By Donella Meadows
–March 24, 1988–
Hundreds of women paraded down the streets of Johannesberg, South Africa, a few weeks ago, singing freedom songs to protest their government’s suppression of political opposition parties.
Though it was peaceful, the demonstration was illegal. The songs the women sang were illegal. The attempts of reporters and cameramen to record the event were illegal. When the police arrived, their first move was not to stop the women, but to surround the reporters, arrest some of them, and send the others away. That done, they went to work on the demonstrators.
Stupid bullies respect only money and weapons. Smart bullies fear the power of the press to tell the stories and show the pictures of their brutality. Very smart, systematic, determined oppressors know they must control money, weapons, the press, the stories, the pictures, and even the freedom songs.
A new book by Mary King about the U.S. civil rights movement explains why the press and the songs were crucial to the success of that movement — so crucial that she titled the book Freedom Song. Every chapter begins with one of the songs that fueled the black resistance.
Mary was a young white woman in the thick of the movement; she worked with Julian Bond in the communications office of SNCC. (SNCC, pronounced “snick”, stands for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the young blacks who sat at segregated lunch counters, rode in the fronts of buses, and were stoned, beaten, jailed, and sometimes murdered for behaving like white people.)
It was Mary’s job to receive information from SNCC field workers, primarily information about police brutality, and to get it out to the press. She describes three vital reasons why that news had to get out.
First, it raised the consciousness and the anger of the nation, and eventually brought about civil rights legislation and federal protection. Mary King says, “Public awareness was crucial to our strategy. Without national exposure and mobilized public opinion, there was no point in the struggle. The sacrifice would be lost in oblivion.”
Second it made the racists confront the immorality of their own actions. Barbarity is much easier to practice when you don’t have to look at it too hard, when you don’t have to watch your own hatefulness on the nightly news.
Third, public exposure gave a measure of protection to the demonstrators. “It’s difficult to grasp now that anything as pedestrian as registering potential voters or as prosaic as gathering in a church could have been a life-threatening act in the United States of America only twenty-five years ago. Whatever small protection we had came through news reports. The presence of a reporter at a jail or a telephone inquiry from a newspaper was often the only step that let a local sheriff know he was being watched. With the exception of those involved at the time, no one knows how important the effective use of the news media was to our safety, and even our lives.”
A sobering thought, when one remembers how many tyrranical governments, from South Africa to Afghanistan, from Chile to Iran, are operating under almost complete suppression of the press. Even the Israeli government is finding it necessary to hide its treatment of the Palestinians from the world, from its own people, and from itself, by controlling the media.
And the songs? What is their power? “The freedom songs uplifted us,” Mary King says, “bound us together, exalted us, and pointed the way, and, in a real sense, freed us from the shackles of psychological bondage. They captured and kept alive the yearnings, dreams, and fervency of a people under stress. Freedom songs both gave and reflected back the political fire and spiritual longings of countless individuals, in untold mass meetings.”
“Song leading became an organizing tool, helping to mobilize the dedicated or to motivate the reticent. Never has there been a struggle as rich in protest songs as the southern civil rights movement, because of the magnificence of black congregational singing, nourished as it was by a legacy of struggle, resistance, endurance, and faith.”
Those powerful songs from the 1960s are still alive, still working. They have traveled the world, mingling with the songs of other languages and cultures. I once had the privilege of being with Mary King at an international conference of community leaders, where “We Shall Overcome” was sung in Spanish and Hindi and Shona. Even now, twenty five years after her own struggle, Mary can’t hear that song, in any language, without being moved to tears.
Governments may suppress mass gatherings where freedom songs generate strength, but ultimately they can never suppress the songs. They can and do suppress news stories and pictures. Whenever they do, that fact itself should be sufficient to raise the outrage of the world.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988