Changing the World Through Song: A Post for MLK Jr. Day

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a SongLast year’s post, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, continues to be one of my most read and shared posts. I don’t think there’s any way to top Kadir Nelson’s moving picture book biography of King, so I thought I’d talk this year, not about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but about his followers—the ones who marched, the ones who stood up for what they believed, the ones who sang. I was giddy with excitement to discover Debbie Levy’s new picture book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Ages 5-10)—one, because I have always loved that song (it crops up at surprising times, like when I’m hiding in the bathroom in an attempt to keep from screaming at my children); and two, because music has recently taken our house by a storm.

We recently put a CD player in our six-year-old’s bedroom. This is one of those parenting moments where the effect is so immediate, so Life-Changingly Awesome, that you wonder why on earth you didn’t think of it earlier. Sure, my kids have listened to music in the car, in the living room, in music classes; but they’ve never been the boss of their music. Now, JP and his sister spend hours upstairs, hosting “dancing parties” (which I’m occasionally invited to attend), marking up Post-Its with their favorite song names, singing along, or just sprawling across the bed staring at the ceiling and listening. This new-found relationship with music couldn’t be better timed, as JP is battling with elementary-aged angst: the stresses of a little sister; of having parents who “force you to do stuff”; and of the social and academic demands of school—all of which have resulted in some not-too-subtle explosions of frustration. Sometimes the only way I can get him back on track is to send him to his room to lose himself in music. He is beginning to discover the way certain songs can change people (for him, it appears to be Phillip Phillip’s “Home”).

On the cover of We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, a young African-American girl belts out the lyrics in the foreground, while a multiracial line of singers hold hands in the background. In many cases, the most successful non-fiction for kids has a hook, a linchpin narrative around which facts gently fall into place. Here, a single song—”We Shall Overcome”—allows author Levy to introduce children to people’s repeated efforts across history to fight for freedom and equal rights. The story begins with American slavery (where the song has its roots in the cotton fields, although it was sung then as “I’ll be all right”); to the Civil Rights Movement (where the “We” was born—in marches, sit-ins, rallies, and in the heart of King himself); to President Lyndon Johnson’s famous televised speech (where he invoked the song’s lyrics in his appeal to Congress for Equal Voting Rights); to places like South Africa and the Middle East (where similar battles of discrimination have and continue to be fought); and finally, to the night when Barack Obama was elected President (and crowds around our country sang the anthem once more).

I can’t remember the last time a book on such a serious, sensitive subject had such color, energy, and accessibility for a young audience. The timeline at the end of the book details the historic events; consequently, the story itself—fittingly written in lyrical, sing-song verse—is allowed to breathe with sentiment and struggle, with passion and perseverance. Referring to slaves, the story begins:

They suffered, yet they sang—
to soothe the hurt,
to fight the cruelty,
to declare that—yes!—they were human beings.

When in the 1960s, black students entered and took their seats in a white restaurant, the story goes:

They didn’t ask for free food.
They didn’t want special service.
They just wanted to buy a meal,
like any white person could.
The students sat and sat,
waiting
for hamburgers, doughnuts, and sodas
that never came.
The students sat and waited until they were arrested,
and as they were taken away to jail,
they sang:
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid today…

Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s collage illustrations are playfully, vividly colorful, with an emphasis on stirring facial expressions (almost everyone pictured is singing) as much as the fashions of the time (it’s no wonder she has a second degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology). Worked into every single picture are lyrics from the song, so that, by the end, my kids were singing right along with me (after all, part of the infectious nature of this song is its sheer simplicity and repetition). Later, courtesy of the book’s afterward, we looked up and listened to recordings of “We Shall Come” on the Internet, as well as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Johnson’s Congressional address. The power of protesting made such an impression on JP that he later marched through the house with a cardboard sign that read, “I will not go skiing again” (this on the heels of a disastrous first skiing lesson the day before.) It seems even my three year old has been altered: as she was climbing into her chair last night at dinner, I caught her mumbling, “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.”

Pete Seeger sings the song for Martin Luther King Jr. and it becomes the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

Pete Seeger sings the song for Martin Luther King Jr. and it becomes the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

There is so much we can learn from studying the courage and conviction, the losses and the triumphs, of the Civil Rights Movement. It will be years before my children can appreciate the sheer enormity of what these people fought for. For now, they are absorbing bits and pieces. I can only hope that if (or when) they face adversity in their own lives, small or big, that they will continue to turn to music as a source of support and hope.

Other Favorites About the Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement:
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song, by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney (Ages 6-12)
We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World, by Stuart Slotts & Terrance Cummings (Ages 9-15)

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