How I learned that song

From a comments thread at Crooks & Liars I find this link:

"Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome."

And so, a story.

* * * * *

Summer between freshman and sophomore year I got a college van license. Only a handful of students had one, so if your group needed a college van to get to some off-campus event, you had to get one of us to drive you. Not a bad gig, usually, sometimes involving party invites or concert tickets. So I was usually game to drive.

"Are you free Saturday night?" Nelson asked me. "We need a van driver."

We in this case meant the Black Student League, so party or concert, this promised to be fun.

"Sure," I said. "Where are we going?"

"Ephrata. It's in Lancaster County."

"What's in Ephrata?"

"A Ku Klux Klan rally."

He wasn't kidding.

That Saturday night I drove a dozen black college students, caravaning with a couple of carfuls of white activist-types, out beyond the end of the Main Line and deep into Pennsyltucky. We found ourselves, a few hours later, on an unlit gravel road at the end of a driveway. At the other end of the driveway, back in the woods, the oldest domestic terrorist organization in the United States was inducting a dozen or so new members.

We weren't the only ones there. By nightfall, a crowd of locals had assembled, along with assorted protesters from elsewhere.

This was encouraging, at first, since I figured anybody there protesting the Klan must be on the side of the angels. But it turned out to be more complicated than that. We were there, Nelson had said, to protest peacefully, but most in the crowd did not seem to share this commitment to nonviolence. Many, especially the ones who were drinking, just looked like they were spoiling for a fight. They didn't really seem to object to the Klan's racism, but rather to view them as a rival gang on their turf. Apart from my passengers, everyone there was white.

Then the Klan meeting let out and they came walking down the driveway. They were in their street clothes but many carried the infamous white robes. I had this moment of not believing what I was seeing — something that I had only seen before on TV and had a hard time accepting that I was actually seeing, for real, in 1987. It seemed like they were walking out of the dark of the past and not just the dark of the woods.

And then the shouting started. The crowd behind us pressed forward, and the Klansmen came to meet them, and there we were, in the middle, like some kind of human saw horse or police barrier. I was scared. I could only imagine how much scarier this must've been for Nelson and for Robin standing on either side of me.

It wasn't until a few years later that I came to appreciate how frightening this was for Robin. When she was a little girl, she had visited her relatives down south. The occasion for that visit was her uncle's funeral. He had been beaten to death. The rumor was he had been having an affair with a white woman. Nobody was ever charged with his murder. And there we were, nose to nose with the newest members of the terrorist group that had killed her mother's brother, with a not-too-easily distinguished group of hostile white people directly behind us.

Things were getting ugly and it looked like they might get much uglier really fast.

And then Nelson started to sing. All of my passengers and their cause-head white friends knew the song, but it was the first time I'd ever really heard it. It was easy to learn, though, and after an hour or so of singing it I came to feel I knew it well.

I was amazed at how such a simple song could have so many verses, and how such a simple melody could afford so many different harmonies. But more than that, I was amazed at the effect of this song and this singing on the angry crowds gathered in front and in back of us. It created a space, a kind of buffer between the violently angry crowd behind us and the hate-filled, angry crowd in front of us.

I remember thinking this shouldn't be working. A bunch of black college kids and their hippie-looking friends shouldn't be able to pacify a bunch of angry Klansmen — goddamned, flesh-and-blood Ku Klux Klansmen — by singing a civil-rights anthem. But yet that's what happened.

A decade later I met an American college professor who had been in Red Square on the day of the failed putsch that brought about the end of the Soviet Union. The people there were singing "We Shall Overcome" and, he said, it sounded beautiful in Russian.

I'm sure it did.

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  • Darryl Pearce

    …okay, you gave me my post-lunch “almost broke a tear.” Thanks. Now, …off to research the song.
    Thank you.

  • Dina

    As a supporter of non-violent activism, I love hearing stories like this.:)

  • jackd

    the terrorist group that had killed her mother’s brother
    Sadly, this may not even be the case. Sadly in the sense that it wouldn’t take involvement from an organization like the Klan for a black man to be killed over a rumored affair with a white woman and no one ever arrested.
    I grew up in a small town in south Georgia in the 1960s and ’70s, and I don’t recall ever hearing about the Klan except as something back in the past. Even since I’ve grown up, I’ve never heard about actual Klan activity back home in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there were and still are stone racists down there, and hearing something like your friend’s story would not surprise me.

