Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I saw my people

"In so many ways, the father of us all."
— Mary Travers

As the 89-year-old civil rights champion, Pete Seeger, helped close out the ceremonies that opened this inaugural affair on Sunday, so the efforts of the 87-year-old civil rights leader, Joseph Lowery, brought the celebrations to a resounding close today. At least that’s how I experienced it.

Lowery is former pastor of the Warren Street United Methodist Church, in Mobile, Alabama and co-founder with Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His benediction was filled with references well-known in the black community but maybe not so well-known in the white world.

“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou, who has brought us thus far along the way,
thou, who has by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path we pray,
lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand
true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.”

These are the closing lines from “Lift every voice and sing” otherwise known as the Black National Anthem. It’s writer? James Weldon Johnson, of course. [His brother, Rosamond, wrote the music.] It's #149 in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

The reference here is to Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White” blues, also known as “The Get Back Blues”.

"If you're white, you're all right.
If you're brown, stick around.
But if you're black, oh, brother --
Get back! Get Back! Get back!"

Broonzy became an influencial performer, especially prior to World War II, coming out of the Chicago blues scene. After the war, according to the blogger who introduced him to me, “he was accused of being a Communist and blacklisted, and, apart from appearing with his fellow blacklister, Pete Seeger (who performed for Obama on Sunday), did little for the rest of his life.”

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