‘We Shall Overcome’ — When Sooner, It’s Better

What I Learned at Church About When To Sing The Hymn And How to Make It More Meaningful in Worship and Ceremonies

Bridgeport, Connecticut | Sunday, July 12, 2015


There’s so much being spoken and written these days about race in the United States, it seems audacious to attempt to add something new. Yet, as a white man — or “Euro-American,” using the term I prefer as it identifies the source of my genetic and cultural whiteness — I discovered today an unexpected insight into the white experience of the nation’s lurching moves to the eventual but unreachable point at the end of the Parker-King arc of the universe, which is long but bends toward justice.

My movement a smidgen along that arc occurred in a worship service today at the Unitarian Church of Westport, Connecticut, led by Dr. J. Randolph “Randy” Burnham, who participated with hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches this past March. Celebrated, yes, but warily, as we know the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which ensued from Selma had just been gutted by the Supreme Court. And also celebrated, yes, but saddened by the lives of the three martyrs of Selma — Jimmy Lee Jackson, The Reverand James J. Reeb, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo — who gave their lives after being shot or beaten by racist thugs, some with badges, so that millions of Americans could for the past half-century years simply enjoy the dignity and right of voting in their democracy with few impediments (but impediments now growing in number, somehow and disturbingly proportional and contemporary with complaints of “religious freedom” in other matters of civil rights). Two of the three martyrs I listed were Unitarian Universalists, one a minister and the other a layperson.

Lft to right: What one UU saw behind her crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge at #Selma50 #MarchOn in March 2015; President Obama at the bridge a day earlier; the president and first lady head flank Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the original marches, during the 50th anniversary commemoration. (Photos by Denny Davidoff, left, and center and right by Pete Souza, the White House official photographer.)
Left, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Representative Lewis between them amd former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush seen to the right. In right photo, the crowd outside Brown Chapel AME Church listens to Dr. King in 1965. (Souza/White House photo to left and, right, from the Daily Herald of suburban Chicago)
Left, The Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks outside Brown Chapel in 1965. Right, a memorial to the martyrs of Selma now stands outside Brown Chapel in Selma. (Credit: left plough.com and, right, kansas.com)

With all that as introit, it comes down to this song:

My experience is that when white folks — my “Euro-Americans” — plan and participate in the majority at religious services or at political or civil ceremonies about racial justice (and sometimes economic or gender justice) is powerful and memorable hymn is nearly always placed at the end of the program or order of service.

It is as if it takes white folks a half-hour or an hour of communal observation and permission to work up the emotional courage to tackle this song, not as a cliché but as liturgy as important and nearly as required as a spritual practice as the Lord’s Prayer, the Sch’ma, or beginnings that begin with “Insha’Allah.”

This morning, it happened that as he structured his comments about his experiences with race in a lifetime and his visit in March to Alabama, Dr. Burnham chose to place “We Shall Overcome” as the first hymn in his order of service. It went there because it fit his story there. But it was also a revelation to me.

Singing “We Shall Overcome” first, rather than last, took me — I cannot speak for anyone but me — deeper into a reflection, worship, and determination about anti-racism, white racism and privilege, my own story right at the outset. It was as if we had sung a meditation and then went deeper into prayer with Randy and his story.

Having now had the experience of singing “We Shall Overcome” first, as an entry into deep concern and reflection for my country and its diverse people including #BlackLivesMattter, #MarchOn, #Selma50 and #TakeItDown | #WeTookItDown, not to mention #MarriageEquality, I shall regard services and ceremonies that conclude with “We Shall Overcome” as well-meaning but perhaps inadvertently shallow.

For whites, the hymn should be a place of departure and an impetus for discussion, prayer, and pondering concerning how to overcome. I won’t be satisfied anymore when the hymn is a finale, postured as an aspiration but in reality often just an excuse for some sighs of exasperation with the human condition and then a rush for the literal and figurative exits.

* * *

Having said this, I also recall that in virtually all of our national recognitions, we reverently (and quite appropriately) begin with the national anthem, namely “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But if we are observing topics of racial justice, we don’t begin with a song that often companions “We Shall Overcome” in public majority gatherings around racial justice. It, too, comes late, a coda rather than a prelude to deeper reflection. I speak of course of the following song, which should also be for Euro-Americans a point of departure rather than arrival:

From the Living Legacy Project of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, here is a collection of resources concerning Selma. Click on the image to link to the resouce page.
Douglass T. Davidoff

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