Music And Protest, Hand In Hand: Songs Of The Student Walkouts

For 17 minutes yesterday, one minute for each of the students killed in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, thousands of America’s schoolchildren walked out of class and took the mic. Many faced parental or administrative wrath. But they stood together, or even alone, to clearly declare their grief, fear and desire for change in speeches, chanting, slam poetry and poignant song.

Surveying these musical performances together is overwhelming — there are familiar songs, brand-new numbers written by protestors, choirs of tots and teens, secular and religious compositions, a cappella groups and solo troubadours with guitars. But overall, with a few outliers, the performances might be sorted into five basic thematic categories:

Songs that drove the African American Civil Rights movement: “We Shall Overcome,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Peace Like a River,” “Amazing Grace.”

Yesterday’s demonstration, as with many U.S. social movements, was largely made possible by the history of protest shaped by African-American youth. And these songs were nurtured in the throats of children — Jamila Jones, for example, has recounted how as a 14-year-old singing “We Shall Overcome” with other Highlander Folk School activists, she was moved to invent the famous verse, “we are not afraid.” As police raided the group’s meeting venue in Monteagle, Tennessee, she lifted her voice with the new words and heard others join in — and, as an unnerved officer shakily asked her, “do you have to sing so loud,” she suddenly understood the political force of music in the hands of teenagers.

Songs that reference the struggle for civil rights, and highlight the 21st-century conflicts woven from those historical threads: “Make Them Hear You” from the musical Ragtime (telling stories of black and immigrant Americans in the early 20th century); and “Glory,” the track John Legend and Common contributed to Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma. Though Selma’s plot followed the famous 1965 marches for voting rights, the song’s lyrics (and John Legend at the Academy Awards) plainly testify that the struggle isn’t in the past: “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus/That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” The protestors at the Chattanooga School for the Arts who chose to sing “Glory” can remind listeners that the Black Lives Matter movement is also one that addresses children at risk from gun violence.

Songs about peace: John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine,” Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” and Jackie DeShannon’s 1969 anti-war hit “Put A Little Love in Your Heart,” for example. Given that the singers yesterday were children, it is not surprising that there were peace songs written for children’s voices — “Let Peace Begin With Me,” penned in 1955 for the International Children’s Choir, as well as Emmy-winning composer Kurt Bestor’s “Prayer of the Children.” Bestor initially wrote his “Prayer” about the Yugoslavian Civil War, but it has also been performed in concerts commemorating September 11, 2001, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the Columbine shootings.

Anthems: First and foremost, “The Star Spangled Banner,” a reminder — from a seventh grader in Michigan and a police officer supporting students in York, Pennsylvania — that in a democratic republic, protest can be patriotic. Second, in a sweet gesture of solidarity, students at Dothan High School in Alabama learned and performed the alma mater of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Perhaps most moving, the original songs created by students: “The Separation,” by Central High School students in Columbus, Georgia, is a lovely composition that wonders about voices and choices. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas listened during their walkout to the song their friends had written and performed at CNN’s Town Hall in February. Soloist Tyler Jenkins performed his own song, “Save Me,” written from the point of view of a school-shooting victim. 15-year-old Morro Bay, California student Amalia Fleming, accompanied herself on a mint-green guitar: “To hell with their games / We were born to be renegades / We spit our words to ignite the rage / And raise our voices to fan the flames.”

Finally, it should be noted that amid all the voices raised yesterday, one of the loudest messages was delivered in total silence, when students turned their backs on the White House. More nationally coordinated events are planned.

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