  • Adam Stein

    I think maybe I’d’ve started with “Lift Every Voice”, just out of pure cussedness, but I’m a white guy so what do I know? And there’s no sarcasm in that sentence.
    There was a time, and not very long ago, when those sentiments would’ve invited the kind of acid sneering that greeted Rodney King when he asked, with utter sincerity, “Why can’t we just get along?” Every opinionmonger in every newsroom on Planet Earth had plenty o’reasons why. What they didn’t understand, what they don’t understand still, is that (Friedman be damned) the world is round, the world is almost but not quite a sphere, the world has not center and no edges. We have been running away from one another for centuries; I believe the strive in Lebannon and the horrors in Darfur and, ok, everywhere else are the pains of sudden realization that we’ve run so long we’ve breasted the horizon and are running full-tilt toward one another, and we must find a way to meet at the antipodes without guns and knives drawn, and nothing can stop that.

  • Adam Stein

    O bloody . . . for “strive” read “strife” and “no center” for “not center” in that last. Thats the problem with posting when you have tears in you’re eyes.

  • Emma Goldman

    You just gave me goosebumps there Fred.

  • kristina

    goosebumps here too. Strangely, this afternoon, prior to reading this I snuck into a Veterans for peace conference at UW and perused the booths of peace groups….a relevant excerpt from the western washington nonviolent peaceforce. The leaflet is titled, ‘nonviolent peaceforce’. Under methods, they describe ‘interpositioning’: Peaceforce workers may place themselves between opposing groups in an atttempt to prevent violence, thus creating cooling off time and a space for local groups to peacefully resolve their conflicts’

  • Mike Timonin

    “There’s only one damn song that can make me break down and cry…”
    It’s not true that a musical history of the civil rights movement begins with “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” and ends with “We Shall Overcome”, but it ought to be.

  • Steve

    Ephrata, PA–home of Floyd Landis….for what its worth.

  • Scott

    When the worst the IRS can do to collect the money your ‘compassion’ requires is surround my house and sing, then you can talk about nonviolence.

  • Ray

    Likewise, when you agree that you don’t want to ban child labour or immigrants being hired to clear asbestos with no safety equipment, we can be clear on what you mean by freedom.

  • Lila

    I live within easy hiking distance of the last mass lynching in the US, and no number of Scotts will convince me that we should return to the days when U.S. citizens could get away with murder on account of race.

  • Fred

    Honestly Scott, I’m trying to make sense of your objection to the nonviolent actions referred to above. Help me out here. What can your reflexive rejection of nonviolence possibly mean in this context?
    Are you saying that the Black Student Leagues of small liberal arts colleges need to be armed? Or did you mean that it would have been better if the Soviet Union had been overthrown with a violent revolution instead of by “people power” demonstrations?
    Or did you mean it’s a Good Thing that the Tyrannical Police State Opressors of the deep south did not squelch liberty by employing their evil Stalinist police tactics against the Klan members who killed my friend’s uncle?
    I’m fairly sure you didn’t mean that last one — since that illustrates a little too clearly how a totally laissez faire, hands-off, disarmed IRS/police/government utopia of unfettered freedom would quickly devolve into a lawless Hobbesian jungle where the strong prey on the weak and personal liberty exists only for those capable of defending it individually with lethal force. And since such an obvious point is kryptonite for libertarians, you couldn’t have meant that.
    So help me out: Why do you find this peaceful student protest upsetting?

  • Mike Timonin

    I think what Scott is trying to say is that he should be allowed to resist, with violence, the IRS and any other group interested in taking his money, either as tax or other form of theft. Because, as we know, Scott believes that taxation = theft. When the IRS is not allowed to send armed police to his house if he refuses to pay his taxes, he will concede that non-violence is the best response. It’s very Malcolm X of him, really.

  • perianwyr

    Or he’s just a fucking joker making a fucking joke.
    I figured that he *was* the joke, though.

  • Bruce Garrett

    That was beautiful Fred. Thank you.

