My organization held a screening of the film Soundtrack for a Revolution back in November of 2016 – the PBS film highlights music as a tool for social change during the civil rights movement. Our screening was a response to the then-recent election of an unapologetic racist to the highest office in America. Since, the US president’s actions and words have, sadly, only re-enforced and added to his campaign rhetoric and long, well-documented personal history of racist words and deeds.
The US is currently in the middle of the only weekend, long for some, that our country takes to honor a black man – The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This past Friday, in an event timed to coincide with the holiday weekend, I attended a day-long training on Kingian Nonviolence sponsored by Lurie Children’s Hospital and put on by the Addie Wyatt Center for Nonviolence Training. As we talked through the great civil rights leader’s principles of using nonviolent resistance to advocate for societal change, the notion of a soundtrack for resistance came up a few times. There was indeed a nice soundtrack playing as we gathered and ate breakfast, reminding us of the place of music in the movement.
King’s most powerful words are delivered with a powerful musical cadence; to listen is to become enraptured. Such are his abilities in stirring emotion and prompting action that an emotional foot-tapping along is involuntary. I’ve written a few times about music as a coping mechanism for humanity, a force to dispel the darkness that can envelop us during situations of fear and grief. For King and other great leaders fighting for change, despair was never the tenor of the struggle. Hope is the beacon with which he led:
“I have a dream today … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning. “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.”
His soaring oratory rallied legions – but in King’s era, opportunities to stand in front of crowds and go viral were less prevalent than they are now. Fortunately, King’s skills in the written word – classical rhetoric – possessed the same musical qualities. Rooted in a deep, profound belief in his God, his writing contains the same glory. Much as the great classical composers conjured their deity through composition, it’s impossible to deny the power of words wrought in emulation of the Most High.
But in promoting action, King’s soaring hope had to be accompanied by an exposition of the need for change, and nobody could do so more passionately. Prosody in prose is a tough thing to nail down, but we know it when we see it, such as in this excerpt from his masterful Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written from a cell in 1963 to a diverse group of fellow clergymen opposed to his emerging protest movement:
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those that have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch our mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black bothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro bothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people […..] then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
One of the principles of nonviolent resistance is the acceptance of suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal. King and his contemporaries, mired in a culture with root causes that led to great suffering, decided to take on more of the same in service of a cause. The causes they identified: segregation, income inequality, and racial prejudice and animus, remain just causes for us all. Imagining the suffering of King, of Lewis, of the young men at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, of the family of Eric Garner and so many others, renders my own merely mental anguish on the subject of the deep racial inequalities that persist in our world into something less than an errant eyelash. Those who have truly suffered and decided to take on additional suffering to struggle for righteousness against darkness for the distant promise of the light are an inspiration; to the extent that mere allies can take on any tiny part of it, we must.
The final principle of nonviolent resistance is my favorite – the universe is on the side of justice. But it doesn’t necessarily act quickly; as many have noticed, the arc of the moral universe is long. But when we believe in eventual triumph, it’s easier for the music of the spheres to ring true. Out of the mountain of despair came Martin Luther King Jr., a stone of hope. Surely, we all have a moral imperative to carry his work forward.
Thanks for reading.