Last Sunday, the postlude in church was a familiar tune made popular in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the sixties. A couple soloists and an acoustic guitar led the congregation in “We Shall Overcome.” Before we began singing, the musicians asked us to notice how many issues that motivated this song a half century ago are still with us today.
I dutifully sang along, but then was surprised to feel emotions surging as the familiar words bathed my senses, transporting me back almost 40 years, to May of 1971.
I had been in Washington, DC, participating in the May Day Anti-Vietnam War demonstration to try to “shut the city down.” In retrospect, given the passions the war evoked, it was an amazingly peaceful event as tens of thousands descended on the capital to voice their objection to the conduct of US policy in Southeast Asia.
On the demonstration’s second morning, I was arrested. I was crossing DuPont Circle after a day spent dodging tear gas and police blockades. I had never been arrested before, but on that day I was one of more than 12,000 swept up in coordinated police actions. My charge spoke volumes of the threat I posed to society: jay walking. Yes, jay walking. Still, I was booked and finger printed and crammed into a small holding cell along with more than a dozen others who were in DC to protest a variety of issues in addition to the War, from environmental justice to reproductive rights, from poverty to LGBT rights.
The jail held several cells like ours, lined up one next to the other facing an open courtyard with walls in between so we could not see the others being held. But we could hear many dozens of voices surrounding us, presumably in equally jam-packed holding cells like ours, and so we knew the dragnet must have been huge.
We looked out beyond the bars into the courtyard and could hear the DC police bringing in even more victims of the massive sweep that was underway. Our numbers continued to swell and by this time, the afternoon sun beat in through the windows making our sweltering conditions even more unbearable. Then, as we waited for—we did not know what we were waiting for—I heard women’s voices coming from another cell. The sound was low at first, almost unrecognizable. But soon, I could make out the tune. They were singing “We Shall Overcome.” And cell by cell, the men who had been rounded up along with these women began to join the chorus. The singing built to a crescendo until the words rang out loud and clear—not in anger or even defiance, but in dogged determination: we shall overcome…someday.
I spent the night in jail. I was hauled before a judge, pleaded guilty and paid a $10 fine and time served, and I was back on the road to my home in New Jersey later that night.
So, I am grateful to the musicians of Union Congregational Church who allowed me on Sunday to take a trip back in time. I don’t know what especially prompted my mind to leap to 1971, but I was brought to tears by both the memory of that former time and the challenges of today and the need to re-dedicate myself to work for peace with justice, believing—sometimes despite ongoing evidence to the contrary—that we shall overcome…someday.