On “We Shall Overcome”
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, here's a piece I wrote in 2008, shortly before Obama's election.
One of the songs we sang in my racially mixed, public high school choir, back in the 1970s in Alexandria, Louisiana, was “We Shall Overcome.” It was the anthem of the civil rights movement, we were told. Ever since then I’ve liked it—especially its portentous quality, the way the hopefulness of the words combines with a deep sadness in the melody. At Martin Luther King observances and other occasions when the song has been on the program, I’ve enjoyed being able to join in.
A seventy-five-year-old white man from south Arkansas told me recently that he has never shared the racist attitudes so prevalent around him. “I don’t know why,” he says, not in self-congratulation but in puzzlement, like someone mysteriously immune to chickenpox or plague. He remembers being eight or nine years old and seeing two African-American girls walking down the street of his small town. His playmates started throwing rocks at the girls and urging him to join in. “I wouldn’t do it,” says my friend. “Somehow I just knew that wasn’t right. And the other boys, my friends, weren’t very happy with me, either.” A couple of months ago this same man heard racial slurs being used against Barack Obama—at church, no less. He left the Sunday school class and later the coffee klatch where this kind of talk occurred.
What makes some children readily adopt hateful practices and others resist? Some absorb their parents’ prejudices without question. Others don’t. Some have adults in their lives who teach nonprejudice. Others have to work a long time to beat back their ingrained assumptions. My own children are growing up in a more tolerant and diverse world, but it too has its injustices—sometimes subtle, complex ones, which I hope they can still learn to recognize and fight.
The novelist Chaim Potok once said that we’re all born into some kind of ghetto, some place of origin that would limit us if we stayed there forever. Maybe it’s a Hasidic Jewish ghetto, or an inner-city black ghetto, or a white affluent suburb ghetto. The universal story of growing-up, Potok said, is our movement out of that starting-place into a new, wider landscape. Even if we live in the same town our whole lives, we can leave our mental ghettoes, moving beyond the constructs that wall us off from one another.
If “We Shall Overcome” is sung at the Obama inauguration, there will be some verbal rock-throwers who say, “Oh, that’s ‘their’ song. After all, it’s the black national anthem.” However, when I hear its strains I know I’m going to cry, because I believe in progress, and to me it’s all of our song. Soon-to-be President Obama embodies the hope that we can all overcome—not just the systematic barriers the old protest song was talking about, but also our defensiveness, fears, divisions, shortsightedness, and greed.
Deep in my heart
I do believe
we shall overcome someday.
(October 28, 2008)