Singing in Times of Fear and Uncertainty Ryan Luhrs
The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 was instrumental in igniting what would grow into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Montgomery gave us Rosa Parks and a young Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott also provided a model of how peaceful protest could deliver considerable economic consequences to racially segregated and unequal structures. Montgomery’s African American community and their allies rallied together for the cause. Those with vehicles shuttled workers around town. Many others walked miles to get to and from work each day. The boycott was successful, in part, because of the near 100% participation rate among Black would-be bus riders.
Another notable aspect of the boycott has to do with singing. In addition to the challenges of not relying on bus transportation for nearly a year, African Americans in Montgomery were subjected to intimidation and other fear-inducing tactics at the hands of those who wanted existing segregation laws to stay in place. To quell this fear and inspire the protest to endure, Mass Meetings were held frequently. These meetings held in churches would include sermons by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, prayer, and singing. One of the favorite hymns, given all the walking that was going on, was the militant hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Despite the non-violent nature of the movement, protesters were “marching as to war / with the cross of Jesus going on before.” The “war” in this case was against injustice.
Another favorite hymn of the Montgomery Movement was “What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine / Leaning on the everlasting arms.” Civil Rights leader, musician, and historian Bernice Johnson Raegon summed up the role that hymn played in a 2006 PBS interview, saying
That song is a celebration. If you were in the Movement, many times you were in danger. It was not your regular pace of trying to stay inside a segregated society for your safety. But there were always songs that celebrated those times when we came together even in the midst of danger.
Even though we at Emmanuel Lutheran aren’t able to physically come together in the midst of danger associated with the COVID-19 public health crisis, we can draw inspiration from those who have provided an example of perseverance in uncertain times. We can also draw inspiration from the hymns and songs that helped make their perseverance possible.1
What a fellowship, what a joy divine Leaning on the everlasting arms; What a blessedness, what a peace is mine Leaning on the everlasting arms; Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way Leaning on the everlasting arms; Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear, Leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.2
Choir Practice 7:00 PM Wednesday nights in the Choir Room: Cancelled until May
Handbell Practice 9:30 AM Sunday mornings in the Sanctuary: Cancelled until May