Singing for Justice

This past Sunday, hundreds of people bundled up in warm clothes, left their heated homes, and gathered around the arch in Washington Square Park to sing together. Some brought guitars, some brought signs, some brought children. Others just brought their voices. The collective intention was straightforward—sing for freedom, sing for peace, sing for justice.

For nearly two hours we sang our hearts out. Many of the songs we sang were classic American protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Oh Freedom,” and “The Hammer Song.” Others were gospel standards lyrically adapted to the religiously diverse ethos of the crowd – “We Shall Not be Moved,” “Amazing Grace,” and “When the Saint Go Marching In.”

Though we were driven by our collective outrage over the actions and attitudes of the current US President, the feeling in the crowd was one of joy and togetherness, not of anger and resentment. We were united by a common cause and our songs gave us a unified voice. Our voice was both a voice of hope and a voice of resistance. It was a voice that expressed our pride in America and our desire for America to be better, to truly be the land of the free. Together, we became elevated and elated through song.

Over the past few months, protests have erupted in cities around the country and around the world. People have gathered in parks, city centers, and even airports to physically demonstrate their displeasure with the American government, particularly with the President. While these protests have taken a variety of forms, most of them have not involved much singing. Perhaps this is because we, as a culture, have forgotten how to sing together. Perhaps it is because many of us never learned protests songs in our youth. Perhaps many people simply don’t see singing as effective or worthwhile. “What can we say in a song that we can’t say on a sign?” some protestors might ask.

A whole lot!!

“Singing makes a difference,” write Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, compilers of the classic American songbook, Rise Up Singing. “It deepens the bonds within families. It helps young people discover what they believe in and connect as a community of peers. Singing gives us courage to face hardships and discouragement, empowering us and moving us forward out of isolation.”

I have been singing my whole life. I grew up at a Jewish summer camp in California where communal singing—particularly of songs with social justice themes—was an integral part of daily life. Singing together gave our camp community strength and generated joy within each individual. It truly was the glue that held us together and the fuel that powered us through each and every day.

If there is hope for our country and for the world, it lies in our ability to sing with each other, to share in the universal human act of vocal unification with people both similar to and different from us. As Pete Seeger says, “if there’s a human race still here in a hundred years, one of the main reasons will be that we found ways to sing together. Different religions, different languages—the act of singing together makes us realize we’re human beings.”

In the coming weeks and months, we will return to Washington Square Park (and many other locations) to sing with people from around New York (and the rest of the country). I invite you to come with me so that together, we can create a better world.

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