As you grow up, one of your heroes should absolutely be Martin Luther King Jr. You’re going to hear a lot of white people like me say that, especially this time of year, but I promise you I mean it. When you’re old enough, we’ll read and discuss his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (you can thank your Uncle Josh for making me read the letter for the first time). We’ll listen to his sermon “But If Not“, and then talk about the difference between what he calls If Faith and Though Faith.
But first, we’ll probably talk about the importance music played in the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
In school you’ll learn a lot about the March on Washington. Your teachers will tell you that about 250,000 people attended. They’ll also tell you that about 80% of those in attendance were black, to use the language of the day. And they’ll spend most of their time telling you about Dr. King’s speech.
What they probably won’t tell you is that, the day before the event, protestors sabotaged the sound system, which had to be rebuilt overnight by the US Army Signal Corps, or the lineup of musicians that performed that day.
History teachers almost always overlook the role of music in cultural change.
What’s so beautiful, so powerful, so reflective of Dr. King’s belief in harmony and his view of the Kingdom of Heaven is that both black and white men and women sang that day. Some people have criticized the selection, saying it was wrong to choose mostly white performers. But, if you consider the group Peter, Paul and Mary as one entity then technically there were fewer performances by whites. But that’s not my point.
Lewis, my point is whoever chose the lineup recognized that if change was going to take place, if racism was going to be not only crippled but destroyed, that it must be done by the coming together of both sides. Do you think it was by chance that Joan Baez, a white woman, sang the song “We Shall Overcome”? I don’t. I think she and the organizers both recognized that we’re all in this together, that it’s everyone’s problem, and that it’s everyone’s fight.
I think they believed that it’s not one single person that’s going to bring about change; it’s every single person.
Even though I don’t know if Dr. King had a say in who performed that day I believe with all my heart that he swelled with hope every time a new face, a different color face, stood behind the microphone. Even though I can’t prove it, I believe that Dr. King knew what most people fail to recognize: if you want to see the future, if you want to know what the culture wants and where the culture is going, look at and listen to it’s prophets; musicians.
Musicians are always ahead of, and guiding the rest of the culture in almost every way. Just look at fashion trends as an innocuous example. Samuel Beam and William Fitzsimmons (and myself), just to name a few, have been wearing flannel shirts, jeans, boots and unkempt beards for 10 years. Only now has it become trendy and been given the label “Lumbersexual”.
Back to my point.
Musicians of different races had been working together harmoniously for decades. Studios, clubs, bars and speakeasys had been melting pots of diversity long before schools, businesses, governments and, sadly, even churches. It wasn’t a group of politicians up on the Hill that prepared the nation for change; it was our musical underground.
The crowd may not have been a harmonious blend of ethnicities, but the stage was.
When Dr. King reached the climactic end of his speech, proclaiming that all God’s children would one day join hands and sing that we are free at last, it was the collection of singers that looked most like that vision in the present moment, not the crowd. (It’s interesting how he believed we would sing, not speak. It’s interesting how many song lyrics were in his speech.)
The musicians sang of hammering out injustice. The singers declared that the answers were blown’ in the wind. The singers told the crowd the source for their strength to get over all that had been done. The singers proclaimed we shall overcome.
And make no mistake, Lewis: the music surrounding Dr. King’s speech was never meant to relax the crowd’s nerves; it was meant to ignite a revolution in their hearts.
God has been using music to break chains (Acts 16), end wars (2 Chronicles 20) and lead the way for political change (1 Samuel 18:7) for thousands of years. Why wouldn’t He use it in the fight for civil rights?
You’ll probably never know what it’s like to walk in Dr. King’s shoes. But, God forbid, if you ever do, I pray you will follow his example: never forgetting the strength and endurance that comes from putting your hope in God alone, and never underestimating the power of music in instigating change.
Do men like Dr. King inspire you to be a voice and agent for change?
How has music played a role in the changes that have occurred in your life?
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