Freedom songs

Selma has been on my mind lately. With the passing of John Lewis, my social media feed has been flooded with photos of him standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, stories of his constant bravery and even videos of him dancing or crowd surfing. We have lost a legend. And my mind returns to Selma and the power of song.

On March 5, 2000, I brought a group of junior high school students on a service trip to participate in the 35th Anniversary Commemorative Selma March. We slept on the floor of a church whose members provided real Southern hospitality with a great breakfast of grits and biscuits. We helped out behind the scenes, cleaned the streets and went to as many events as we could.

During the rally Congressman Lewis, Coretta Scott King, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson were joined by then President Bill Clinton for remarks. As we listened to them speak in the hot sun, we were reminded of the bridges that have been crossed and those that still lay before us. Clinton spoke of the poverty, injustice, police brutality and education and health disparities that still fall along the color line. He mentioned that we still have bridges to cross.

But the bridges are there to be crossed. They stand on the strong foundations of our Constitution. They were built by our forebears through silent tears and weary years. They are waiting to take us to higher ground.

Oh, yes, the bridges are built. We can see them clearly. But to get to the other side, we, too, will have to march. I ask you to remember Dr. King’s words: “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.”

This struck a chord with me: that we are all called to be coworkers with God. But while the speeches were stirring, I didn’t really feel the power of the day until a more anonymous moment during the march. Instead of the violence and fear that met the original nonviolent protestors seeking the right to vote for Black Americans, we experienced a certain sense of jubilation and remembrance as we retraced the original route. As we walked I was conscious of the blazing sun. My mind began to drift until suddenly a man beside me began to sing the song “Woke up the morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

The silence around me shattered. Everyone in the crowd responded as one voice. “Stayed on freedom.” The song lifted me and carried me ‘till I was no longer alone. Stayed on freedom. The rhythm, the cadence, the hope of the song stayed with us and we continued to sing it on the drive back home to North Carolina in our 15 passenger van. The students spoke about how the song was life changing and shared it with their friends when they returned home. More than any words by a sitting president or by a living legend like John Lewis, it was a song that touched our souls and made us feel a part of something bigger.

Today we seem to be hopefully in another moment of real change, like that march back in 1965. As a nation and as families around the dinner table, we are having conversations about systemic racism, white supremacy, the legacy of our history and our statues, the role of policing in our society and the call to antiracism. Honestly, as a white woman raised in North Carolina, I have more questions than answers to these topics. I am conscious that I am still learning.

I know now, as I live in a community of white majority in Wisconsin, that racism happens all around me and sometimes even in my own heart. I am finding out how important it is for the conversation to continue, especially among white people as we challenge and question and unveil our own personal white privilege. It is an active conversation being had by my FSPA congregation, the Franciscan Spirituality Center (where I work) and even throughout La Crosse as a whole. We have bridges left to cross.

Once again, I find that music is carrying me to a place where words cannot touch. The song “I Can’t Breathe,” sung by C. Anthony Bryant and written by Luke Peace Poet, reaches into my soul. The rich tradition of the spirituals and the freedom songs of the civil rights movement speak in the language of now. This present moment is asking us to act. This now is the bridge to cross and the way we are called to be coworkers with God.

About the Rabble Rouser


Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

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