Pete Seeger and “We Shall Overcome”

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, in  1957.

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy, in 1957.

Earlier this year,  on January 27, acclaimed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away at the age of ninety-four.  Seeger had a long and distinguished career, beginning in the 1930s when he was just a teenager. He was instrumental in the movement to re-popularize folk music in the 1950s and 1960s; was blacklisted for his leftist political ideals and was indicted for contempt of congress for his refusal to answer questions from bullying House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955; and was an early champion of the music of Bob Dylan. Later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, he used his music to protest the Vietnam War, and lent his talents to many other causes. He performed at the 2009 inaugural concert for President Barack Obama, and continued writing and performing tirelessly up until the end of his life.

But one of the things Seeger is most known for is the song “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Seeger didn’t write “We Shall Overcome.” Like many folk songs, it was pieced together from several sources and passed from musician to musician, each adding their own unique element to it, though it was mostly derived from a 1901 gospel song called “I’ll Overcome Someday.” By the time Seeger began performing the song, it had become “We Will Overcome.” Seeger changed the key lyric slightly, “We will” became “We shall,” as he felt that the revised phrase had a powerful, open sound when sung. He also wrote several new verses for the song. Seeger’s version of the song was performed by many folk singers, and quickly became popular amongst activists fighting for civil rights and laborers’ rights*. Seeger played the song at a 1957 performance: Martin Luther King Jr. was in the audience. Though King was familiar with the song, he was particularly struck by Seeger’s version.

By the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” was known by everyone in the Civil Rights Movement, and they sang it proudly and defiantly at protests and gatherings, to give themselves strength and confidence to face the oppressive forces they were challenging. It was performed at the famous 1963 March on Washington, though not by Seeger; he was out of country with his family, so the song was performed by popular folk singer Joan Baez. (Another Seeger song, “If I Had a Hammer” was also performed at the March, by folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary.)

In an interview with radio host Tavis Smiley, conducted in 2012, Seeger reflects on his life and long career, including the evolution of “We Shall Overcome” and how it came to be part of the Civil Rights Movement. Near the end, he sums up his beliefs on the power of social protest: “The people with money can break up any big thing they want, but they don’t know what to do when there are millions of little things, so I  say, go ahead with your little things and don’t think they are unimportant.”

“We Shall Overcome” was just one of the many little things Seeger contributed during his lifetime, and it played a part in changing the world.

To learn more about the 1963 March on Washington and the people who bravely stood together singing “We Shall Overcome,” please check out our acclaimed book, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-159935372-2) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For further reading, please see the rest of our Civil Rights Movement series.

-Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

*In addition to its association with the American Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” has been an anthem for many oppressed peoples fighting for civil rights. It became particularly significant in South Africa, where it was sung by freedom fighter Frederick John Harris, prior to his execution for a bombing in protest of the country’s apartheid policy. A recorded version of the song, performed by Seeger, but with the last line, “We shall all be free,” sung by Harris was suppressed by the government, but became important to the anti-apartheid movement.

Pardoning the Past, Looking Towards the Future

Charles Weems and Clarence Norris, two of the Scottsboro Boys, read a newspaper in their Alabama jail cell.

Charles Weems and Clarence Norris, two of the Scottsboro Boys, read a newspaper in their Alabama jail cell.

At the start of this year, I wrote about Alan Turing, and the effort to get the renowned scientist and mathematician an official pardon from the the British government. Now, as the year is coming to an end, that pardon has been given: on December 23, 2013, the Queen of England officially absolved Turing of his crimes, just under sixty years after his death.

Similarly, back in November, the last three of the Scottsboro Boys who had yet to be exonerated were granted a posthumous pardon. (The Scottsboro Boys were a group of black teenagers who were falsely accused and convicted of rape in 1931. The unfairness of their case and the trials that convicted them helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement.)

Though the stories obviously have many differences, they both show modern authorities attempting to rectify the injustices of the past with symbolic gestures. As well intentioned as they are though, this hardly seems like enough. Though there is some satisfaction to the fact that official records will no longer indicate these people as guilty of crimes they didn’t commit, their lives were still ruined by the charges unfairly brought against them.

