04. Singing toward freedom land

Ted Grimsrud—Purpose vol. 43, no. 12 (December 2010), p. 28.

Recently, I watched the film series, A Force More Powerful, and felt inspired by its stories of effective nonviolent action for social change in the 20th century.  Something I noticed was the importance of music.

In Denmark’s largely nonviolent resistance to the occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, one of the first expressions of Danish solidarity over against the occupation came with regular gatherings of thousands of people for public hymn sings.  These gatherings had no overt political agenda beyond the simple (but powerful) expression of hope and solidarity.

Over time, the Danes developed several effective strategies for maintaining their moral integrity (work slowdowns, an underground press, and, most notably, smuggling almost Denmark’s entire Jewish population to safety in neutral Sweden).  These strategies got their start in the simple act of gathering to sing together.

In the campaign to integrate the downtown lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early 1960s—a campaign that in a few short years successfully integrated almost all of Nashville’s public places and that provided training for a host of activists who played crucial roles in the successes of the wider Civil Rights movement, two elements stood out.  First was the thorough training in Gandhian tactics of nonviolent action led by a brilliant teacher, James Lawson.  The second was the centrality of the activists singing together.

When they were imprisoned and while they were marching, the activists found great strength both from the content of the songs they sang and in the act of singing in solidarity together.  A recent record by one who was part of the Civil Rights movement, Mavis Staples’s We’ll Never Turn Back, gives a great sense of just how powerful such music can be.

A third story captured part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, telling of an organized consumer boycott in Port Elizabeth that energized the movement and ultimately brought down the wrath of the tyrannical government in a way that hastened the fall of that government.  As the people marched together and celebrated their victories, they found themselves always moving to the beat of their own freedom songs.

All three stories show just how liberative music can be.  In fact, it’s impossible to imagine a popular movement for nonviolent social change that wouldn’t have singing, dancing, marching, weeping, and laughing to “good vibrations” at its core.

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