Song Powers a Movement


I learned about the power of nonviolence and nonviolent action in the spring of 1960, while participating in sit-ins at lunch counters in Maryland and Virginia with African American fellow students at Howard University. Most Saturdays we would go to a People’s Drug store, sit down at a lunch counter, get arrested, and then sing freedom songs in our jail cells all weekend.

Freedom songs strengthened our spirits and gave us courage to continue the struggle. Some of the songs we sang included: “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Going to Let it Shine;” “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land;” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On;” “We Shall Not Be Moved;” “Ain’t Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around;” “Woke Up This Morning with my Mind Stayed on Freedom;”
and “We Shall Overcome.”

These songs helped us overcome our fear. They strengthened our sense of community and our commitment to nonviolence. They helped build solidarity among students all over the South, who were challenging segregation in their local communities. These songs fueled the nonviolent movement that continued throughout the 1960s. Even in the face of police dogs, fire hoses, and attacks by law enforcement and white racists, singing these songs helped us “Keep Hope Alive.”

In 1968 Martin Luther King called for a Poor People’s Campaign to bring a “Revolution of Values” to America. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he said. Hundreds of poor folks came to Washington in this campaign, to take their demands to Congress for legislation to end poverty in the US. I joined fifteen other Quakers in those actions. We joined hundreds of others who were arrested and spent two weeks in the top floor of the DC jail, singing freedom songs.

Fifty years later, a similar campaign is underway. The “2018 Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival” is working to build a “fusion movement,” bringing together the poor, the disenfranchised, the religious community, the peace movement, the labor movement, the LGBTQ movement, the immigrant rights movement, students and teachers, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement. If we continue to fight all our struggles separately, we will all continue to lose. Together, we have the chance to win.

The Poor People’s Campaign in 2018 is calling for a radical transformation of our society. It is drawing together poor people of all backgrounds from around the country to build a powerful nonviolent movement to challenge what MLK called the triple evils of racism, economic injustice, and militarism. The tax law recently passed by Congress takes hundreds of billions of dollars from the poor and middle class and gives that money to millionaires and billionaires. The new federal budget devotes trillions of dollars to wars and preparation for wars, while cutting funding for programs of education, health care, housing, and the well-being of the poor and middle class. The Poor People’s Campaign seeks to assure that we have a national government that is to truly of, by, and for all the people – rather than a government that primarily serves the wealthy, the corporations, and the military-industrial complex.

The first phase of the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign begins this spring. Each Monday from May 14 through June 23, thousands of people across the country will go to their state capitals and to Washington DC, and they will call for a national moral revival. During this key election year, the campaign will call for a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and environmental devastation As in the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, singing will be an important and life-giving part of this campaign. New songs are being written.

I hope many of us Friends will feel led to join this courageous and hopeful movement. The Poor People’s Campaign is headed up by co-chairs Rev. William Barber – an African American pastor from North Carolina, who is, in my opinion, the closest we have to an Martin Luther King, Jr., today – and Liz Theoharris of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in New York City. Friends can hear inspirational speeches and soulful singing, recorded during the campaign’s national organizing tour, Fall 2017, by going to the campaign’s facebook page at: You can also find all kinds of helpful resources  on the campaign’s website at:, where you can also sign up and say how you would like to be involved. Campaign organizers will contact you and connect you with others in your city or county to organize locally.

In the face of all the wars the US is fighting around the world, and with nearly 100 million people living and working in poverty in the US, we cannot remain silent. Rather, we can join our brothers and sisters of all colors and all backgrounds to speak out powerfully and help build this movement. As the campaign explains in its outreach literature, “We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists to systemic injustices like how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, children, workers, immigrants and the sick. By engaging in highly publicized civil disobedience and direct action over a six-week period in 33 states and in our nation’s capital, the campaign hopes to bring about a serious national examination of the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and environmental devastation, while strengthening and connecting informed and committed grassroots leadership in every state, increasing their power to continue this fight long after June 2018.”

Learn more about the Poor People's Campaign of 2018 here. Also, watch these two videos soon to learn some of the songs we will be singing together this spring: Soundtrack for a Revolution and Freedom SongWe shall overcome!!!  ~~~

David Hartsough is the author of Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist. He is a co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce ( and a member of San Francisco Friends Meeting (PYM).

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