Not long after we sang, “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowing In the Wind,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Mary took my hand and whispered to me, “Peter, we are watching history being made.”
Mary, Noel Paul and I knew it, and a quarter of a million people at that March on Washington knew it. But it was not until many years later that we realized that this 1963 March on Washington not only signaled the coming-of-age of the civil rights movement, but that this movement would reverse much (not all, of course) of the previously intractable legacy of slavery that was just accepted as “the way it was” and, ultimately, this movement would usher in the election of a person of color as President of the United States. At the time, such a possibility was inconceivable.
Why is this march, this movement, so important to remember today? Because beyond that triumph, that march gave us another great gift. From that point on, and because of the movement that followed, Americans leaned for the first time that that if ordinary people — not the rich, the privileged or the powerful — just ordinary people, stand together with their hearts locked in common cause, their voices singing, their determination filling their souls, we can meet the “enemy” and change the course of history.
There was much blood spilled, there was great suffering and sacrifice, there were many deaths, and yet courageously these Civil Rights activists stood firm – and in the words of that famous song, they would not “let nobody turn them round.” Mary, Noel Paul and I sang, marched, demonstrated and shared the tragedy of loss with members of the families of those who fell on the front lines of the struggle. We sang “Blowing In the Wind” at the laying of the gravestone of Andrew Goodman, one of three college students who came to Mississippi to register black voters in the summer of 1964, and were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Today, for all of us facing the dire threats that tomorrow will surely turn into a reality, we need to remember that the bravery of those who gave so much to bestow greater justice upon our land did, in fact, prevail. Today, we need to gather our hearts, our inspiration and our courage by remembering this history and what we learned from it by standing on the shoulders of those undaunted Americans who sacrificed everything, even their lives, and refused to be “turned around.”
Now is the time that we need to remember that, if we stand together, we will have the power to turn back what are the most fearful of threats to our rights and freedoms that I, for one, have ever seen in my adult life. Now is the time for us to remember, as we stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated and John Lewis, who was clubbed unconscious and almost lost his life while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, that despite impossible odds, victories were won and inconceivable progress was achieved.
To me, when I hear the new president denigrating and trivializing the sacrifice and courage of Congressman John Lewis, and by inference, denigrating Dr. Martin Luther King and the many, many, who fought and died in the struggle for Civil Rights and an end to institutional racism in our country, I realize that our new president is blind and deaf to the most sacred legacies of sacrifice and honor in our country.
This is not news to any of us but it is important for us to realize that a boundary has been crossed, a travesty that it is unimaginable for us to consider that anyone might contemplate, let alone execute, who might be seeking public office in our halls of Congress, let alone the presidency itself.
However, that being said, it is no longer the time to stand in amazement, fascinated and disbelieving. The time for hypothesizing has come and gone. It’s true. It’s here. It is time to stand together, it is the time for love and action… yes, love and action.
It is only with our love for our fellow men and women, our fellow Americans, no matter how they voted, to join together and stand up for what America can and must be. This we must do if we are to survive as a democracy and continue to retain any semblance of being a moral nation.
We must inspire our better angels in each other, as did the Civil Rights activists before us.
I’ve never seen anything accomplished in the grass roots movements, any effort be successful, that emanated from any internal place other than love and the embrace of non-violence. That is the lesson and legacy of Martin Luther King and John Lewis and those who stood with them.
What will drive this victory will not be the reactive, returned, brass knuckles cruelty that we will be facing. We must inspire our better angels in each other, as did the Civil Rights activists before us.
I am older now, yes, but I can still sing and still bring people together as I stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger and The Weavers, The Almanac Singers, Woody and many more.
I cannot predict what will happen and when a travesty will come out of the political inconceivables who surround us that will mobilize us because there is pain, suffering, injustice that is so blatant that it cannot be tolerated. But I know this will happen — and when it does, I know that music of heart will be needed once more and that many will be singing and that I shall be singing as well.
Let me just be grateful for one thing; With the insensitivity and the cowardly attack on my hero and friend, John Lewis, the extent of the ignorance and pathology of the president has evidenced itself and shown us how truly low he can go, how he can (possibly unknowingly, due to his extreme narcissism and ignorance) trample on the best that is our country. Now, as the remarkable Michelle Obama has said, it’s time for us to “go high.”
Tomorrow and tomorrow, we must focus on one thing above all others because doing so will give us the strength to prevail. We Americans are capable of love, capable of compassion, capable of humility, capable of healing our divides. We are still, and have never stopped being, Americans ― faulted, sometimes grievously mistaken, sometimes destructive and cruel but also capable of being a moral and loving people who sometimes, and sometimes again, stand up for justice when the chips are down. We must, we will, and thank goodness we are, doing so once again.