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We Shall Overcome! Part 1

In 2013, I was privileged to be interviewed for the PBS documentary, Freedom Summer, which chronicled the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. At one point during the interview, Stanley Nelson, the talented writer, producer, and director of the film, asked me about mass meetings. In an instant, multiple images of mass meetings at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church flashed through my mind from 50 years earlier. My responses went something like this.

“Mass meetings, as the term suggests, were weekly meetings of masses of people, who came together, usually in a church, always at night. The main purpose of mass meetings was to discuss strategies for the Movement, such as when and where boycotts would take place, when and where marches and pickets were to take place, how to get more black people registered to vote, how to respond to bullying from police and Klan, and in the case of one local leader, threats to reveal the names of known Uncle Toms and sellouts.

“Several friends of mine, my older brother Junior and I had a special role at a Mt. Zion mass meeting, which typically went like this: Prior to the start of the meeting, we found an empty pew on the front row and sat shoulder to shoulder, sitting very still and preparing ourselves for that special role. All around us were the sounds of chatter and the sights of waving hand-held fans with the name of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church printed on one side and the customary white Jesus on the other. Despite the din of incessant chatter and the sweltering heat, my friends, brother and I maintained a laser focus on a single closed door, just to the left of the pulpit.

“That was the start of our role – to sit there and wait for someone to walk through that door. The person who eventually walked through the door was a member of the local NAACP, COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), or SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). When we made eye contact with that person, he flashed a signal to us – a nod of the head or a wave of a hand, which meant that the meeting was about to start, and that we should prepare to spring into action.

“We slowly rose from our seats and turned to face the congregation. A hush came over the crowd as all eyes locked on to us. Because we sat on the front row, with our backs to the crowd and our attention fixed on the door, we didn’t realize that there was not an empty seat in the main sanctuary or in the balcony. The sight of such a massive crowd caused butterflies to start stirring inside me. We each took a deep breath, and began singing, acapella, the first freedom song of the evening, maybe Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, my personal favorite. As we began to sing, the congregation would join in, matching our rhythm, swaying, clapping, and lyrics. The mass meeting had officially begun.

“We would sing two or three more songs. It was important to sing those songs at the start of the meeting because they set the tone of what was to come next. Also, they put us in the right frame of mind – defiance, hope, resistance; and most importantly they invoked the presence of the Creator and the memories of the martyrs and ancestors who had brought us this far. After the singing ended, the presiding officer would invite a preacher to lead the congregation in prayer, followed by an announcement of what was on the agenda. After the strategizing ended, a preacher would offer a stirring benediction followed by the entire congregation standing, joining hands with crossed arms and singing the signature song of the Civil Rights Movement, We Shall Overcome. When the final stanza was over, the meeting ended, and everyone went home. We left Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church with renewed hope and a much-needed booster shot of defiance and resistance, due in large measure to freedom songs, especially We Shall Overcome.”

The film premiered in June 2014 on PBS.

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