Freedom Songs

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest. 

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Have you heard this song before? The song – entitled Ella’s Song – sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock - brings the words of civil rights activist, Ella Baker, to life.

Music was a core tenant of the civil rights movement. There were songs known as Freedom Songs that became anthems of the movement. Songs like We shall overcome, and I woke up this Mornin, and This Little Light of Mine. There were more, too, many of which had their roots in African American spirituals and Christian hymns. Singing was used to communicate unspeakable feelings and the need for radical change across the nation. The songs were direct and repetitive, getting the message across clearly and efficiently. Melodies were simple with repeating choruses, which allowed people from anywhere at anytime to join in…

Civil rights worker, Bruce Hartford, said this about Freedom Songs – 

The songs spread our message, The songs bonded us together, The songs elevated our courage, The songs shielded us from hate, The songs forged our discipline, The songs protected us from danger, And it was the songs that kept us sane.

Our scripture today is a freedom song of sorts. This song ultimately comes after their freedom had been secured, but I think there’s still a connection between the two. 

We can hear the voices of the Israelites – the voices of Moses and Miriam singing amidst their own liberation. Their song is a direct response to their crossing the Red Sea. A celebration of the exodus – the end of their years of slavery in Egypt under Pharoah’s rule.

The song sung by the Israelites seeks to do two things – First, the lyrics glorify God, giving praise for God’s mighty work. Giving thanks for God’s liberating love. We hear those echoes of praise – the Lord is my strength, my power, my salvation. Who is like you, God? None more worthy of praise.

Second… the song looks forward in anticipation to God's future acts of liberation and justice. There’s an assurance that what God has done in the past, God can do again in our future. A song not only of remembrance, but also of hope and aspiration. 

The story of the Exodus has been significant to African American communities throughout history. There’s long been a connection between the experience of the Israelites and the experience of African Americans. Black communities resonate with a God hears the cries of the oppressed and attends to them. Black communities resonate with a God who opposes structures of power and dehumanization, showing mercy and love to those who’ve suffered injustice. The Book of Exodus reminds us that God’s natural response to oppression is liberation and the song of Moses and Miriam and the Israelites rejoices in God’s liberating love. 

But Jayme, there is still oppression… 

But Jayme, there is still injustice… 

So where is the liberation today? 

When will we hear a song of liberation?

There is no simple answer to those questions, but there is hope in the song of the Israelites that we hear today. What God has done in the past, God can do again in our future. God does not call us to hear the cries of the oppressed and sit idly by. Rather, God calls us to hear the songs of liberation and to respond, uplifting the sounds of those singing; harmonizing with the melodies of those marching; joining the prose of those protesting. We are called to be part of God’s liberating love. 

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