So what value then is there in trying to correct the mistakes of the past? The past is past, and nothing can change it. But in granting these pardons, in admitting that mistakes were made, and offering some justice–if only symbolically–after the fact, we can hope that we are making a promise to the future. A promise that such injustices will not occur again, a promise that we can and will do better, or at least try.

At Morgan Reynolds Publishing, we spend a lot time thinking about history, about the past, about the thousands of events that have occurred throughout time that have led us to where we are today. Whether it’s the story of young men unfairly accused of a crime because of the color of their skin, or of a genius mathematician who pioneered computer science, or the way the spread of a disease affected civilization, or even the way a fashion designer overcame poverty to clothe a president, everything that has happened has the led the world to where it is today, for good and ill. By studying it, by trying to understand, we aim to understand the world around us, and hopefully–hopefully–have a greater grasp on where we are going and who we are. So that we can do better. Or at least try.

We don’t grant official pardons, but we do try to always present the truth, or as much of the truth as can be known. We believe that the facts should speak for themselves, that the truth offers its own condemnations, and its own pardons.

Thanks for reading along with us. We are looking forward to the new year, and hope you’ll keep reading.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Arguments In Supreme Court over Voting Rights Act of 1965

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lyndon Johnson gives Martin Luther King a pen after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday, on Wednesday, February 27, while President Obama and many other politicians honored civil rights icon Rosa Parks with a memorial statue in the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about dismantling the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Specifically under discussion was Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states (mostly in the South) with a documented history of discriminating against minority voters get permission from the Federal government to make any changes to its voting procedures. This measure was initially supposed to only be in effect for five years, but has been extended multiple times and expanded to help guarantee the rights of non-English speaking voters as well.

Why is this law, so integral to the Civil Rights movement and ensuring the civil liberties of black Americans (and many other minorities), being challenged now? Though there are a number of technical arguments concerning the fact that the law was extended largely on data from 1975, the principal argument seems to be that times have changed. Lawyers from Shelby County, Alabama, who have brought this case to the Supreme Court, argue that discriminatory voting procedures are no longer being practiced, and the states under the jurisdiction of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are being unfairly punished and slandered.

Shelby lawyers argue that the increasing number of prominent minority politicians, and of course, the first black president, Barack Obama, are signs that the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. Statistics were read showing that the black voter turnout in Massachusetts (not covered under Section 5) is much lower than in Mississippi (covered under Section 5). While these facts are heartening, it’s hard not to notice that they don’t prove Section 5 is unnecessary as much as they prove that Section 5 is effective, and arguably, should be expanded. (Indeed, New York Times columnist Charles Blow argues that Section 5 should be expanded far beyond the states it currently covers, both to ensure to fair voting practices for every citizen and also to puncture the argument that Section 5 puts an unfair stigma on the covered states.)

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that voter suppression tactics continue today. As author David Aretha points out in his book Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 both raised questions over whether there was an effort to disenfranchise voters (in Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004). There were numerous reports of voter suppression efforts during the 2012 election. And Shelby County, Alabama, the county bringing this case to the Supreme Court, had its own voting rights scandal in 2008 when the federal government demanded the state alter it’s district policies to ensure that minority voters were properly represented.

Still, many of the Supreme Court justices seemed amenable to arguments that the Voting Rights Act’s time had passed. One of the most heated moments of the hearing came when Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that the law’s continued usage was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” This prompted Justice Sonia Sotomayor to later pointedly ask  “Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement?”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Though a decision on this case likely won’t be made for some time, this case illustrates vividly that the fight for Civil Rights, fought so hard by Martin Luther King Jr. and millions of others, is far from over.

To learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to pass the Voting Rights Act, check out Selma and the Voting Rights Act by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-1-59935-056-1) from your local library, or purchase it and other titles in the acclaimed Civil Rights Movement series from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Or get Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor by Sandra Shichtman (ISBN# 978-1-59935-156-8) to learn more about the Justice, and be sure to check out Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s Supreme Court Justices series to learn about many prominent figures in the High Court’s history.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Court-ordered busing and American Schools

Across the country, children are starting school. And with the start of a new school year comes the ubiquitous yellow school bus.

For decades, the school bus has been a common sight from August to May. But the yellow school buses were not always chugging along on the highways with their cargo of children.

