The passing of folksinger/lorist Guy Carawan on May 2 at age 87 marked the passing of an era–Carawan now joining his colleague Peter Seeger. The two of them showed the power of song to galvanize masses of people to resist wrong, no matter how entrenched it was. I saw this first hand while serving for an all too brief two weeks in Mississippi during August, 1964. (For more than you might want to know about this scroll back to a series of earlier blogs.)
My friend Roger Smith and I had traveled together from our parishes in North Dakota and were assigned to Shaw MS. where we supplemented a staff of about a half dozen teachers and grad students working mainly in getting people to sign up for what was called the MS Democratic Freedom Party. This was an integrated political party designed to challenge the legitimacy of the official segregated Dem. Party at the upcoming National Dem. Party Convention later that summer.
One of the highlights of our experience were the various Freedom Rallies that we attended in Shaw and other communities. After a series of inspirational and informational speeches and prayers would come the singing, accompanied by clapping and bodies swaying to the rhythm. The last song was always “We Shall Over Come.” This was invariable a lump in the throat experience, especially when we sang the verse, “We are not afraid, We are not afraid, O deep in my heart, We shall overcome someday.
That verse was more aspirational than a statement describing us, because we were afraid–often. We had been warned never to sit by an open window with room lights on because KKK night prowlers had fired into some of the Freedom Centers in other towns around the state. Virtually everyone had been the object of curses, as we were several times, once at a white owned gas station where some idlers had gathered by our car, one of whom said that he hoped we did not make it through the night. (This is not to be compared with the actual harm visited upon blacks and civil rights workers in other towns–the local sheriff did restrain whites in our area because he feared the FBI would move in were violence to get out of hand.) At Shaw the singers knew that across the street a white policeman was taking down the names of those in attendance. Some were fearful for their jobs–with good cause it later would turn out.
The song, along with many others so wonderfully disseminated by Mr. Carawan, Pete Seeger, Fanny Lou Hamer and the Freedom Singers that she helped found, provided strength, comfort, and hope to all who participated in the civil rights movement. I will never forget hearing Mrs. Hamer’s strong voice rising over ours during the two night gatherings she attended. It was as if this woman, bruised and beaten so badly by state troopers that she would live with pain for the remainder of her life, was saying to us, “Come on, you all, you can sing louder. You can do more.”
You can read more about Mr. Carawan and the song at the website of the Highlander Center where he served on the staff for a long time. The site also has posted the wonderful New York Times tribute to Mr. Carawan, which also includes a history of the song. May this wonderful man, who labored for justice so long, rest in peace, receiving the promised blessing, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”