By Nancy Spannaus
Feb. 22, 2020—My husband Ed and I just returned from a celebration of Black History Month, and that phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech is still ringing in my ears. It resonates as well with the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which the entire gathering sang with gusto at the beginning of the event.
We were invited to this service by a woman Ed has worked with on the Loudoun County Heritage Commission, Mrs. Gladys Burke. The celebration was held at her church, the Second Mt. Olive Baptist Church, which is located in the small town of Hamilton, Virginia. The church was founded in 1892 and has served continuously since.
The small building was full, thanks to the presence of many guests. The program was entitled “Voices of History from Those who Lived It!” and featured two panel discussions with residents of Loudoun County who had been involved in forging progress for the African-American community, either in the civil rights movement or otherwise. Several of the speakers were in their 90s and had quite some stories to tell.
The music – all of which was joined by the congregation – brought back warm memories of my days campaigning for office, especially in southern Virginia, where I participated in marches and services dedicated to abolishing the death penalty and advancing civil rights and economic justice for all people. The short speeches and prayers were uplifting as well, emphasizing, as Dr. King did, the fact that we fight to achieve freedom so that we can lift up others of all races and creeds.
“Lift Every Voice”
Master of Ceremonies Walter Owens piqued my interest with his opening presentation, which included a discussion of the setting for the composition of the Negro National Anthem. I have filled out his remarks a bit with my own research since coming home.
“Lift Every Voice” was initially composed as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900, in preparation for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in Jacksonville, Florida in 1900. Weldon’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music. According to James Johnson, “the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of 500 colored school children.” Weldon wrote that while he and his brother moved to New York and forgot about the song, it lived on among the young people, and over the years became institutionalized as the Negro National Hymn.
1900, of course, was a period of intense Jim Crow racism, which was only to get worse over the years to come, as Owens described.
He specifically referenced what is known as the “Silent Protest Parade,” which was held in New York City in the summer of 1917. The march involved upwards of 10,000 black citizens, led by girls and women dressed in white, who were followed by men and boys in dark suits. The participants were silent, while accompanied by the muffled beat of drums. They carried picket signs featuring slogans such as “We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.” And “We march because we want our children to live in a better land.” Owens said they also used the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
What barbaric acts? The impetus for this event, which was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the St. Louis riots a month before, in which at least 40 black people were horrifically killed by white mobs, and their neighborhoods burned to the ground. Recent lynchings in Waco, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee also contributed to the felt need to hold the protest. James Weldon Johnson, then an NAACP official, was one of the organizers of the march.
According to the Wikipedia account, the NAACP also hoped the march would build support for anti-lynching legislation, especially from President Woodrow Wilson. It did not then, and such legislation still hasn’t been passed. Wilson, who notably segregated Federal offices during his administration and lavished praise on the racist film “Birth of a Nation,” gave a speech denouncing lynching in 1918, but nothing more.
The “voices of history” who spoke had a wide variety of stories to tell. The 98-year-old Lena Ambers spoke briefly of her experience leaving home at the age of 12, remembering the kindnesses of those she encountered in her search for domestic work. The 92-year-old Doris Kidder (who is white) and a past president of the Loudoun NAACP, spoke of how she played a major role in the establishment of the annual Loudoun march to honor Dr. King. Mattie Lassiter, a former president of the Loudoun NAACP, spoke of her fight to open a previously black school (the Carver Center in Purcellville) as a senior center, which still functions today.
The second panel featured three African-Americans who shared their accomplishments in the face of the prevalent segregation, and one elderly white woman, Virginia Houshins. Houshins, originally from Texas, spoke of the multi-racial celebration of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when Texan blacks learned that they had been emancipated, when she was growing up. This, despite the fact that Emancipation in the Confederate states had been announced more than two years earlier.
Shirley Carpenter spoke of her personal experience growing up in Loudoun, and played a recording of herself reciting a poem entitled “I Smile.” Local Loudoun County school teacher and coach Larry Simms gave an overview of 44 years in the school system, both growing up in Loudoun and teaching here. Most disturbing was his report that prejudice against African Americans seems to be expressed more virulently today. The final speaker was Julie Lane, daughter of local civil rights icon Louetta Watkins, who gave a feisty rendition of what it took for her to become one of two Black women promoted to Supervisor in the Northern Virginia Postal Service.
“I Have a Dream”
This event also featured a re-enactment, beautifully rendered, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. It served as a powerful reminder of Dr. King’s ability to express the most profound concepts in ringing poetry that resonates to this very day. The reenactor, Dr. Jeffery Johnson, the pastor of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church of Fairfax, Virginia, did a magnificent job.
His recitation reminded me of what a travesty it is to reduce this speech to its concluding section. After noting how, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks are not yet truly free, King said:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Dr. King went on to argue that the fight for justice must be pressed now, that violence must not be used: “We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” We must work with our “white brothers” and press toward victory, “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Then comes his dream, “deeply rooted in the American dream.” It encompasses all the areas where horrors continue to be perpetrated—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. You may remember those words, and the closing peroration (“Free at last!), but do you remember these?
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
That jangling discord, of course, still exists, perhaps more strongly than it did in King’s time, thanks in no small part to our nation’s turning its back on the American System of economic progress. It remains for us to find the courage, the ideas, the inspiration – and yes, the poetry – to be able to overcome it, and fulfill the real American dream that Dr. King, and his kindred spirits in our nation’s history, so ardently put forth.