David Aretha, author of With All Deliberate Speed: Court-ordered Busing and American Schools, wrote that back in the first half of the twentieth century, “Many districts engaged in gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district lines unfairly to suit one’s advantage. In addition, housing segregation resulted in school segregation…. Realizing that they weren’t welcomed in the ‘nice’ areas, [African Americans] settled in black neighborhoods, where the schools were usually inferior.”

After the Supreme Court handed down the decision that segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, schools began to integrate. Aretha wrote, “In many communities, black students were bused to predominantly white schools in order to achieve integration.”

This mandated integration was unpopular, not only in the South, but throughout the country. Black students were subjected to angry crowds. One woman in Boston recalled that her children came home from school with “glass in their hair. They were scared. And they were shivering and crying.”

Aretha wrote, “Busing, which federal judges instituted in many American cities, was called the ‘Vietnam of the 1970s’–a controversial, polarizing issue that put millions of people on edge.”

Today, most integration busing programs have been terminated. According to Aretha, a large number of schools are still segregated. Charter and magnet schools have sprung up as a way to combat segregation, but they are not always successful. Children are now bused for convenience more than a need to change. And segregation still rears its ugly head.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on court-ordered busing, check out David Aretha’s With All Deliberate Speed: Court-ordered Busing and American Schools (ISBN 9781599351810)

Published in: on August 24, 2012 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”-A. Philip Randolph

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's. Photo Courtesy of Mark Pellegrini.

“In 1960, four students of North Carolina A&T University staged a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter. Despite fears of arrest, beatings, or worse, the four spent the day at the counter, quietly and politely. The next day, they came back, with more protesters. Soon, they inspired sit-in movements throughout the South,” wrote Dave Aretha in Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides, part of Morgan Reynolds’s Civil Rights Movement series.

Black history month begins tomorrow. During the month of February, we honor all of those individuals who fought for freedom during the civil rights movement, including the four A&T students who took a stand, or rather a seat, at a whites-only lunch counter.

Aretha wrote, “Dressed in their finest clothes, the four young men entered Woolworth’s, a downtown five-and-dime store in Greensboro, North Carolina. African Americans were allowed to purchase items at the store, but they were not allowed to sit at the lunch counter.”

That Woolworth’s has since been memorialized as part of the International Civil Rights Museum, located just a few blocks from Morgan Reynolds.

Calvin Craig Miller wrote in No Easy Answers: The Story of Bayard Rustin that nonviolent resistance was a popular form of protest during the civil rights movement.  Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, according to Miller, “believed that [nonviolent resistance] could also provide a model for achieving racial equality.”  Many involved in the movement agreed.

And so the Greensboro Four used nonviolent resistance to protest their lack of freedom to eat at a lunch counter.

Aretha wrote, “It was the nonviolent aspect of their protest that led to the extraordinary success of the sit-in movement…. The citizens of Greensboro proudly honor the accomplishments of these four men.”

Today, a statue honoring the Four stands in front of Dudley Building on A&T’s campus in Greensboro.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

Learn more about the civil rights movement by checking out our Civil Rights Movement series (ISBN 9781599350738) and our Civil Rights Leaders series (ISBN 9781931798990).

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” – Malcolm X

The symbol of the Black Power movement was a clenched fist.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a documentary titled The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award.

According to Sundance, “From 1967 to 1975, Swedish journalists chronicled the Black Power movement in America. Combining that 16mm footage, undiscovered until now, with contemporary audio interviews, this film illuminates the people and culture that fueled change and brings the movement to life anew.”

Black Power. According to David Aretha, author of Morgan Reynolds’s Black Power, “What haunted millions of Americans were those two ambiguous words.”

Stokely Carmichael, a well-known proponent of the Black Power movement and often the movement’s mouth-piece, defined the words as thus:

Black Power means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing representatives to speak their needs. It’s an economic and physical bloc that can exercise its strengths in the black community instead of letting the job go to the Democratic or Republican parties or a white-controlled black man set up as a puppet to represent black people. We pick the brother and make sure he fulfills our needs. Black Power doesn’t mean anti-white, violence, separatism or any other racist thing the press says it means. It’s saying , “Look, buddy, we’re not laying a vote on you unless you lay so many schools, hospitals, playgrounds and jobs on us.”

