From Selma to Syria: The Power of Song in Nonviolent Resistance

By Mary Elizabeth King 07-26-2011

'Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, in a crowd.], 08/28/1963' photo (c) 1963, The U.S. National Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/How should music rank among the ever-growing list of time-tested nonviolent methods such as boycotts, marches, strikes, sit-ins, and vigils?

Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reports that a song, "Come on Bashar, Leave," is spreading across Syria, boldly calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. (Bryan Farrell also wrote about it at the Waging Nonviolence blog.) The article suggests that a young cement layer who chanted it in demonstrations was pulled from the Orontes River this month, his throat having been cut, and, according to residents of the city of Hama, his vocal chords torn out. Hama is where, in 1982, then-president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president named in the song, gave orders to the army to massacre more than 10,000 in putting down an Islamist upheaval. Today, boys 6-years-old and older vocalize their own rendition of the original warbler's song instead. As the song has sped across Syria, demonstrators have adopted it for themselves.

During the U.S. civil rights movement, "freedom songs" raised courage, stated the goals, declared commitment, united separated communities, and sometimes took melodic aim at notorious police chiefs. As a contemporary expression of spirituals, freedom songs derived from the black choral tradition that developed from the African and American experiences, matured in the fires of southern slavery. They addressed frustrations, forged bonds of personal loyalty, assuaged fear and dread, and fortified a people under stress. A strong tradition of composing during performance, in response to need, meant that new phrases would be added or a stanza changed to take up a specific issue, such as deciding whether to go to jail the next day. Song leading became an organizing tool. The civil rights struggle was profoundly rich in song, due to the significance of black congregational singing, nourished as it was by faith and resistance. The movement's signature anthem, "We Shall Overcome," has since become a universal expression of civil resistance movements across the world.

Later, music held a central role in the nonviolent revolutions of the Eastern bloc. On August 23, 1989, hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians linked hands in a human chain across 400 miles, "manually" connecting the capital cities of the three Baltic republics. As many as 2 million participants of all ages demanded the right to restore their independent statehood, as they sang folk and nationalist songs. They called their action the Baltic Way. Estonia's struggle that brought independence is specifically known as the Singing Revolution.

During Ukraine's quest for fair elections in 2004

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"From Selma to Syria: The Power of Song in Nonviolent Resistance"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines

Must Reads

Subscribe