Ella’s Song


A protester shouts as she moves away from a line of riot police, Ferguson MO, 8/13/14
A protester shouts as she moves away from a line of riot police, Ferguson MO, 8/13/14

The Freedom Summer Panel around a week ago fell at the same time as a number of vigils around Philadelphia in solidarity with the people of Ferguson.  Given the event’s title, “Freedom Summer:  50 Years On”, it felt natural to draw the discussion the impact of the Mississippi Summer Project, and more specifically, whether this country has made any progress at all.

Needless to say, when I broached the subject, the conversation veered from optimism to complete despair. We talked about connections between racism and poverty, about voting rights, about the significance of a black president, and the significance of another young black man who would be alive if he were white.  What needs to change?  Police accountability?  Our economic system?  Our cultural priorities?

The event room in  the wonderful but tiny Big Blue Marble Books was on their second floor, and jam-packed.  People– including some old enough to remember 1964– were standing in the back and even sitting on the steps.  I felt helpless and glum and certain that I needed to wrap things up before people started to faint from heat exhaustion (including me).  I knew something was missing (as it turned out, one big thing that was missing was expressing thanks to The Head and the Hand Press for setting up the event and publishing my work),  I walked down to the first floor in a blue funk, and it was only when I had said my goodbyes and was outside that I knew what should have happened in that room:

mfdp-vigil2 fannie lou hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer singing in Atlantic City 1964

We should have sung.

All of the men on the panel mentioned the importance of singing in the movement, particularly performances by Theodore Bikel who they claimed sang “The Times They Are A’Changin” better than Dylan.  Rabbi Waskow even went so far as to sing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” with Fannie Lou Hamer’s lyrics about the Mississippi hero Bob Moses.  Singing would have made us wake up, bear the heat a little better, and even put us in touch with something deeper.

And as I lay beside my very forgiving husband who was probably just on the verge of falling asleep, I said, “We should have sung Ella’s Song.”

Click on that hyper-link in blue, folks.  It’s important.  It has the tune and lyrics.

ella3Ella Baker  (1903-1986) was the founding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) the group that spearheaded Freedom Summer, and she advocated for a bottom-up model of organizing, listening rather than leading, and respecting the the power and wisdom of young people.   Sweet Honey and the Rock’s Bernice Johnson-Reagan (SNCC 1959-1965) wrote this song with the words adapted from Ella’s speeches and writings:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons

Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

Can anyone thing of anything more appropriate to sing that night, with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson on our minds?   And can we stand up to the challenge of Ella’s restlessness?

There’s a lot more to the song.  Listen to it for yourself if you didn’t click the last time.  Those who know me well– particularly my family– know that I’m a shameless singer who isn’t afraid to look ridiculous and even manages to stay on key, but this song really needs a drum, a few tambourines, and some close harmony.  Anyone want to join me?

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