But according to Aretha, “the public was still confused.” He wrote, “There was a separatist element to the new movement, and at least the threat of violence was often present.”

A.O. Scott of the New York Times said of the documentary, “while The Black Power Mixtape tells a story of defiance and price, it is also a tale of defeat, frustration and terrible destruction. . . . these are not chapters in a tale of triumph.”

Aretha wrote, “In the end, Black Power gave individuals a feeling of liberation. . . . Yet it also led to many deadly riots as well as considerable backlash.”

“Unlike the civil rights movement, which achieved its stated goals of dismantling Jim Crow segregation, the Black Power movement did not culminate in anything tangible. It just gradually dissipated, leaving it to historians–many years later–to try to evaluate it.”

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about the history of the Black Power movement, check out Black Power by David Aretha, a Morgan Reynolds title and part of the Civil Rights Movement series. (ISBN 978-1-59935-164-3)

Published in: on October 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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MLK Memorial: Part 1

Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech

Yesterday, the long-awaited Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The official dedication ceremony will be on August 28, but the statue is currently open to the public.

According to NPR, the memorial was initially suggested by King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, in 1984. Twenty-seven years later, the idea was made into a reality in the form of a thirty-foot-tall statue of King’s likeness. NPR reported, “The memorial is the first honoring an African American and the first honoring a person who did not serve as president.”

The Washington Post reported:

The sculpture, called “Stone of Hope” . . . refers to a line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King said. His statue is designed to look as if he were once a part of the “Mountain of Despair” but is now the “Stone of Hope.”

An artist's rendering of the "Stone of Hope"

August 28 marks the forty-eighth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

On the morning of August 28, 1963, the city of Washington seemed deserted, according to Calvin Craig Miller, author of No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement.

Miller wrote:

Numerous writers would describe the atmosphere as that of a besieged city, as though the country were at war. Yet the force that caused such anxiety was one that carried no weapons. Its leaders promised a peaceful march. . . Its speakers planned to ask for simple, basic rights for African Americans– a chance to cast their ballots in elections, to live and go to school in the same neighborhoods and schools as whites, to get job training, and to earn a minimum wage.

Within hours, however, Kerrily Sapet, author of Political Profiles: John Lewis, wrote, “An estimated 250,000 people, of all races, united in Washington to call for racial justice.”

“The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would become the largest demonstration in American history.”

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

On that day in Washington, D.C., in front of hundreds of thousands of people, Martin Luther King told the crowd:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Sapet wrote, “[King’s] inspiring words captured the hope Americans wanted to feel. At the end of the day, they carried his message home with them, dreaming of a new nation where all people were treated fairly.”

It was his push toward change and his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement that inspired the memorial’s creation. Now, visitors to our nation’s capital can look at his statue and remember how far we have come and far we still have to go.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about Martin Luther King Jr., the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Movement, check out the following Morgan Reynolds titles and series:

Political Profiles: John Lewis by Kerrily Sapet (ISBN 9781599351308)

No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (ISBN 9781931798433)

The Civil Rights Movement Series (ISBN 9781599350738)

Published in: on August 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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“In recognizing the humanity in our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” -Thurgood Marshall

Laurence Fishburne

Yesterday, Laurence Fishburne was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Thurgood Marshall in the one-man play Thurgood, written by George Stevens Jr.

The Washington Post reported on Fishburne’s performance:

And in his embodiment of the proud, ambitious, restless Marshall, who took robustly to heart the idea that the law can be a powerful tool for social change, Fishburne cements a bond of astonishing intimacy with his audience. By the time he arrives at the end of the story, as an aged insider in one of the nation’s most revered institutions [the Supreme Court], the actor will have completed the task of confiding the details of Marshall’s life in a most entertainingly digestible way.

Thurgood Marshall’s life and the strides he made for black Americans is explored in great detail in Morgan Reynolds’s Thurgood Marshall by Nancy Whitelaw in the Supreme Court Justices series (ISBN 9781599351575). Whitelaw wrote of the renowned Justice, “Sometimes salty, always aggressive, Marshall was impossible to ignore. Whether disagreeing with out civil rights leaders, General Douglas McArthur, or the increasingly conservative Supreme Court of his later years, Marshall never hesitated to speak his mind.”

