By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. Only one song would do for this of all articles, the iconic anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), “We Shall Overcome.”
It was not so much a song as a declaration of purpose and profound resolve, one that did not merely state and celebrate the destination… but constituted a collective pledge, renewed with each singing, that adherents were united in mind, body and purpose; for they would need all that, and more, as they moved towards the inspiring goal of equality, where people who were divided by tradition, at last forged unity from divisiveness.
“We Shall Overcome” is a protest song. The lyrics are derived from the refrain of a gospel song by Charles Albert Tindley. It was first published in 1947 in the People’s Song Bulletin, a publication of People’s Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director. The song became associated with the Civil Rights Movement from 1959, when Guy Carawan launched it as the most famous, motivating, and ultimately elegiac song of the movement; their soaring battle hymn. It was what the oppressed people, their adherents and their resolute opponents heard when fire hoses were turned on them, dogs ordered to snarl and bite, and truncheons beat down upon the pilgrims sore beset.
There were many heroes in those days, but not yet a Hero who would rise above the others and become the very heartbeat of the movement, its public face and voice to the world.
That man had not yet emerged, but his first important moment was about to take place… in Birmingham, Alabama, where from a prison cell he was about to instruct his followers, his opponents, and a world oppressed by a panoply of civil rights abuses in what a man who believes in justice must do.
Consider this man now, on the threshold of history. He is mortal, frail, fragile, with profound doubts, hesitations and an acute consciousness of his inadequacies. He, like so many Heroes hoped that he would not have to be what he was in process of becoming; he hoped others would shoulder a substantial part of the burden. But History is infallible. It saw, as the individual did not, that this man could rise above his own demons and limitations… to become what the movement must have to succeed: a moral compass, a higher purpose, a complete humanity, and the ability to be beaten down, bitten, spat on, bruised, and beaten again — and yet love his tormenters, direct the anger of his people towards benign purpose, and always get up… showing that violence, any violence, could not stop him… and so would not stop the movement either. This was sublime! This was what the man was on this planet to do… though he did not entirely know this yet.
And so in April, 1963 he went to the most bigoted city in America, likely the most segregated, the least hospitable to its black inhabitants, the city that taught the nation how to insult, condescend, intimidate, and, all too often, to kill people of color for being born and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the capital of every finely turned, exquisite form of segregation and haters of every kind looked first to Birmingham as the citadel of their embittered beliefs, the fortress for immemorial hate that every black citizen knew only too well.
And so Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham as he went to so many fateful destinations… because it was necessary, because it was the right thing to do, because the people needed succor and relief and he had that to give and to spare.
The Birmingham event was a planned non-violent protest conducted by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference against racial segregation by Birmingham’s city government and downtown retailers. He was among the first arrested… the first taken harshly, insistently to his “suite” in Birmingham City Jail. It had to be a shock, jolting, demeaning, insulting, humiliating for this man who so loved life and life’s pleasures, more accustomed to the Word of God than the execrations of man.
But he had something to say, something which he had clearly thought about for some time, because he wrote without hesitation its profound message of import to all the world and its downtrodden.
King responds to eight white Alabama clergyman who opposed his visit to Birmingham.
On April 12, 1963 eight local clergymen offered Dr. King the benefit of their erudition and desire to defuse the anxious situation and rescue the imperiled status quo. These leaders of the church did what so many such have done over the ages. Bereft of courage, with cloudy vision, and a desire to safeguard their own positions and pulpits, they wrote Dr. King to leave… to let things take their course… to stop the violence and be patient… it would be, they were quite clear, so much better so. They didn’t have to say it would be better for them…
Dr. King was bruised in body and spirit as he arrived at the city jail. He must have wondered how he came there and whether against so much hatred he could achieve his goal. He must have wondered, too, at how many people already relied upon him… and of the terrible sacrifices he might ask them to make, even unto death itself. At such a time, a man, any man, might so wonder and reflect.
But then he read the sentiments of these local clergymen about his mission to Birmingham, criticizing it as “unwise and untimely”. He read these words, and he knew at once what he must do… and so the words of high portent and unmistakable conviction came swiftly.
He started his response in the way any disagreeing minister might have addressed a colleague, professionally, directly, pointedly. But this was not destined to be such a letter between Christian clergy of differing views. He had a higher purpose, and it was soon apparent. He meant to remind (if they knew), to teach (if they didn’t) his fellow clerics a fundamental precept of their ministries. He aimed to show them, once, for all, clearly, that justice was their business, the very heart of their business and he meant his message to be stern, unequivocal, a bell summoning all to recognition of their profound duties.
First he reminded these clergymen of the South, with their regional blindness, that the issue was not Southern, but American — “Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds”. In short, what was happening in Birmingham and what made the demonstration necessary was not merely a Birmingham problem or a Southern problem… it was an American problem (not to mention by quick extension a universal problem of long suffering humanity.)
And so he built his case for action now point by irrefutable point, making the considered advice of the local clergy seem like what it was, a self-serving argument keeping the blacks in their place, patient in the face of intimidation, outrage, and a white wrath ready to explode into legally sanctioned outrages against black citizens at any time.
Thus did King find the voice of moral certainty, the voice which freed so many and which resulted in time in the sacrifice of his very life, taken by those who came to know him as the dreaded prophet of black deliverance, and so necessary to destroy.
“Injustice,” he trumpeted, “anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The haters, the entrenched segregationists, the racial purists, the purveyors of inequitable laws and legal terrorism and abuse, for all that they wrote volumes in support of their unsustainable opinions never uttered a phrase so powerful as this… a phrase that showed just where right and a better future lay. He signed his soon-to-be-world- famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”, “Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood” and had it smuggled out in a toothpaste tube to avoid the jail’s guards.
Now this man has morphed into mythology with a grandiose civic temple for his observances. The architect Chinese artist Lei Yixin has been criticized for his work. No matter. Any architect’s work and vision would have found censure in the eyes of the jealous others who were not selected. But the truth is, this monument will soon be amongst the most popular, for all that the great monuments to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are near at hand.
“Now,” borrowing Edward Stanton’s words on Lincoln, King “belongs to the ages.” Here his greatest challenge will be in so inspiring those who follow in his footsteps, that his timeless message remains timely and is not forgotten by all those so beholden to the man who is now enshrined amidst among the worthies of the Great Republic his life’s work so enhanced.