Like many young future reporters, I once envisioned working for the New York Times. That wasn’t ever likely, and though Joanna and I love to visit New York, today I have no desire to ever live there or to again work as a journalist. Still, the Times probably remains the best American newspaper, and I’ve enjoyed taking students to visit. I appreciated being quoted in a Times story about Andrew Breitbart, and having a post (about profanity in Newsweek) from my media and politics blog cited in another story (and then elsewhere).
But the first time I ever “made the Times,” it was with my wife and came because a friend asked me to help out at an anti-nuclear rally in the Idaho desert; when organizers found out that I was a fairly big guy who had been through non-violence resistance training sponsored by a Spokane peace organization, they handed me an orange armband to “work security.” Joanna and I sat together during the speeches, and ended up in a photo later used to illustrate a story in the Times magazine. We were not identified in the photo, and found out about its existence only because someone who saw it later recognized Joanna on the street. (How do people do that?)
Shortly after the rally, we went back to school. I eventually wrote a doctoral dissertation about former journalist and anti-nuclear activist Sam Day, Jr. After helping his wife, Kathleen, pick Sam up at the federal prison where he had spent the previous several months, Joanna and I became friends with the couple. (Yeah, we like political activists.) We even spent a few nights in their home after a crazed Texan threatened to kill us with an axe in the campground where we had pitched our tent. After Sam’s 2001 death I attended his funeral, where the hundreds in attendance sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
“We Shall Overcome” (three words that might serve as a motto during to the inevitable tough times of any marriage) was an anthem for organized labor and for the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the song in his final sermon, and just over 50 years ago Joan Baez sang it during the 1963 March on Washington. She also did so in the White House almost exactly four years ago.
The song also is closely tied to the career of another folk singer, the legendary Pete Seeger (whose sister also has a song on this blog). Seeger — whom the Los Angeles Times called “America’s conscience” after he died Monday — offers a short history of the song here.
One of the things I have learned is that resistance is easier as part of a group, and that unity-building activities such as locking arms, holding hands, chanting or singing can make civil disobedience even easier. It seems appropriate that one nice version of “We Shall Overcome” comes from a group that gathered to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday. Among the singers were Baez, Emmylou Harris, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and New York City Labor Choir.
“We Shall Overcome” lyrics here, with video of my favorite Joan Baez version (done for the BBC in 1965) below. And below that — because Seeger died this week — I’m posting a video with his voice from a 1963 concert.