The Structure Whisperer


Last night in my Social Movements class at Merrimack College, we were discussing culture and protest and “the emotional turn” in social movement theorizing. We discussed the role of activities like singing in building commitment to movements.

As we had previously discussed recruitment to the “high risk” activism of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, I was grateful to have recalled this interview with Vincent Harding (sometimes speechwriter to Dr. King) about the student reaction to hearing the possibility that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were missing (and likely murdered). I was able to bring a multimedia moment to the classroom, and the ability to hear Harding recall this in his own words was very powerful.


You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity. Vincent Harding did just that.

In the audio above, the theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. creates that vulnerable opening and ever so gently corrects, without admonishment, when the “Kumbaya” is referred to as a soft and squishy moment of song:

"We Shall Overcome" (1964)“Whenever somebody jokes about “Kumbaya,” my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. …

In group after group, people were singing:

Kumbaya. “Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here.”’

I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya.”

I know I’ve used this this reference to a “kumbaya moment” in a slightly pejorative way. This no longer holds true. I can no longer judge using this label. Let Vincent Harding’s story be a lesson for us all.

We’re producing the radio show now and it’ll be released on February 24th.