Whenever I sing “We Shall Overcome,” I choke up. You may be thinking, “Don’t we all?” Probably it’s hard to be progressive in America and not be moved by it. And I couldn’t tell you all the reasons, but here are a few that have surfaced for me over the past week:
I am transported to the funeral of slain civil rights worker James Cheney, where the mourners closed the service singing several verses, including, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid today. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome some day.” This after the KKK and the county’s law enforcement had colluded to destroy three young men trying to get people a right they legally had already.
I am transported to the music room at Bath Elementary School, where I held a book about MLK out to my music teacher and said, “There’s the music for a song that Dr. King sang during the movement. Can you play it for me?” I read every book on Dr. King in that library, because he was talking about something I thought I was connected to but no one else was talking about, including the 7 or 8 of us in the school who were people of color.
I watch a clip of Dr. King preaching about non-violence or the courage to love or not letting another man determine your worth, and I feel not just inspired, but I feel less alone. And that becomes truer by the year. I don’t know how to spread those values, but this brother, this friend who died 8 years before I was born is there in that black-and-white film footage stirring thousands. And I know it can be done again, not just by me but by a collective of people living into those ideals.
And I also choke up because they were singing that song long before I was born, and when I sing it now in a big crowd on MLK Sunday, it’s still true. But it’s not yet in the past tense. I choke up because we have yet to overcome.
And so today I sit down with colleagues to vision about the Oakland Peace Center, particularly about funding it. And I hope that I can play a part in all of us overcoming. And I pray at this moment that you reading this can also play a part, and that you and I and all people of faith and goodwill shall overcome someday.