  • the opoponax

    i know Scott’s just a troll, and baiting trolls is stupid, but this is something i’ve always wondered about the Libertarian Cause.
    how, exactly, is taxation theft? how? do you drive on roads? use your local library and parks? watch PBS or listen to NPR? ever needed to call 911 in an emergency? if you run a business, have you ever employed people who were educated in public schools? and in a larger sense, have you ever driven on an interstate highway? ever stopped for a piss at a rest stop? visited a national park or public beach?
    oh yeah, have you ever shopped at wal-mart, bought a car, purchased gasoline, or flown in a plane recently?
    where do you think money for all those “free” services comes from? where does the government get the money to subsidize all those industries and corporations?
    oh, that’s right. taxes. i mean, sure. theoretically we could all function in a society where every little service was privatized and we all had to buy our own books and put our children through private schools. but wouldn’t it suck? firstly, isn’t it nice to sometimes feel that you’re getting something free? every time i check out a stack of books from the library, i feel like i have REALLY pulled one over on Barnes & Noble. even though i have really already paid my share via taxes. secondly, doing all this on a huge scale via the government actually makes things cheaper on average compared to paying only one’s own way all the time. i play soccer free in my neighorhood park every weekend, in a league, real field and everything. i could pay $500 per season for the same privelige via one of the bigger gyms in the area, and i’d have to commute over to their indoor field every weekend (when i don’t even LIKE indoor soccer). why do that when i’ve already payed like $2 this year for the city to employ people to maintain a field on my behalf, just like i like it, right in my own neighborhood?

  • delagar

    I so love that song. mr. delagar learned it in grade school, in PA. I never learned it until my mama went out on strike — she teaching in the public schools, making eight thousand a year when that was no money at all, teaching in the projects, they were on strike for two months in the worst heat of the year in the worst neighborhoods of the city, they would sing that song: We shall overcome; we are not afraid. They were lots of them dirt poor, these teachers. Lots of them single mothers, living just outside the project. They were afraid, many of them. My mother was one of the few who had a fella with another income. But they did overcome. And did a little good, for a little while.

  • Raphael

    The funny thing is that I’m not sure that Scott is a libertarian. From some comments he made, I get the impression that he’s to some extent a pro-Bush conservative. I could be wrong on that, but if I’m right, I wonder what he thinks where the money for the Global War On Terror comes from.
    Or perhaps he’s just saying that noone- at least noone who’s a part of regular society in a half-way organized country- can really call himself nonviolent. If that’s his point, I’d say he’s right on that. (I’m not a pacifist.)

  • Jesurgislac

    The funny thing is that I’m not sure that Scott is a libertarian.
    Fundamentally, I think Scott is a troll, and that is his real politics. Which is why I think he’s not worth arguing with (though I like Fred’s occasional little-yet-devastating ripostes, still…)

  • Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome

    God bless Bruce Springsteen.
    And read this story from Slacktivist about the power of this hymn.

  • Anarch

    Beautiful. Thanks, Fred.

  • Brandi

    The funny thing is that I’m not sure that Scott is a libertarian.
    I’ve run into a surprising number of self-proclaimed Libertarians online who support the Bush administration despite the fact that their expansion of federal power and scope should be about as far away from Libertarianism as it gets.

  • Davis X. Machina

    There used to be a web-site for a movement dedicated to making “We shall overcome” our national anthem, in place of the unsingable “Star Spangled Banner”.

  • Ray

    That’s kind of hilarious. The world’s only superpower has “We shall overcome” as it’s national anthem? Will that be before or after the liberals ban Christmas, and start throwing Christians to the lions?

  • cjmr’s husband

    Well, it would certainly be after the appearance of flying pigs over Hell’s new ski resort.

  • Susie from Philly

    Beautiful. I keep reading all these “logical” arguments about why it was perfectly okay for Israel to bomb civilians, and it makes me crazy. Thanks for this dose of sanity.

  • bill

    Opponax: Taxation, in many cases, is theft. If I walked up behind you with a gun to take money out of your pocket to give to someone else, I would be arrested. But, if the government does it, it is “compassion.” I drive on roads, and am willing to pay for them. The military defends me, and I am willing to pay for that. I am also willing to pay to support any individual who can not, through any fault of their own, take care of themselves, which is why I generously give to charitable causes. But I am not willing to pay for NPR, PBS, libraries or parks in some other part of the country. The Constitution clearly defines what taxes can be used for, and we have gone so far away from that mandate is almost laughable. Why in the world should a portion of my tax dollars go to allow you to use a park or library in your city? If local governments want to raise taxes to pay for these things, fine. But the federal government simply shouldn’t be involved.

