Should “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the civil rights movement, be left to history?
That was the question Rodrigo Dorfman, a multimedia filmmaker and activist living in Durham, raised Monday in a Facebook comment.
Dorfman, who described himself as a Latino and Jew who “enjoys white privilege,” said a cultural shift started with the Occupy movement and continues with Black Lives Matter. The “noise army” that rallied at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh when Pat McCrory was in office is an example of that change, he said.
Protest songs and slogans are meant to mobilize people, he said. The song “We Shall Overcome” is a dated cultural expression, he said.
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“In the Occupy movement, I could already see these more combative, more direct songs and slogans being used in marches,” Dorfman said. “What’s interesting is that there are songs, and I’ve heard them, but they’re not sort of lyrical. ... They’re songs that are more geared toward the rhythm of hip hop and spoken word.”
Songs being produced now are relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, Durham activist Qasima Wideman said, pointing to Beyonce’s “Formation” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Plus, young people are creating their own chants and songs, she said.
However, the long, radical history of civil rights songs and tactics also should be remembered, said Wideman, a member of the Durham Branch of the Workers World Party – “The Wobblies.” She compared the protesters blocking traffic now with those who marched in the 1960s. They weren’t violent or passive, she said, but their actions often inspired a violent response from law enforcement and other citizens.
“That’s what needs to be retired, is this idea that the civil rights movement was about forgiveness and peace, and was not about folks who were fighting and putting their bodies on the line for their (beliefs),” she said.
“We Shall Overcome” will have meaning as long as people still are fighting for justice, agreed Bull City Hip Hop Youth Ambassadors representative Sandra Davis and Charmaine McKissick-Melton, an N.C. Central University associate professor and longtime civil rights activist.
They also agreed with Dorfman that a new generation has to find its own voice.
“I think that you also have to make the music bridge the gap to a new generation,” Davis said. “Of course, the kids can appreciate the song ‘We Shall Overcome’ and appreciate the historical significance and value, but in addition, of course, they can probably relate more to current artists and hip hop.”
The civil rights standard definitely needs more pep, McKissick-Melton said.
“People sing it as though it’s a funeral song,” she said. “The way we sang it during the movement was to keep our spirits up and alive, to take whatever was coming next.”