These were the words sung to us by Miss Joyce O’Neal at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, the first stop of our Peace and Justice trip last month to Alabama. Last October, on my first day in the office as NCG’s new Programs and Events Manager, our President and CEO Ellen LaPointe approached me and said, “Daniel, we have an incredible opportunity to meet with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative and visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I’d like you to help us design the trip.” I was stunned by the enormity, but managed to reply and nod my head vigorously.
Miss Joyce continued to sing us freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement, sharing the emotions and the sense of unity the songs brought to the Black community. Miss Joyce was a foot soldier, a young activist who as a teenager risked her life to stand up for equal rights and change the segregated world of the 1960s. Her songs and soulful voice transported me to a place that felt far away yet terribly present in today’s criminalization and the defacto segregation of much of our present-day schools and housing.
The power of music and song continued throughout our travels in the South. In Montgomery, Michelle Browder – entrepreneur and founder of More Than Tours – took us around the city and had us singing:
We chimed in with our own verse and sang: “Aint gonna let no wall turn us ‘round.”
This connection to California and the current-day social and political context around our Southern border, immigrants, and family separations reminded me of the power of rhythm in other social movements closer to home.
During the United Farm Workers grape strike of 1965, Larry Itliong led Filipino farmworkers and joined forces with Cesar Chavez and the Chicano National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to organize for fair pay and labor practices. To bridge the language and communication barriers between the Filipino and Latino members, the workers practiced a Unity Clap. Starting slowly, following the rhythm of the heartbeat and with individuals clapping distinctly, the claps become louder and quicker until no single person’s clap can be distinguished from another. The ritual ends with someone yelling “Isang Bagsak!” and one final clap in unison. The farmworkers used this ritual to end a work day, express solidarity, and mark important decisions.
Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of NFWA, also coined the term “Sí, se puede” during the farmworkers movement, which inspired President Barack Obama’s own campaign battle cry.
As I continue to reflect on our time in the South visiting and paying respect to Civil Rights leaders and victims of racial violence, I find myself wondering about the songs and rhythms of solidarity and collective resistance today. How can philanthropy support music, arts, and culture in social justice movement and capacity-building? We have to keep marching to the rhythm of justice to get to the freedom land.