‘I’ll Find a Way’: The new ‘We Shall Overcome’

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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While President Obama was delivering remarks commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, I was driving to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with my teenage son and daughter to hear one of their favorite bands, Spirit Family Reunion. In their second set, the self-described “open door gospel” group from New York City sang a tune that invited reflection on Reverend King’s immortal words, particularly after reading news accounts of President Obama’s speech.

King’s dream was of equal opportunity without regard for the color of one’s skin. Obama gave due regard to that dream, but spoke of the unfairness and injustice of unequal outcomes. King spoke of the need to tear down state imposed barriers to opportunity. Obama spoke of the need for state imposed redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.

I have no idea of the politics of the six Spirit Family members, but if they believe in the lyrics of their song “I’ll Find a Way,” they are far more in tune with King than Obama. The refrain of their song is one of self-reliance and independence: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll find a way.” It rings true to the familiar refrain of the civil rights movement inspired and led by King: “We shall overcome.”

A few days ago, Juan Williams wrote in the Wall Street Journal of the positive power of the songs of the summer of 1963, and lamented “today’s degrading rap music.” The uplifting sounds of Spirit Family Reunion would make Williams more optimistic about the summer of 2013.

Like those who marched with King, the Spirit Family sings of “many years just waiting to be free.”  But unlike those who still look to President Obama and government generally to guarantee that the possibilities of equal opportunity are realized, the young singers declare: “I found the great emancipator was me.”

Think about that.  “I spent many years just waiting to be free, ‘til I found the great emancipator was me.”  “Don’t worry about me, I’ll find a way.”

Why can’t the president of the United States, a black man who has reached the pinnacle of public life, say to his fellow citizens of all colors that the legal barriers to equal opportunity have been for the most part overcome? Now it’s up to every individual, with help from friends and strangers alike, to grasp their opportunities and make the most of them. There was never a better occasion to deliver that message. One suspects that Martin Luther King would have done so had he been spared from the hatred of his time.

Of course there is still racism among people of all colors. There always will be. And of course there are those who would violate or distort the law to achieve racist ends. There always will be. But the massive legal infrastructure of state-sanctioned segregation is gone and the hatred directed at the civil rights marchers of a half century ago is unimaginable to most young people today. Except, it seems, for those singing and celebrating the hateful and degrading songs of the summer of 2013.

If those songs are what is blowing in the summer winds of 2013, King’s dream for his children and his children’s children has become a nightmare. But in the evening mists of a cool summer night in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the winds were most favorable. My children and I were uplifted by the simple lyrics of a song, just as millions of Americans were by the songs of the summer of 1963. If someone at the White House wants to play “I’ll Find a Way” for the President, here’s a link.