"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."
My connection to Dr. King has always been through song. As a member of MLK elementary's choir "The Jammin' Peacemakers," nearly half our repertoire consisted of songs related to Dr. King. On our visit to D.C. I ended up at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. In front of a giant American flag made out of steel, a young black man about my age emceed an event for MLK day. After hearing excerpts from the "I Have a Dream" speech given at the Lincoln Memorial I was to visit that evening, the program closed with "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement. They asked everyone to join hands. In the old tradition, the emcee called out the lyrics as we sang. And it was beautiful.
Many don't remember that it was Pete Seeger, a white man now in his 90's, who revived that song, changed the lyrics from "We Will Overcome," and taught it to Dr. Martin Luther King. Pete Seeger, one year ago today, stood in the same place Dr. King stood, on the steps of the temple to the Great Emancipator, on the National Mall, to celebrate the inauguration of the first black President, the greatest black orator since King, and fellow Nobel Peace laureate.
In the afternoon, I met Fr. Ray East, a black pastor of St. Teresa of Avila church in Washington. We were at an exhibit about nuns. He told me about Sr. Antona Ebo who marched with King at Selma. We talked about church songs, about young people energized to praise God. Many don’t remember Dr. King was a preacher. I do. Many don’t remember that the songs which helped people band together to fight for Civil Rights were gospel songs. I do. God is anywhere people sing for goodness, and he was there on Sunday and there in Selma.
So while the First Amendment doesn’t technically cover free singing, I will interpret loosely. Ms. Dorothy Paige Turner, my music teacher and director of the Jammin’ Peacemakers, used to say that anyone who can talk can sing. And so I think that free speech implies free song. In either case Dr. King’s quote certainly applies, as silence means silence from speech and song. So I say when you stop singing about what matters is when you’ve begun to die. Pete hasn’t stopped singing, because he believes that if people are singing together, they can’t be fighting each other. There are still causes to sing for, and I will join in that chorus.