Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lift Every Voice

The song was already 68 years old when I heard it for the first time.

I listened to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also called the African American National Anthem, at a memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that I attended in April 1968. It is a brooding, soaring, and inspirational piece of music. I was embarrassed at the time that I did not know the words.

Monday is the national holiday that honors Dr. King, one of the truly heroic figures of my time.

When “Life Every Voice” was written in 1900, there were Jim Crow laws in America, and they were enforced in some states as late as 1965. Lynchings were commonplace in the first half of the 20th Century. The Ku Klux Klan continued as a formidable presence well into my lifetime.

I remember being at a band concert one night when I was perhaps ten years old. I overheard two men talking, one trying to impress the other with a story from his childhood – his father had taken him as a young boy to see a lynching. He told the man that he didn't see the actual lynching, but he did arrive in time to see someone drive "a hot poker through the body" as it hung from the tree. I was horrified to hear such a description and dismayed that a parent would be part of it, let alone expose his child to it.

A few years ago, Pam Johnson, Community General’s CFO wrote a letter to her fellow employees about tolerance and diversity, and she spoke about her own experiences and how her views were shaped during Dr. King’s years:
My parents were active in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s….

I had a childhood of door-to-door voter registration drives, protest marches, and rallies….My parents’ neighbors would not let their kids play with me in “protest” over my parents having people of color at our house. My father was badly beat up one night for his efforts in registering people to vote….
How ugly, how incredible, as we look back now, that such circumstances could have existed in this country.

Dr. King is a central figure in our history. He helped change not only the laws of America but also the hearts of many Americans. Let us remember and honor him.

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