No room for sadness, or silence, on front lines of Poor People's Campaign

Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant.
Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant.

The chant "No Justice, No Peace! No Justice, No Peace!" reverberated through the stone rotunda of the N.C. General Assembly building, a deafening call-response.

Outside the office of House Speaker Moore, one hundred protesters had come together for week two of the Poor People's Campaign, a modern-day iteration of Martin Luther King’s efforts in 1968 prior to his assassination.

As the echoes faded, the Rev. Amantha Barbee, a slender woman in black shirt and pants, red stole and white clerical collar, and a broad smile, began quietly singing "We shall overcome; we shall overcome; we shall overcome some day."

With just the first words, I was overcome, my voice trembling and my face stricken with the memory of marching in support of the Voting Rights Act on a cool spring day, 53 years earlier

As a 13-year-old in my small upstate New York town. I walked along with my father and his friends on the Olean Committee on Human Rights in support of the Selma to Montgomery marchers. He was dressed in his ever present uniform, a neat gray suit, crisp white shirt and colorful paisley tie.

On Thursday, March 25, 1965, the week before our march, 25,000 people had walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Struggling to sing in our State Capitol, I reflected on my parents from whom I learned about injustice and activism, and on what seemed an unending struggle that my generation had failed to complete.

My parents traveled by boat from Europe with my older sister and me, passing by the Statue of Liberty to dock on the west side of Manhattan in 1952. Having witnessed the horrors of war, fascism and intolerance, my parents, a Holocaust survivor whose family was murdered, and a Dutch and U.S. army veteran, were immediately struck by the strident nastiness of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who saw Communists under every bed, the apartheid Jim Crow laws in the south, and discrimination throughout the U.S.

Not much for flag waving, they revered the Constitution, especially freedom of speech and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Although marching was anathema for my mother, still carrying the psychic scars of the Nazis, my father walked the walk through marching, speaking out, and donating to progressive groups. I do not remember them ever being discouraged about the slow progress towards justice.

With this exposure at a young age, activism came naturally to me. In high school, we raised money for Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights matriarch in Sunflower County, Mississippi. She was instrumental in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an attempt to seat a grassroots, integrated coalition at the 1964 Democratic Party convention. I learned about her work in U.S. history class and wrote to her about helping.

When asked why she persevered in her civil rights efforts, Hamer said, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”

Echoed by Dr. King a year later, when the Selma marchers reached Montgomery, he said: "The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. I know you are asking today, how long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long."

Unlike the fierce militancy of ‘No Justice, No Peace’, or the buoyant, optimistic "This Little Light of Mine," "We Shall Overcome," although hopeful, is mournful, rooted in the sadness of the struggle by African Americans in the United States. As I listened to the beautiful words rise from the crowd these last weeks, remembering the past, I inwardly rebuked myself for my feelings. People had given their lives for these freedoms.

After King’s Montgomery speech, later that night, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit who had come to Alabama to support voting rights, was assassinated by Ku Klux Klan members while she was ferrying marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. And three college students, Andrew Goodman and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner from New York City, and James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, were murdered the previous summer.

Who was I, a privileged older white man, to feel sad?

Straightening up, my head up, throwing my shoulders back, I opened my mouth and timidly began singing, leading the crowd once more in "This Little Light of Mine," while imploring the Rev. Barbee with my eyes to take over my out-of-tune, hesitant and faltering lead.

Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant. Follow him on Twitter @chasvanderhorst

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