Three summers ago, we drove together up the country on the trail of social justice, from New Orleans to the great gentrified factories at the base of the Great Lakes. The Birmingham Jail, a historical marker in a small weedy quarter-lot alcove, up against, sure enough, a modern jail and police station, just under the highway. The Maya Lin memorial chalice, at the foot of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama capitol building, all silent on a Sunday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the shuttered Goodwill storefront at its base. Homeless people in the park in Birmingham, begging for cigarettes and change among the stark statues of children facing police dogs and fire hoses. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, with its reconstructed scenes of the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, with its rolling view of Kentucky, and the river that separates the American South and North.
I’m especially proud of the long essay that captures our 2017 journey, which I posted upon our return alongside a short soundtrack of social justice songs of hope and freedom. It’s a trip that everyone should take, to bring a sense of scale to our national struggle towards justice for all.
But I am less proud, and sometimes ashamed, at the ways in which the long arc of the moral universe bends so slowly, so inconsistently towards justice. And although I work hard to do my part to keep the world getting better – even through Cover Lay Down itself, which by remaining ad-free and always celebrating the artists we find and want to share, aims to walk the walk of fair compensation and cultural continuity – I am bothered, far too often and well, at how overwhelming the work can seem, when seen from a distance.
It’s hard to celebrate the triumphs of a culture when you work in a city whose white mayor just proclaimed, despite a unanimous vote to the contrary by a largely non-white city council, that our gates will remain closed to refugees seeking sanctuary. It’s hard when the national news of young immigrants caged at the border fades into the drumbeats of war and disillusionment, pushing us to forget that those cages are still full, and our fellow humans still not free. It’s hard when I see my students arrive each morning – if indeed they bother to show up at all – sullen, tired, and hungry, their yearning to be free inarticulate, buried under a well-worn, well-practiced patina of brash hostility and callousness, if indeed it exists in them at all.
I teach social justice, in my way: English teachers have to teach conviction, else their students’ language languishes, purposeless; in the urban environment, the pressure is higher, and the injustices more present, if less articulable by its struggling residents. But we do our part with readings and thematic focuses on loneliness, responsibility, injustice, and the inaccessibility of the American Dream. My ninth graders started the year with Baldwin and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, seeing their own hopeless streets in a ghettoized Harlem, their own otherness in Santiago’s struggles to redefine her identity after her native tongue became alien and strange in Brooklyn. In my Advanced Placement Language and Composition classes, we read Swift’s call to power, and King’s call to morality; we talk fairness and equity, ideals and ethics – you have to. For years, I taught media literacy, and drama, as ways out of the mass mindset.
Empowering people is what I do, vocationally. And when you work in the inner city, there’s urgency in everything.
But there’s also an awful lot of hopelessness out here.
It’s hard to feel like we live in a just world. But we have to believe: the arc of the universe still bends towards justice. As long as we do our part, that is. As with anything, our part starts with memory, and moves to action.
And thanks to its forefathers and their inheritors – among them Seeger and Guthrie; Dylan, Holly Near and Richard Farina; Richard Shindell and Emma’s Revolution and Jean Rohe – folk, perhaps more than any genre, has long provided a potent vehicle for our articulation of these values, and this mandate. And though there are some who ask where the good protest songs are, there are others, like us, who say: here they are. Sing them with us, loudly.
Today, then, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.: a short mix of coverfolk that call us to memory and legacy and action, just the latest in a series of long, loving songlists and musings on social justice, immigration, and hope and change shared here previously. Songs whose lyrics and strong sentiment push us ever onwards, whose stubborn persistence echoes from the mountaintops, whose continued re-performance helps fertilize hope against the cold.
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It was true in 1963, as King’s words rang forth across the air and waters; it is true today. Yet may our voices still rise in solidarity and challenge, determination and daring, as we push back against the forces that would dam that stream. And may we know justice and equality in our lifetimes, and be proud of our labors, our protest, and our pride.
Previously on Cover Lay Down