Oh Freedom! ~Three Lessons from the Iowa Freedom Choir Experience

As the 4th of July draws near I figured the time is ripe to reflect on the civil rights history trip I took 4 months ago thanks to Patti Miller’s Keeping History Alive Foundation! Now that I’ve graduated from college I’m gaining more appreciation for the privileges that I’ve enjoyed as a handsome intelligent athletic 6ft. upper-middle class white male. I’m just beginning to recognize and appreciate the access granted to me my whole life and how easy its come. I’ve faced virtually no cultural or institutional barriers during my life. And as I think about my job options (fresh out of college) I realize that I am connected to so many opportunities I don’t know what to do with myself. Growing up in a multicultural neighborhood, with rich friends and poor friends, I know mine wasn’t a universal experience. Now that I’m in the comfort of my childhood home with the luxury of a few weeks off I can afford to take some time to draw out lessons from the set of experiences with the Iowa Freedom Choir that culminated in a 7-day journey through the deep south March 21-28, 2013. All the information about the trip is linked above, including our trip blog so I’m gonna just get straight into personal stuff.

Patti Miller and Marvin Gatch (a Drake graduate) reading to the children in the Community Center in Meridian, Ms. - Freedom Summer '64

Patti Miller and Marvin Gatch (a Drake graduate) reading to the children in the Community Center in Meridian, Ms. – Freedom Summer ’64

First of all, my hat, pants, and shirt all go off to Patti Miller and everyone else who made this trip possible – it couldn’t be anything but pure love that would compel someone like Patti Miller to organize a trip like this to pass the torch and keep this profound history alive. My hat also goes off to all those dead and alive who stood up and risked their lives to make history before I was born, not to mention countless others still standing up together and speaking out in America and around the world.

This leads me to Lesson #1 from the trip: Civil rights is an ONGOING struggle, as is the state of the republic in the U.S. With the current influence of corporate “people” today, we have essentially lost the republic. And in many ways, our civil rights and voting rights are under attack. And I won’t even begin to get into the injustices against Native Americans that have yet to be resolved.

Before getting involved with this project I was mostly naive to the fact that the institutional freedoms and civil liberties granted to me by my forefathers (of civil rights legislation) are subject to reform, removal, and revision. Only after meeting people in the flesh during this trip, who stood on the front lines for civil rights and voting rights in our lifetime, do I really understand what it means to participate in self-government. I am part of a generation grossly disenchanted with the political landscape in this country. Yet how many of my generation accept the responsibility of participating? Not all are called to run for office or lead a rally, but this trip opened my eyes to the power of participation and the power of community organization.

Lesson #2: Participation takes many forms. As our group met people in Alabama and Mississippi who had lived through that historic period, we learned that their struggle for civil rights was a struggle for the right to participate in self-governance. I learned about how communities of people worked together to support each other during that time. Some cooked, others led rallies, some attended meetings, others looked after the children. Applying the lessons from that time to present day, everyone has an important role to play. The roles are as diverse as the given community. How does democracy work? Start by being involved in the community. Could you imagine a state filled with vibrant communities? A nation filled with states like that? During that time, the black community was like a big family. They were stronger and safer together. People were informed by the nature of being so connected. And since they cared so much about their communities they accepted the responsibility to participate in whatever way they could to support the whole.

Iowa Freedom Choir in concert at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield Iowa

Iowa Freedom Choir in concert at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield Iowa to raise funds for the trip.

Throughout the time spent with the choir in Fairfield and on the road trip, I was moved to tears more than once by a feeling of deep solidarity and community that extended waaayyyyy beyond our little project. The small community we created by forming the choir and rallying around the documentary project/trip was a small representation of how people moved together in the fight for freedom, equality and justice. Those of us who joined the choir and went on the trip were inspired by a deep love of humanity and hunger for equality and social justice; singing together strengthened our bonds and the words in the songs taught us stories of our ancestors (as one human race). Diving into the history as we did revealed that it was the spirit of the music that gave people the strength and courage to face brutality and hatred. And you know when you hear a good song you just have to sing along! People could march on because they were singing songs together, which transcended the fear of the violence that they knew they would receive.

Thus, Lesson #3: Preach to the choir and sing songs of freedom and love! Some say that in order to make a change you can’t just be preachin’ to the choir all the time. Well, others say that preachin’ to the choir is the best way to make a change. After a good sermon comes a good song, and when the choir is loud enough it reaches new ears who can’t help but love the harmony and join in the song! And so a movement grows.

So what songs are you singing? How often do you sing together in harmony with others? This experience has shown me the power of song and story in shaping culture and community. Songs and stories take many forms. It seems as if people often overlook the way they are shaped by the songs they sing and the stories they tell and hear. Not all songs open the heart to love and compassion; and some stories divide people and spread fear. All I can say is that I am forever grateful for the songs of freedom and love that we sang on the road to Mississippi. And my life is forever change by the stories of justice and compassion that I learned along the way!

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