With no guest lecture and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we reprise this Morning Feature from two years ago. (More)

We Shall Overcome

Today’s Morning Feature, in honor of this week’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, concerns race and the famous civil rights protest song “We Shall Overcome.” (This article was originally published on January 20, 2009, the date of President Obama’s inauguration.)

It is a cry for justice offered by many voices. From Pete Seeger to Mahalia Jackson to Joan Baez to Bruce Springsteen, and countless other singers. President Lyndon Johnson used the title in a speech. And the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned it into a sermon.

We shall overcome … We shall not be moved … On to victory … We’ll walk hand in hand … Truth shall set us free … We shall live in peace … Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome … someday.

The words are both simple and profound. There are alternative verses, though nowhere will you find the words my parents heard whenever the song was played in the late 1960s: “We shall overcome … the world.”

Because those lyrics were never in the song, except in the minds of people terrified by the prospect of social change. “We shall overcome” was never about conquest. It was never about reversing the social order so blacks would rule over white slaves. I suppose my parents hearing it that way said more about them than it could ever have said about Dr. King or anyone else in the civil rights movement.

It was the error of projection, assuming others see the world as you do, and attributing to them your own malign ideas. If you want racial inequality, those who resist you could not want racial equality. No, they must also want racial inequality. It is simply that they want to be the favored race. So “We shall overcome … someday” is heard as “We shall overcome … the world.”

I’ve not spoken to them in years. An openly lesbian daughter did not fit with their fundamentalist worldview. I love them, but I don’t love the things they say to Herself, the Springoffs, or me. So we don’t talk, and I’ve no idea what they thought as they watched Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. But unless a lot has changed since last we spoke, they will watch the inaugural – if they watch it at all – with fear rather than hope in their hearts.

Racial privilege, the only privilege to which they were born, does that to people. It tempts you with a double-slice of life’s pie while others get only the crumbs that fall from the table. But like Mephistopheles in Dr. Faust, only after you’ve eaten does it tell you the cruel price: that you will forever believe that the pie cannot be sliced equally, that you must forever get that double-slice or you will get only the crumbs. Privilege stains the hearts of those who possess it, even if unwillingly.

President Obama’s inauguration marked another step in the halting, uneven American journey away from double-slices for some and crumbs for the rest. Today is not the finish line. Far from it. But it’s another step forward.

And deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome … someday.


Happy Wednesday!