I don’t think I will ever hear or sing “We Shall Overcome” without crying. Its music and words evoke such powerful memories within me.
I remember the sky-blue Wednesday of Aug. 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington. On the day of that eventful march, there were predictions of possible violence. No one knew what was going to happen. And nobody knew how many people would actually come. I was so naïve that I thought everyone would come forward to “speak out with their feet.” For me, it was a non-decision. It was a way we could take action to make a difference. Of course I would be there.
People kept coming and coming. The mass of marchers grew huge. At the time, Washington, D.C., newspapers and news reports argued as to the number. Early media reports said not even 100,000 “if that many.” Observers and the march organizers maintained there were at least 250,000 people.
I was pressed to the front of the crowd, walking just four steps behind the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As the crowd filled the Mall, I ended up at the base of the steps leading to the Lincoln Memorial. There I breathed the air of promise.
The music of Marian Anderson, Odetta, Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, and Peter, Paul, and Mary enthralled me. But it was the “I Have A Dream” speech by King that was the heady climax of an incredible day that changed my life forever.
When Joan Baez led the crowd to sing “We Shall Overcome” together, we became one gigantic organism — united in the conviction that the impossible could become possible. At that moment, I became a part of a movement that refused to be thwarted. For me, it was a new lens to look at the world in a myriad of ways.
Every January as we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, the day is about far more than honoring the life of this extraordinary man. So many of the same challenges of 1963 still face the world, while other demands for change have evolved from the spirit of this one day in which so many people converged in our nation’s capital.
King left a legacy in the many quotes from his speeches and writings, but perhaps the wisest words he spoke were that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
This January, we wait for diplomatic efforts with Iran to bear fruit, worry and grieve over the destruction in Syria, and watch the Egyptian people struggle to learn what democracy means. It is the last words of “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem dedicated to change, that resound the most:
We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.
Clem J. Nagel is a writer/poet from Fridley. In 1963 he was a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
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