Fishburne said of Marshall, “He was a very, very funny man. He was also a very serious man.”

Marshall was known for his sense of humor. He once said about his role as a Justice, “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”

But his serious side, that passionate never-say-never attitude, was what made him able to make progress for black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement as a Supreme Court Justice.

In a video discussing Marshall and his play, George Stevens Jr. said, “Marshall was a man of heroic imagination.”

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

Published in: on July 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“You don’t have to ride Jim Crow!”- Bayard Rustin and George Houser

Freedom Riders gather outside of their burning bus in Anniston, Alabama. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Freedom Rides, a series of acts that openly defied segregation in the South.

As David Aretha, author of Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides, published by Morgan Reynolds, puts it, “The story of the Freedom Rides began when an African American woman refused to give up her seat to a white person on a crowded bus. And her name was not Rosa Parks.”

Aretha continues, “Irene Morgan was a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two who worked in a factory that made bombers for the military. That July, after traveling to Virginia, she returned to her home in Baltimore aboard a Greyhound bus. When the bus became crowded, the driver told her to stand so that a white person could take her seat. After Morgan refused the command, the driver summoned the police.”

Irene Morgan was arrested but her case, Morgan v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court—which ruled that segregated seating in interstate travel was unconstitutional.

According to Aretha, “This case caught the attention of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). . . . Believers in the teachings of Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, they were committed to fighting racial injustice through nonviolent protest.”

In 1947, CORE staged the Journey of Reconciliation, what is often called the original Freedom Ride, to test the Supreme Court’s decision outside the courtroom and in the real world. CORE members “knew that Southerners had ignored the Morgan ruling, and they wanted to force the issue. If they were arrested, then attorneys and media could bring attention to the injustice.” Fourteen years later, that desire to attract the media would prove vital to turning the tides in Americans’ eyes regarding segregation and civil rights.

The Journey of Reconciliation was not entirely successful, in fact it led to the travelers’ arrests rather than justice, but it also paved the way for the Freedom Rides of 1961. “CORE wanted to put ‘the movement on wheels . . . to cut across state lines and establish the position that we were entitled to act any place in the country,” Aretha writes, “no matter where we hung our hat and called home, because it was our country.’”

And so they did. On May 4, 1961, thirteen Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., headed for Alabama–the Deep South. When the buses stopped in Alabama, they were attacked by angry white mobs that included several members of the Ku Klux Klan. Several of the Riders were hospitalized and many were beaten to near death, but their suffering caught the attention of the nation at large.

“The Freedom Riders had paid a heavy price, but they finally received the national attention they had been seeking. . . images of the burning bus and bloodied riders appeared in newspapers and on television. . . . .To African Americans, the publicity that the Freedom Rides were creating was doing a world of good. This was revolutionary. After three hundred years of oppression, black Americans were shaping their destiny,” writes Aretha.

The more Freedom Rides took place, however, the less news coverage there was. Eventually, the media moved on.

But what the Freedom Riders did that summer changed the country permanently. Aretha writes, “Though these Freedom Riders no longer commanded the national spotlight, their persistence and large numbers had a cumulative effect… their ‘capacity to suffer’ wore down the opposition. Some whites in the South were tired of fighting these battles. And as the Freedom Rides continued, Americans of all races and creeds railed against southern segregation.”

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides (ISBN 978-1-59935-098-1) is part of the award -winning series, The Civil Rights Movement (ISBN 978-1-59935-073-8) , published by Morgan Reynolds Publishing. The series also includes:

Marching in Birmingham                                                                                                       ISBN 978-1-59935-055-4

Selma and the Voting Rights Act                                                                                        ISBN 978-1-59935-056-1

The Murder of Emmett Till                                                                                                     ISBN 978-1-59935-057-8

The Trial of the Scottsboro Boys                                                                                         ISBN 978-1-59935-058-5

Freedom Summer                                                                                                                      ISBN 978-1-59935-059-2

Montgomery Bus Boycott                                                                                                      ISBN 978-1-59935-020-2

Black Power                                                                                                                                 ISBN 978-1-59935-164-3

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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