  • Jeff

    Shorter bill:
    I live in a rich community. If you don’t, too bad. Your loss.
    shorter bill # 2:
    Anyone who couldn’t leave NOLA before Katrina got what they deserved.

  • wintermute

    Bill: For that matter, why should taxes collected in your suburb of a city go to fund another suburb, or even the city center? Why should taxes collected in your street fund road improvements in the next street over? Why should taxes collected in your house be used to fund anything outside your front door?
    How local does “local government” have to be, before it’s justified in levying a tax? Why?

  • wintermute

    Bill: For that matter, why should taxes collected in your suburb of a city go to fund another suburb, or even the city center? Why should taxes collected in your street fund road improvements in the next street over? Why should taxes collected in your house be used to fund anything outside your front door?
    How local does “local government” have to be, before it’s justified in levying a tax? Why?

  • Duane

    Why do I have to pay for Bill’s damn roads if I don’t drive??

  • Duane

    Why do I have to pay for Bill’s damn roads if I don’t drive??

  • the opoponax

    “But I am not willing to pay for NPR, PBS, libraries or parks in some other part of the country.”
    only very tiny quantities of your federal taxes ever go to community-based infrastructure. that’s what your state and local taxes pay for. but state and local taxes are still taxes. so does the entire libertarian taxation = theft argument hinge on not wanting the FEDERAL government to levy taxes to fund local services? because, to my knowledge, it doesn’t.
    “The Constitution clearly defines what taxes can be used for, and we have gone so far away from that mandate is almost laughable.”
    this is what the constitution says regarding taxation: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States”
    that isn’t very specific at all about what taxes can be used for. i don’t see why this would necessarily limit federal taxation to specifically federal projects. i would add that one of the major weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation was that they were too restrictive on taxation. which created so many problems that, within a few years, they were scrapped.
    also, i don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but times have changed in the 200-odd years since the constitution was ratified. technology has created a much smaller world, and thus in a lot more situations, the lines between ‘national’ and ‘local’ are blurred. for instance in the case of PBS and NPR, which are actually both funded and managed on a complex mix of federal, state, and local levels. because broadcasting by its nature is a lot less local in scope than, say, whose sheep should get to graze on the village green.

  • dr ngo

    Bill: I don’t want to pay for a stupid, unnecessary, and unjust war.
    Where should I sign up to get my refund?

  • ohiolibrarian

    Could someone get Bill and Scott copies of Stone Soup? It’s a picture book. Maybe then they’ll get it!

  • Taylor

    wow. this is an absolutely incredible story, and you tell it very well. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.

  • Lynn Kendall

    Beautiful story.
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time, but only now do I realize you went to Eastern.
    (I was there 1976-1979; although I ended up getting my degree from Temple University, I cherish the most affectionate memories of Eastern, its faculty, and its philosophy.)

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  • Les Stark

    My name is Les Stark and I am from Ephrata, Pa. The rally was 25 years ago but I remember it well for several reasons. I was three months out of the Marine Corps and I lived on Ridge Ave, right down the street from where the Klan rally was announced. I called for a peaceful protest, sent out a press release to the local paper and got the word out. My protest was in the downtown area. We chose there to purposefully avoid the madness that was going on at the bottom of Ridge Ave and near the site. Ours was a peaceful demonstration. About 100 people showed up at my protest. Old ladies, blue collar workers, religious people, students, you name it. As I led the protest I was interviewed for a local documentary and also photographed by the Ephrata Review. There coverage of the event won them a journalism award and I am on the cover. That issue hangs in the display window in the Review building in the center of town as a permanent reminder of the day, there I am leading the peaceful protest. After our rally, I marched the entire group down to the Ephrata Park where there was a peaceful candlelight vigil with several hundred attending. So the madness you saw there was only part of the story. That was my first taste of activism. I am now an activist for hemp and wrote a book called Hempstone Heritage, a book about the history of the hemp industry in Pennsylvania. Peace.