It was a rainy day in July. Youth from the Deep South and immigrant communities were meeting with Stay Together Appalachian Youth in southeastern Kentucky in a learning exchange through Highlander’s Seeds of Fire program. They were studying the history of the juvenile justice system, and its connections to the economy. They connected the environment and the economy by visiting an active mining site and talking with former coal miners now fighting mountaintop removal. They take that learning back home to their local communities to improve their schools, curtail the cradle to prison pipeline, and work on other community issues.
In August, community leaders from New Orleans to Louisville, from Spartanburg, SC to Big Stone Gap, VA explored alternative economic models for community sustainability in Highlander’s THREADS program. They are some of the 150 community leaders Highlander is training in a 5-year strategy for broad-based movement building. On the ground at home, these community leaders apply their new understanding of economic theory and alternative models, translating ideas into action through cross-race, cross-issue organizing.
Earlier this summer, immigrant youth in Nashville delivered coffins to elected officials. In the coffins were their applications to college, reference letters and awards, signifying the death of their dreams for higher education. It was an action planned through participation in Highlander’s Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project, as part of a larger campaign to support passage of the Dream Act, federal legislation which would provide opportunities for college education for immigrant youth. Through our collective networks, the action spread to Memphis, Chattanooga and other cities, garnering significant media attention.
These youth are part of growing numbers of young immigrants across the country who have taken great risks in their efforts to pass the Dream Act.
On May 1st, Felipe Matos stood across from the White House with three other Trail of Dreams marchers who had just finished a courageous and strenuous 4-month, 1500-mile march and educational campaign from Miami to DC in support of the Dream Act. In front of the vast crowd he said, “There is a song. I’ve been singing it on this march and it has helped me get through.” And he sang the ‘We Are Not Afraid’ verse of We Shall Overcome.
Felipe sang those words fifty-one years after that verse was birthed in a dark library at Highlander by another young person working for justice. It was July 1959, and Grundy County sheriffs had just raided the Highlander Folk School because of its work against segregation. Four people were arrested that night, including Director of Education Septima Clark and cultural worker Guy Carawan. Not sure what was going to happen to them, people sat together and worked through their fears by singing. One of those songs was We Shall Overcome, a freedom song that had evolved from a church song.
Thirteen-year-old Mary Ethel Dozier of the Montgomery Improvement Association was in the library that night, and she lifted her voice in the dark with new words she added to We Shall Overcome – “We are not afraid. We are not afraid. We are not afraid today.”
A youth from the Jim Crow south creates a new verse to We Shall Overcome, a song that goes around the world to South Africa, to Thailand, to Ireland and Australia and comes back to an immigration rally in front of the White House, where just months before it had been sung inside the White House during Black history month.
For those of us who haven’t met fire hoses, or been hung by our thumbs at Parchment jail, or faced billy clubs of sheriffs and mobs after crossing a bridge, it may be hard to understand why singing can be so powerful and why that verse is so important.
The night before Matos stood across from the White House and raised We Shall Overcome, Bernice Johnson Reagon, joined by her daughter Toshi Reagon, gave a powerful presentation about her 40+ year relationship with the Highlander Center. The context of the current times was woven throughout her singing and talking, her theme of ‘becoming one in the number’ giving testament to collective effort and the leadership that young people can provide a society to push forward.
Two weeks prior to Dr. Reagon’s talk, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee celebrated its 50th anniversary at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, the place where SNCC began. The work of SNCC in the South five decades ago was done under conditions no less than state-sponsored terrorism, and the gathering was a reminder of the power of strategy, plans, implementation, and courage—and some of that courage formed through song.
At the end of May, I was moved to be one of the 100,000 people who marched 6 miles in the Phoenix heat protesting far-reaching anti-immigrant legislation, Arizona SB 1070. I was marching as part of a delegation of white people active with a national collaborative effort to counter racism, an effort that Highlander helped spark, called Let’s Build a US for All of Us: No Room for Racism. I laughed at the big-eyed, green-bodied cardboard cutouts with signs that said, Legalize Aliens. I was humbled by the mother who pulled her three children in a wagon, rope tied around her body as a harness and umbrellas over her children’s heads. I appreciated the white parents whose toddler carried a sign from his stroller, “I don’t speak English. Ask me for my papers.” I was touched by the busload of three generations of Koreans who came from Los Angeles to support the march.
And I was blown away by the large contingent of spirited young people marching for the Dream Act, still chanting in call-and-response at the end of the long, hot six miles,
“Every where we go….
people want to know …
who we are…
so we tell them…
We are the Dreamers…
the mighty, mighty Dreamers …
fighting for justice …
and our education.”
It is Highlander’s purpose to find today’s dreamers, help connect them to each other, and fortify their efforts.
Help Highlander continue our work to support the thousands of mighty, mighty dreamers fighting for justice who come through Highlander from across the south and world, and in the communities with whom we work. The names of those dreamers may change, as well as the issues, but the Highlander task remains constant: to thread and sustain a sense of historical connection while helping propel the way ever forward for justice.