Civil Rights: Music, Torah, and our Tradition
On the coat-tails of the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, we see racial tension that was perhaps lurking just below the surface stirred up into a national battle-cry for accountability and equality. Anyone who thought that the race riots of the civil rights movement solved our nation's problem of racial inequality doesn't have to look that deep into our courts, jails, housing projects or slums in any major city to see that despite much progress, we still have a long way to go for true equality in our nation. We stand on the precipice of even more violence as more police shootings and grand jury exonerations seem biased against people of color and other minorities in our society.
Looking at this struggle from a comfortable St. Louis suburb, Ferguson seems like a world away, but it's only a few miles. As the violence subsides, the cries of those peacefully protesting for equality still ring in our ears. Whether ten miles or a thousand, those cries for justice remind us that Ferguson is in each of our own backyards.
I am reminded of the anthem-like significance that the music of "We Shall Overcome" had on my understanding of the civil rights movement. It taught me that that music, like any art form, can show a collective expression of a community's soul. The words of We Shall Overcome represent a hope and perhaps more accurately, a promise. The music dates back to the late 19th century and was used as a work song for slaves as they worked in the fields. Originally sung as 'I'll be all right someday,' it was first published as 'I'll Overcome Someday' by Charles Albert Tindley, a Methodist minister, in 1901. It was widely popularized when it was published by Peter Seeger's "People's Song's Bulletin" in September 1948. Its words reportedly were changed to "We Shall Overcome," according to Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the Freedom Singers from Albany, GA, as a way for the song to help unite blacks and whites in the struggle for civil rights. This change from first-person to first-person plural, made well over fifty years ago, is a simple lyric alteration that is at the core of the matter - we, all of us, play a part in change, justice and equality for each other.
"We shall all be free," is a part of the original hymn that had any references to Christianity removed well before its popularity soared in the civil rights movement. Even so, Christianity and Judaism share the watershed freedom story from the book of Exodus of the Israelites escape from Egypt. So important, in fact, is the freedom from bondage in Egypt that each prayer service in Judaism, no matter weekday, holy day or Shabbat, includes Mi Chamochah (Exodus 15:11), the song of celebration sung after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. It's the 'We shall overcome and we shall all be free' statement of our Torah. It's surely a contributing reason that our Reform movement takes such an unrelentingly strong position on all civil rights and freedoms, political, social, and otherwise. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, arguably one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 20th Century, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma Civil Rights March in 1965. We are a people and a tradition reacquainted with the story of slavery vividly every at Passover through the words of the Haggadah. We are reminded of the struggle for and therefore recommit to the responsibility of freedom. We still hear the Israelites' cries during their slavery and we still hear them rejoicing in their freedom just as loud as those in the same struggles in Ferguson.
St. Louis area Jewish clergy have collectively helped create safe environments for meaningful exchanges for learning. We are not silent in this struggle, to be sure. Some members of the clergy have walked hand-in-hand with protestors and victims of the destructive violence. Others have counseled police officers and their families during their assignments to protect person and property while giving a safe place for peaceful protests. We are sending resources, food and money to the heart of the flare-up. At the same time, we are ever-mindful that it is what happens next, the evolution of systemic change in our society, which is most important.
What will the future bring for racial equality in our nation? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies with each of us. Now that the buildings are boarded up and tear gas has dissipated, this is the time to continue our long-term work of building relationships across racial, religious and socio-economic lines. We know that the problem lies not simply with police policies but within the fabric of our communities. We have the energy to leverage our emotions into real and lasting change. Culture changes with one person, one melody, one action at a time, creating chain reactions. Change can begin anywhere in the chain -- it takes persistence and love.
Ferguson, New York, and now Paris are all our backyard. Black, white, Jew, Muslim or Christian, we are all responsible for one another. One's struggle is our struggle. The beating of the human heart is the music of possibility and of peace. Using our hearts for good, we can work together with caring, justice and love to help all to see that all hearts have the same beautiful and miraculous beat of humanity -- we shall overcome someday.
Cantor Seth Warner was ordained from HUC-JIR, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, in 2001 and is currently on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors. He has served Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, MO, since 2007. He volunteers as chaplain for several St. Louis fire and police agencies.