In 1964, no political party in Mississippi really wanted blacks to have any voting rights. Even the Democratic party, which is seen as a champion of civil rights, was still pretty conservative in Mississippi, and they did things like using poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from registering to vote. So, some folks decided to get together and form their own political party, called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And, when I say “some folks,” I mean 80,000 blacks and whites got together to organize this party and they actually held their own, alternative election called the Freedom Ballot! Can you imagine people having their own election today? (Fellow Berners, get at me.)
So, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sent a busload of people up to the Democratic National Convention. And, even though they had a fairly-elected political party with tens of thousands of members, the National Democratic Party wouldn’t allow the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to take part in the convention! President Johnson was trying to hold onto Southern support for the upcoming presidential election, so rather than upset the Southern white Democrats who didn’t want the blacks to have voting rights, he only let the delegates from the Freedom Party sit in and watch the Democratic National Convention. That’s not really fair, now is it? Well, The Freedom Party used this opportunity to upset the convention and they did so by singing freedom songs. The protests made a powerful impact and the next year, President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Tonight, I had the honor of singing a few of these songs in concert with a social justice choir I’m a member of called Harmonic Insurgence. I felt my heart rise as I imagined what it must have been like to march around the convention hall in 1964, singing for justice. My skin tingled and goosebumps rose with the power of music. Music inspires and unites. Music touches hearts and uplifts souls. I’m tired of people shouting to be heard over one another. I long to sing songs together, to sing songs that carry movements forward. Where are our protest songs today? What stories of our generation can be told through song?