In American history, the true essence of any spiritual began with the secret inner most desire of a slave trying to tell his or her story. The spirituals became the vessel in which the slave could express their feelings yet remain invisible from detection during a time the slaves were not allowed to have a voice. The spirituals are both comforting & courage building while capturing the vibrant essence and beauty of our common humanity.The spirituals have transcended time for hundreds of years, and became adaptable for each generations needs and concerns because of how they were created by the slaves as they labored in the cotton fields of the Old South. A slave would start a song, allowing others to join in, and what is so amazing was each slave had their own stories in mind while singing together. The music invited each individual to tell his or her story, and feel connected to the each other doing the same thing around them bringing a sense of community, when reality made that nearly impossible.
This simple communal singing has such beauty and healing power for the soul that the only way to hear a spiritual was to feel it first and therefore each generation felt comfortable enough to cross all boundaries to achieve the same communal connection to the people around them. In the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement, the spirituals played another important role in our history. Dr. King said: “An important part of the mass meetings were the freedom songs. In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the song the slaves sang— the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “ We shall overcome, black and white together, We shall overcome someday.” … “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Conner in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of America’s most amazing Civil Rights leaders is Congressman John Lewis (GA). He was kind enough to share his own story with me, regarding his use of the spirituals during the Civil Rights Movement. This short video is not only inspiring but educational, it shows the true measure of a great man for all he has done and continues to do for our country. I am deeply grateful for his support and co-sponsorship of House Resolution 120 in 2007, recognizing the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure and for sharing his story with me in this video regarding his years on the front line of the Movement. Paying it forward one story at a time…….are you in?