, singing our shared songs forged bonds of loyalty that for many of us have not withered with age in five decades. I'm writing this in the season of the 50th anniversaries and at every reunion for many of us singing those songs together still brings tears of joy and remembrance to our eyes.
The songs also carried and shaped our message. School, especially college, teaches us that political movements are primarily about the intellectual content of statements, speeches, positions, and proposals. But what the Civil Rights Movement taught me was that social and political struggles — popular mass movements — are as much, or more, about emotion as they are about ideology and it was our songs that released and expressed that emotion.
The songs inspired and encouraged us, yes, but they were also consciously used as practical tools for focusing and guiding the emotional contours of events, meetings, protests, even jail time. Different songs, different verses of the same song, and differences in the tone and style of the singing itself all evoked different responses. Like an artist using color to alter the mood of an image, skilled song leaders sensitive to the moment used freedom songs to shape and direct the emotions experienced by both ourselves and those within the sound of our voices.
And on occasion the songs even protected us from imminent violence. Time after time as we marched around the town square in Grenada Mississippi in 1966 we were confronted and outnumbered by Klan-led mobs armed with baseball bats and steel pipes and it was our songs held us together. And often — not always, but often — our singing literally prevented them from charging into us with their clubs swinging. I know that sounds impossibly mystic and fanciful but it's true. I saw it. I experienced it.
I so vividly remember one of those night marches before the first day of integrated school when the mob was spread out around the entire outer perimeter of the square with the most hate-filled clustered on the north side. As we marched around the green singing with every ounce of energy and passion we could muster we had to circle again, and again, past that one spot where they were most intensely trying to break into our line. They couldn't do it. They simply couldn't do it. In some way I can't explain our singing and our sense of solidarity created a kind of psychological barrier between us and them, a wall of moral strength that they couldn't physically push through to attack us with their clubs and chains as they so obviously wanted to do.
It wasn't visual, it wasn't something you could see, but I could sense that our singing and our unity was holding them off, pushing them back. It was most obvious when we passed that wedge they made. The Klan leaders edged forward trying to push into us. They got within a few feet of us, but they couldn't get closer. By our singing, we psychologically pressed them back. Eventually, the only way they could strike at us was to bombard us with thrown rocks, chain links, and cherry bombs from a distance. But when we began to march off the square back to our church for some reason we stopped singing for just a moment. And it was like a bubble had broken. They charged into the back of the march with clubs and fists swinging and I collected a new set of bruises.
And that wasn't the only time I saw and experienced that kind of song-power. I saw it in California, I saw it in Selma, I saw it on little picket lines and large mass marches.
Freedom singing, however, was different from performance singing. Participation was its essence — not the entertainment quality of the music. Everyone was expected to sing. I won't hide this, I can't sing a lick. I'm tone deaf. In fact, I was notorious as the worst singer in SCLC. But I sang loud and when danger threatened I was often the one who led the singing, not because of the (off-key) quality of my voice, but because I knew how to use song as a tactical tool which is what was needed in those moments.
Song was also one of our most powerful and effective organizing tools. We sometimes forget that all human communities are riven with divisions — personal, social, political, religious, cultural, class, gender, age, sexual- orientation, and of course race. Building unity across these many divides is hard. Really hard. Individuals may be at odds with other individuals. Rich and poor, elite and "no account," don't mingle easily. Someone from one race or culture may feel unwelcome or out of place in settings dominated by a different race or culture. Singing our songs together helped break those barriers down.
In any established group there's a natural tendency for newcomers to feel like outsiders in cold distant orbit around the warmth of the "in-crowd." For the Freedom Movement of the 1960s nothing was more effective in breaking down individual isolation and making newcomers feel welcome than singing freedom songs. And when I was doing voter-registration and organizing in the South, time after time I encountered folk who came for the singing and stayed for the struggle.
I am also convinced that singing our songs held us together politically. Looking back now from a distance of more than 50 years, I don't recall much (if any) singing in groups that later split, fractionated, and fell apart. But in SCLC and SNCC and CORE too every gathering of any size began and ended with songs.
They say that talk is cheap, and of course that's often the case. But talk can also be agonizing, wrenching, and divisive. When our meetings were filled with bitter contention, when jealousy, frustration and anger poisoned the air we sang our freedom songs together and somehow eased our discord and reknit our tattered unity even when the underlying conflicts remained unresolved. And we discovered that beginning a meeting with song started it from a place of unity, and ending every meeting the same way helped keep us together.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford
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