In the course of the research for my two-volume book on the importance of black sacred music on the civil rights movement, I learned a lot. I mean, a lot. I learned how essential the spirituals were to African-American slaves yearning to be free.
I learned how essential the freedom songs – which were, for the most part, based on the spirituals – were to African Americans yearning for their full rights as American citizens during the civil rights movement.
And I learned how essential the spirituals and freedom songs are to not just African Americans but all of the world’s citizens in the 21st century.
Perhaps you knew that songs like “We Shall Overcome” were sung during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the short-lived rebellion that culminated in Tiananmen Square. But did you also know they were sung in the Arab Spring, in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution and in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, Charleston, Orlando, Dallas and a dozen more beside?
These songs are still being sung.
Certainly my research and interviews showed that a significant reason for their continued use is that the spirituals and freedom songs were based on words of faith. During the darkest days for African Americans in this country, the one place they could find shelter, solace, inspiration and hope was the black church. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the movement relied on African American churches in every movement city and operation. Without the financial support of the black church, without the volunteers, and without the spiritual foundation of faith, the civil rights movement of the 1960s would have struggled mightily.
These songs – “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Freedom,” “Up Above My Head, I Hear Freedom in the Air,” “We Shall Not be Moved” and a thousand more – were bathed in the blood of martyrs, honed through hard experience, and transformed in the faith of every marcher, every protester, every prisoner of conscience.
But I learned something else about my decade’s long immersion in the spirituals and freedom songs – what I call the protest spirituals. The civil rights movement’s moral power was wedded to the principle of non-violence. Perhaps it is best articulated in this quote from one of King’s sermons in 1967: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.” It was a holy principle grounded in Jesus’ abhorrence of violence as detailed throughout the New Testament.
For that belief to work, then the music that provided the fuel that drove the engine of the movement, as one of my interviewees told, had to be equally potent … and non-violent.
And the protest spirituals were just that. None of the roughly six thousand known spirituals espouses revenge, anger, hatred or recrimination, even during the worst days of slavery. Legendary African American composer John Wesley Work worked extensively with the spirituals. This is a quote from his book Folk Song of the American Negro, published in 1915: “Another characteristic of the Negro song is, as has been stated before, that it has no expression of hatred or revenge. If these songs taught no other truths save this, they would be invaluable. That a race which had suffered and toiled as the Negro had, could find no expression for bitterness and hatred, yes, could positively love, is strong evidence that it possesses a clear comprehension of the great force in life, and that it must have had experience in the fundamentals of Christianity.”
Work then concludes his essay with an extraordinary line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s beautiful Sea Dreams: “One shriek of hate would jar all the hymns of heaven.”
The spirituals and freedom songs, at their best, are songs of love, convicting those who hear them. Angry songs calling for vengeance simply have not worked, nor have they endured. That’s why the protest spirituals, particularly “We Shall Overcome,” are still cherished, still sung today not just by African Americans, but all people striving for freedom and justice the world over.
One final thought: “We Shall Overcome” is the lone freedom song that is always sung with the singers joining hands, arms crossed. You can’t cause much damage with your arms crossed and your hands linked. All you can do is sing and, in your singing, testify to the life-changing power and grace of the risen Christ who disavowed violence. And whose only weapon was love.
Robert F. Darden is a Professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University. He is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State University Press, 2014) and Nothing But Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City (Penn State University Press, September 2016).