*A stirring scene near the beginning of Ava DuVernay’s towering civil rights drama “Selma” finds a despondent Martin Luther King, Jr. telephoning gospel star Mahalia Jackson for encouragement. “I need to hear the Lord’s voice,” he tells her. Then Mrs. Jackson opens her voice to console king with his favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
The black church played a central role in the civil rights movement. And the film “Selma” beautifully dramatizes how many of our heroes relied on their Christian faith to carry them through those dark and dangerous days of protest and sacrifice. That faith was fortified in mass meetings that were often held in churches and which exploded with music, much of it based on songs of the church.
If you stay in your seat through the closing credits of “Selma” you’ll hear an actual recording of civil rights workers singing exuberantly in one such meeting. The energy of those gatherings was absolutely electrifying! The people needed to tap into something greater than themselves in order to stand up, day after day, against brutally violent racist power structure, the “principalities and powers” of the Jim Crow South. And so the nonviolent civil rights soldiers recharged their courage and determination, bonded with one another, and tapped into the Holy Spirit by joining voices on songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “Oh Freedom” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
But of all of the civil rights songs none was more unifying and inspiring than “We Shall Overcome.” Brimming with faith in a future yet unseen, this determined and optimistic anthem united, strengthened and propelled the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why it was so incredible when President Lyndon Johnson spoke those words when he introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to a special joint session of Congress. The movie “Selma” waters that speech down a bit, but Johnson’s actual words were incredible: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome!
“We Shall Overcome” and the other freedom songs were a great source of strength to our civil rights heroes. But there were plenty of times when they had to encourage each another one-on-one. Religious faith played into many of those moments as well. There’s a wonderful scene in “Selma” when Dr. King whispers his doubts and fears to his best friend in the struggle, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, while the two men sit in a darkened jail cell. Abernathy (portrayed by Colman Domingo) builds up his burdened-down brother by quoting the promise that Jesus makes in the sixth chapter Matthew’s gospel: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
An equally powerful moment comes in a subsequent scene in which Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, is comforted and lifted up by one of the mothers of the Civil Rights Movement: veteran organizer Amelia Boynton. Exuding maternal warmth, wisdom and power, Mrs. Boynton (brought to life by Lorraine Toussaint) reminds Mrs. King that we black folks are a mighty people – our ancestors gave civilization to the world and we have blossomed in spite of the most brutal and unyielding oppression.
That is the reason that our people prevailed over slavery, segregation and all manner of racist oppression, violence and injustice. And it’s why you and I shall prevail over the obstacles, attitudes and institutions that stand against us in this present age! So, we can look back on history, and draw strength and inspiration from the triumphs of our ancestors. Let us keep our eyes on the prize because we shall continue to overcome!
Thanks for listening. Happy Black History Month. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.