From August 11, 2006, “How I learned that song”
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.