It was a frigid Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Boston. Outside, snow drifts were piling up next to Dorchester Bay, but inside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, my wife, 3-year-old son, and I sat comfortably on an auditorium floor. The room was filled with a multicultural group of children and parents awaiting a holiday concert by the George Russell Jr. and Company jazz band.
Russell perched in front of an electric piano. “Welcome everyone,” he said jovially, playing a few chords. “I’d like to start by going back in time, maybe about 250 years or so. I want us to imagine that we are all slaves.”
I sucked in my breath.
Slavery didn’t seem so far off. Over the past year we’ve suffered Nazis marching on Charlottesville, roundups of immigrants, and Donald Trump’s alleged comments regarding the people of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations. I wondered how such events have affected America’s children? It seems implausible that they will grow to adulthood unaffected by the climate of fear and hate. White supremacy threatens their moral character and sense of well-being.
“We are outside, in the field, picking cotton, or sugar cane, and we hear, way off in the distance…” Russell called. Barely audible singing filled the room… “Steal away…. Steal away…”
Russell continued, “now if you were a slave, and you heard that song, that could be a signal that the Underground Railroad was coming through. If you wanted to get away to freedom, tonight was your night to do so! As you know, it was against the law for slaves to read or write, so they often used songs to pass secret messages. What might seem to be an innocent song performed at a ritual or service oftentimes had another meaning. In Steal Away, Harriet Tubman would use the music to let the slaves know— ‘hey, if you want to get away to freedom, tonight is your night.’ A very good message to pass, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” children and parents responded.
“Absolutely!” Russell said, a smile spreading across his face.
Why was I, a Caucasian man, a doctor, person of privilege, attending a Martin Luther King Day event?
In my clinical work as a physician from Boston to Mozambique, I’ve always had a passion for health equity. I’ve admired the social medicine approach of Rudolph Virchow and believed that silence in the face of injustice is unacceptable.
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But my story, why I feel a duty to resist racism, is much more personal. During my childhood I was frequently reminded of the history of the Nazi Holocaust. And I married an immigrant from South Korea; we are parents of a mixed-race child.
My family’s history in the civil rights movement also plays a role in my feelings and actions. In 1963, my father and my aunt attended the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And in 1965, my father heeded Dr. King’s call to assist at the Selma to Montgomery March. He even got to shake Dr. King’s hand at the conclusion of the march—an event that has always felt deeply significant to me.
As George Russell Jr. and his band began singing ‘Wade in the Water,’ I thought: What would it take to generate a new civil rights and human rights movement in this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King?
In fact, just such a musical movement is already growing: a new Poor People’s Campaign—a Moral Revival. Led by Reverend Drs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, the nationwide campaign is fulfilling the legacy of Dr. King. Here is something not often mentioned in today’s homages to MLK: at the time of his assassination, he had been organizing black, white, Native and brown people of America to create a Poor People’s Campaign demanding a ‘moral revolution of values.’
The 2018 Poor People’s Campaign is confronting systemic racism and discrimination, poverty, ecological devastation, and America’s war economy. On February 5, the campaign held a simultaneous and unified news conference and letter delivery in approximately thirty states. And today in Raleigh, North Carolina, thousands marched and sang for justice.
The campaign itself officially kicks off on May 13, Mother’s Day, with six weeks of nonviolent moral action across dozens of states and the District of Columbia, and culminates with a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol on June 23.
As George Russell Jr. sang, I looked at my son’s innocent face, his wide eyes, his wavy brown hair, and his clapping hands. Suddenly, a route forward dawned on me: the music.
During Black History Month, and year-round, we can teach our children the musical history of the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement. How the music strengthened and informed slaves, abolitionists, and activists and helped them on their journey. This history can inspire our children to pursue peace and justice.
Sing, children. We shall overcome.