Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd.], 8/28/1963. Original black and white negative by Rowland Scherman. Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (The National Archives and Records Administration). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

When shall we overcome?

September 13, 2023

Why is our freedom still just aspirational?

Recently I delivered a speech at East View United Church of Christ located at Van Aken and Avalon in Shaker Heights. The occasion was something called “Porch Talk.” The occasion was a day of reflection on an earlier day in 1964 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to speak at Heights Christian Church, which once occupied that building.

It was called “Porch Talk” because some members of Heights Christian Church who opposed the idea of King coming to that church took it upon themselves to remove all the pews from the sanctuary so the expected crowd would have no place to sit. Undeterred by that action, other members of that same church moved the event outdoors where Dr. King addressed the crowd from a porch that is adjacent to the sanctuary.

My task was to reflect on how things have evolved in this country since that day in 1964. As I entered the sanctuary, the church choir was singing the civil rights anthem “We shall overcome.” It occurred to me, and I said in my remarks, that I have been singing that song for over sixty years. This time I got stuck on the word “shall.” For sixty years I have been singing about an aspiration that somehow, someday we “shall overcome.”

Why are we still singing about freedom as an aspiration? Why have we not overcome already?

Instead of overcoming a four-hundred-year legacy of racism and discrimination, we are being confronted with a rise of voter suppression, a mini-race riot in Montgomery, Alabama, and a United States Supreme Court that has cut the heart out of affirmative action in college admissions and workplace programs on equity and diversity.

For sixty years I have been singing about an aspiration that somehow, someday we “shall overcome.” Why are we still singing about freedom as an aspiration? Why have we not overcome already?

It occurred to me that “We shall overcome” has run into the headwinds of the MAGA movement and its aspiration to Make America Great Again.

Here is the current crisis in American society. Part of the population is hoping to overcome the problems of the past, while another segment of our society is nostalgic for that past. Part of the population wants to enjoy expanded freedom and opportunity for all citizens of this nation, while another segment wants to return to an era where white supremacy was the order of the day and white privilege was on full display.

The next few years will determine the direction in which this country will head. Either we will keep hope alive and sing a song of inspiration and aspiration (We shall overcome), or the enemies of democracy will prevail and the MAGA madness will continue, and that future could well prove to be worse than the past.

To Make America Great Again inevitably involves returning to a time when not everyone was free. When was “again?” Was it before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Was it before 1948 and the desegregation of the U.S. military? Was it before 1920 when women gained the right to vote? Was it before 1865 when four million African Americans toiled away in lifelong enslavement?

When was this mystical era to which the MAGA movement and its puppet master, Donald Trump want to return? Is it back to a time when Native Americans were being forced from their ancestral homelands and herded onto reservations under the false promises of one broken treaty after another?

I am going to keep singing “We shall overcome” in the hope that we will eventually be able to sing “We have overcome.” I invite all people of goodwill to keep singing that song despite the relentless attempts by many white Republicans and conservative Christians and Christian Nationalists to reverse human rights progress for racial minorities and women and enshrine minority rule in a nation with a rapidly changing demographic.

I guess this is the real meaning of the phrase KEEP THE FAITH!

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle, pastor emeritus of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, is interim executive minister, Cleveland Baptist Association, American Baptist Churches, USA. He served as president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, New York, from 2011 to 2019. First published by The Real Deal Press. Used by permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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