Short Piece on Freedom Songs
John Suter
December, 2014

See Mississippi Summer Project for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.

[A senior International Studies student at Taylor University emailed me recently with this request: "For my Civil Rights Movement class I am preparing a presentation on the songs from civil rights movement during Freedom Summer, and how music was a powerful unifying and motivational force.... Would you be willing to contribute anything to my project?" I wrote the following:]

I grew up singing — in the choirs of Episcopal churches (it's what kept me in church during my teens), at folk song events, in a high school talent show — and I loved it. In my mid-teens, my rapidly dawning awareness of social injustice, especially during and after my summer in an American Friends Service Committee work camp in inner-city Philadelphia, found resonance in protest songs, labor and work songs, and the songs of the civil rights movement. I think that even then, the power and poetry and urgency of that music was strengthening my awareness of the issues and fueling a sense of commitment. The music at the March on Washington, both from the stage and, more importantly, in the crowd, raised the intensity another notch. But I think for me then, while the freedom songs were moving and inspiring and beautiful, they were still about other people — other people's freedom.

But in standing in the back of a church in Clarksdale, Mississippi in late June 1964, a few days after Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman had disappeared and I and another volunteer had been briefly arrested, the power of that community of black citizens and civil rights leaders and our small band of volunteers from the North holding hands and singing those songs was overwhelming. At those mass meetings, people testified about what had happened that week, strategized about what's next, offered help to one another, warned of dangers and reminded folks of precautions to take, told stories, and sang. There was the quiet sorrow and deep commitment of "We Will Never Turn Back", the fierce call to action of "Wade in the Water...God's gonna trouble the water", lots of other songs, always ending with "We Shall Overcome." There was no question that the songs were about all of us — we were all in this together. I don't know whether that thought came to my mind then, and I have only vague memories of the church or any particular meeting, but I remember keenly the magnificence of the sound and the visceral experience of unity, of urgency, of determination, and of love.

Of course, we volunteers were intensely aware that in a few weeks we would no longer be in this together in the tangible, dangerous sense of those days, and the danger could be considerably greater there after we white folks left. But the unity was real, and it became something to try to live up to as a way to be in the world. The songs still call that time back to me in a way nothing else does.

Copyright © John Suter. 2014

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