Before that summer day in 1983, I had never seen the KKK in their white robes and hoods.

On that unforgettable morning, I went with other peace activists from Western Massachusetts to Groton, Connecticut, to protest the launching of a Trident nuclear-missile submarine. Back then, whenever a Trident sub was commissioned and launched in Groton, the Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation staged a fancy ceremony—flags and pennants waved, officers in formal uniforms stood guard, and the whole ritual had an air of pride, celebration, and blatant militarism.

And so we went, a group of dedicated activists, to protest the launching of another Trident nuclear sub.

We drove in a caravan of cars to Groton and congregated as close to the submarine launch site as the large police presence would allow. Upon arrival, we unfurled our banners, held our placards high, and milled around. Limousine after limousine passed us carrying dignitaries to the ceremony; with their windows tinted, the cars sped by.

The Trident boat launch was at the bottom of a hill. None of us were paying attention to the crest of the hill until someone shouted, “LOOK!!” and pointed.

There they were. About fifteen Klansmen in white robes and tall pointy white hats coming over the hill to the launch site. They came as a counter-protest to our protest.

The police immediately formed a barrier with their bodies, standing shoulder to shoulder, so that the KKK and the protesters could not physically mix. Everyone on our side of the police barrier clumped together quickly—somewhat in shock, unprepared for the deeply upsetting experience of seeing the Klan in robes right there in front of us.

Standing on the other side of the police officers, the Klansmen began to shout at us—hurling ugly words, telling us to go home, calling us names. We could not see their faces, but their words were aggressive and awful.

Folks on our side yelled to one another, “What should we do? What should we do?”

Known for leading songs of freedom and struggle at rallies, marches, vigils, and other protests for years, I heard my name being called. “Sing, Andrea,” people shouted, “Sing, lead us, and sing loud!”

I grabbed my friend Frances, and we began to sing.

I cannot remember now if we started with “Down by the Riverside” or “We Shall Not Be Moved” or “Never Turning Back” or “If I Had a Hammer.” I don’t remember how we began, but what I do remember is that once we started singing, we sang our entire repertoire of peace and protest songs.

Singing as loudly and clearly as we could, we sang to the Klan.

We’re gonna show our children courage
Show our children courage
Show our children courage
Never turning back, never turning back

We went from rousing songs (“What’s That I Hear Now?” by Phil Ochs), to rounds (“Everyone ‘Neath Their Vine and Fig Tree Shall Live in Peace and Unafraid”), to lyrical songs (“Singing for Our Lives” by Holly Near), to hymns (“Let There Be Peace on Earth”).

I realize now that all the times we had sung together before in less high-stakes settings, at peaceful protests throughout New England, had prepared us for this confrontation. All those times we sang at rallies and marches were rehearsals for this day—to be able to sing our hearts out to the Klan.

Today, decades later, I remember us singing with energy and conviction. Standing right behind the line of blue, we sang over the shoulders of the police. We fanned out, making our own line of bodies behind the police. We faced and sang directly to the Klan. We sang and sang, and did not stop.

Then a little miracle happened. The Klan’s shouts, insults, and name-calling slowed. Then it stopped. The Klansmen shifted from foot to foot. They huddled together for a while, then they turned, went back up the hill, and were gone.

We were hoarse and relieved. But we did not celebrate. Once the Klan left, we sat down on the pavement in small groups to talk. It was only then, in our small circles, that people began to shake and cry. There, sitting on the pavement, barely able to speak any longer, our feelings rose to the surface and strong emotions erupted.

We recognized that we had done something significant: we out-sang the Klan.
We used protest songs as a shield against their vitriol.
We used our voices as a barrier against their vicious name-calling.
We sang to project strength and the singing made us strong.
We sang to the Klan until they went silent, turned, and left.
The power of song!

What’s that I hear now ringin’ in my ear?
I’ve heard that sound before
What’s that I hear now ringin’ in my ear?
I hear it more and more
It’s the sound of freedom callin’
Ringin’ up to the sky!
It’s the sound of the old ways a-fallin’
You can hear it if you try!

Songs of freedom and struggle have been woven into movements for social and political change for centuries. 

Offering hope, a sense of unity, and sometimes coded messages, songs of protest and solidarity have been part of the fabric of organizing, demonstrating, and witnessing for countless generations.

“Movements are made up of human beings, and human beings are braver and more unified when they are singing,” Rev. Lennox Yearwood and Bill McKibben wrote in the Foreword to the book, Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs.

History is filled with powerful examples of protest songs that told a story, inspired courage, provided hope, conveyed a vision, or amplified a dream. A brief look back over the past two centuries offers illustrations of how songs have been central to, and propelled forward, movements for social and political change in this country.

During the early-to-mid 1800s, spirituals such as “Steal Away” and “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” offered encouragement, strength, and hope for deliverance to enslaved Africans. Some scholars believe that Harriet Tubman used “Go Down Moses”—with coded messages embedded in the lyrics—as a way to communicate with and aid those escaping bondage to find and follow the Underground Railroad north to freedom.

