John Lewis

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.