How Shall I Keep From Singing?

In February of 2009 at a “Sustaining OurSelves “ Community Meeting at St. Joseph C.M.E., residents and developers shifted in pews with the tension of impending conflict.  A previous meeting had been rife with anger, unresolved issues, and unanswered questions. Reverend Troy Harrison, the designated host of the meeting, had not yet entered.   The crowd began to wonder whether someone else should facilitate.  Who could nurture a dialogue that would transcend old and recent hurt? We heard his voice before he arrived in the sanctuary. C.M.E. Pastor Harrison entered from the foyer, slowly swaying down the aisle, dressed casually, his deep voice singing out—as if to each person individually and to everyone together--one of the spirituals that has drawn African-Americans into sacred solidarity for hundreds of years, “The Presence of the Lord is in this Place.” Any residual tension soon dissolved into a sense of collective mission: we must not only preserve this place but build on its history of change to make better change yet.

This past year, as part of the Jackson Center’s proud collaboration with Northside Elementary, we asked a classroom full of kids: “Why do you think singing was such an important part of the Civil Rights Movement?” One third grade student raised her hand almost immediately: “because it makes everybody all together.”  Yes, we couldn’t agree more. Because it makes everybody “all together,” because it creates unity in struggle. Because it winds together grief and hope into a lifeline of harmony. Because it reminds us of who we once were and, in the reconciliation of multiple voices, teaches us who we might become. Tana Smith, a student at Chapel Hill High School, also began to answer this question and to explore relationship between music and community strength in her artistic response to an oral history interview with William Carter, a local civil rights activist.