"We shall overcome. We shall overcome."--I've heard these words sung so many times this past week down on the Square. The protest song probably hit its emotional apex last Friday when Jesse Jackson swept into town and led a huge crowd inside the Capitol in the singing of the revered anthem. This particular song made sense for him for so many reasons. It is so strongly associated with both the labor as well as the civil rights movements that it got me thinking: What are the lessons can my kids learn from watching a worker's rights campaign unfold a 10-minute bus ride away from home -- smack dab in the middle of Black History Month?
In my limited and admittedly weak research (Wikipedia, okay?). I learned that "We Shall Overcome" is based on a spiritual and was first committed to paper at the turn of the century by an African American minister in Philadelphia. But the hymn really gained traction in fall of 1945 when the predominantly female and black members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union began their five-month strike against the American Tobacco Company.
As we've seen down at the Capitol this week, music can really help keep hope alive in bad winter weather. One of the strikers, Lucille Simmons, led the picketers in an early version of the song at the end of each day's protest. Simmons, in turn, taught the song to Zilphia Horton, the music director of the Highland Folk School; a Tennessee based training school for the labor movement in the South.
Through Horton, Pete Seeger was introduced to the lyrics. He changed what was then "We'll Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" because it was easier to sing, and published it in his People's Songs Bulletin in September of 1948. The rest is protest music history.
But something else pretty amazing was happening in a different African American labor movement in the late 1940's, as well. It is precisely this time period that opens the Children's Theater of Madison's current production Most Valuable Player-The Story of Jackie Robinson We meet Jackie (an inspiring Trevon Jackson) in 1948, the year after he's broken the color line in baseball, and he's hit a bit of a slump. The play is told in flashback from here, with the audience learning more about the torment Robinson endured at the hands of school kids growing up, and the racism he encountered in college sports that continued well into his baseball career.
So, while Seeger was helping to make "We Shall Overcome" the musical symbol of the strength that comes with hope, Robinson was finding the strength to take the field -- to play with heart while facing insults, death threats and the cleats of opposing players digging purposefully into his leg. While Zilphia Horton was learning lyrics, Robinson's white Dodger teammate Pee Wee Reese was putting his arm around him in solidarity and support, silencing the Cincinnati hecklers during the team's first road trip in 1947. Yes, precisely while this song was making its way around activist circles, Robinson, with the constant encouragement of visionary and supportive Dodger's General Manager Branch Rickey (a perfectly cast Sam White), was making his way around bases to win the National League's Most Valuable Player award in 1949.
My two younger kids and I didn't know a lot about Jackie Robinson before seeing the production this past weekend. But we all came away with an amazing appreciation for everything he did to advance civil rights in this country. Robinson came nearly a decade before Rosa Parks wouldn't move to the back of the bus. His story occurred a full twenty years before Martin Luther King was assassinated while in Memphis to lend his support to the racially charged Memphis Sanitation strike.
As we enter the second week of protests and a time of uncertainty, I am thinking about Jackie Robinson and the lessons he taught my kids and me. There are intersections of these two waves of fighting for our rights that I don't want to lose in awkward explanations of budget shortfalls and collective bargaining. Yes, I am worried about this city and about my country. And I am worried about my state and the state of public education. But just thinking about what he had to overcome, and the grace in which he did it, gives me resolve to overcome -- whatever that might end up meaning.