At the turn of the last century and in the early 1900s, activists in the Women’s Suffrage Movement latched on to a ballad that became the theme song for their work and vision, “She’s Good Enough To Be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough To Vote With You” by Alfred Bryan and Herman Paley. Other suffrage songs took popular tunes of the day, like “Yankee Doodle,” and replaced the original words with new verses about women’s enfranchisement.

On June 15, 1911, The New York Times published a story about suffragists in Los Angeles who were holding a public rally when the police informed them that “votes for women” speeches were prohibited. In response, the suffragists set their speeches to music and sang their messages instead.

The Pacifist Movement that opposed this country’s entry into World War I embraced the song, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” by Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan—that song is considered one of the first antiwar songs to become popular in the USA. A hit in 1915, some historians believe that the song helped make the Pacifist Movement become a political force to be reckoned with.

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier
I brought him up to be my pride and joy
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder
To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles
It’s time to lay the sword and gun away
There’d be no war today
If mothers all would say
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”

Later, during the Great Depression, activists in the Labor Movement fighting hard for shorter hours, better pay, and unemployment insurance sang with vigor, “Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong!” In the 1940s, Paul Robeson sang spirituals and other songs in support of the Labor Movement. Criss-crossing the country, Robeson was a charismatic presence singing at strike rallies, conferences, and labor gatherings.

In 1949, two of Robeson’s concerts in Peeksill, New York, were attacked by racist mobs while state police stood by.  When asked about the attacks, Robeson responded, “I’m going to sing wherever the people want me to sing…and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peeksill or anywhere else.”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s made singing an integral part of its marches, rallies, and vigils. Before facing police violence, marchers often convened in predominately Black churches and sang hymns and songs of hope and conviction. “We Shall Overcome” is the most well-known of these songs, but other songs lifted spirits and spurred on marchers, including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and the hymn now considered the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Odetta, often referred to as “the voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” performed “O Freedom.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called Odetta “the Queen of American folk music.” She called herself “one of the privates in a very big army,” and brought her enormous talent to sing at numerous Civil Rights gatherings. Mahalia Jackson also sang at the 1963 March on Washington, performing, to wild acclaim, the spirituals “How I Got Over” and “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.”

Because the Civil Rights Movement was led by a faithful Christian pastor and singing was a part of every gathering, Dr. King had his favorite hymns and songs. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last words were about a song. Right before he was shot, Dr. King called down from the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis to Ben Branch, a musician who was to lead music that night at a gathering. Dr. King said, “Ben, play ‘Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”  Moments later, the shots rang out.

The 1960s were filled with protests against the Vietnam War. Students, clergy, draft resisters, parents, and professors joined in the frequent antiwar demonstrations, and singing was a big part of the gatherings. Phil Ochs contributed “What Are You Fighting For?” to these events, and, of course, Bob Dylan’s classic antiwar song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” was sung far and wide.

Richie Havens was the first performer at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, and sang a repertoire that included an improvised encore called “Freedom,” based on the spiritual “Motherless Child.” Interviewed in DISCoveries magazine in 1994, Havens said, “’Freedom’ has become the anthem of youth wherever I go…and I’ll sing it for the rest of my life.”

Activists in the Women’s Movement of the 1970s held banners that said, “Free Our Sisters, Free Ourselves,” and marched singing “Bread and Roses.”

In the 1980s, the Gay Liberation Movement claimed “Everything Possible” by Fred Small as their unofficial anthem, and the chorus was sung at countless rallies and events.

You can be anybody you want to be
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done

Today, climate change activists have a song that is drawing people together in common purpose, “The Tide is Rising,” by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter.

The tide is rising, and so are we
The tide is rising, and so are we
The tide is rising, and so are we
This is where we are called to be
This is where we are called to be

Other songs, both old and new, are being sung at Black Lives Matter rallies and gatherings organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. Some classics are being sung because they are well-known, stirring, and too good to abandon.  These include “We Shall Not Give Up The Fight, We Have Only Started,” and “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.”

Many consider a new and tremendously popular song the unofficial anthem of the Poor People’s Campaign, “Someone’s Hurting My Brother,” by Yara Allen.

Somebody’s hurting my brother and it’s gone on far too long
Gone on far too long, gone on far too long
Somebody’s hurting my brother and it’s gone on far too long
And we won’t be silent anymore

Somebody’s poisoning our waters…
Somebody’s ignoring the homeless…
Somebody’s hurting my sisters…

 Somebody’s hurting our children…
Somebody’s building a wall…

Another treasure of a song being sung widely is “Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Written in 1981, the words are as powerful and relevant today as when the song was first written.

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

I will close with one of my favorite songs. This simple song has been sung for years when people have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience and are being taken to the police wagon. Supporters sing this song to the person being taken away. I have sung it to many people being taken off to jail after committing CD, and I have had it sung to me when I was being led to the police wagon following an action that involved CD. There is nothing like hearing this song being sung TO YOU by dozens and dozens of people wishing you well, sending you strength, and conveying that they are with you in spirit.

Courage, sister, you do not walk alone
I will walk with you, and sing your spirit home

 Courage, brother, you do not walk alone
I will walk with you, and sing your spirit home

 Courage neighbor, you do not walk alone
I will walk with you, and sing your spirit home

 

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