Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Yara Allen (second and third from left) join the Solidarity Sing Along at the Wisconsin Capitol on Thursday, March 13.
It was a great week for the Solidarity Sing Along and supporters of the labor solidarity movement in Wisconsin. After all, it's not every week that national civil rights leaders join the chorus and international punk dissidents say they've got your back.The loose affiliation of singing protesters, which just celebrated its third year of noon gatherings at the state capitol, gained national and international prominence with the Tuesday release of a video by the Voice Project. It features a diverse sample of sing-along regulars and two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot –Nadya Tolokonikova and Masha Alyokhina -- delivering a message of solidarity to the participants in the sing along. A petition asks viewers to contact Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, demanding he dismiss tickets protesters received in crackdowns at the Wisconsin Capitol.
Adding to that euphoria, the Sing Along hosted prominent visitors on Thursday: Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP and a civil rights activist building a multiracial coalition for labor justice; Yara Allen, a NAACP field organizer as well as a musician and poet who is considered an expert on music in movements for social justice; and both Wisconsin and local NAACP officials.
As she has all over the country, Allen led the Thursday's attendees in a rousing version of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and Rev. Barber joined the singers in "Forward Together," an anthem that has become a symbol of the Moral Monday movement gathering steam in the South.
Rev. Barber spoke on Thursday night at Bethel Lutheran Church, where he delivered an address titled "The People's Moral Agenda: Anti-Racism, Anti-Poverty, Pro-Labor." It capped off a day that not only included the sing-along on the Capitol Square, but also a meeting with local workers' rights leaders at the Madison Labor Temple.
At a press conference following this meeting, Rev. Barber weighed in on the importance of building connections between different constituencies and issues.
"If you want to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, health care is important for life. Labor rights are important to life. Liberty -- you've got to have voting rights -- that's the equalizer and you have to have education in order to have the pursuit of happiness -- that's what's under attack," he said.
Rev. Barber pointed to how music connects people to the soul of a social movement. "Music is the rhythm of the movement. Singing is galvanizing, whether it was the singing of slaves, the singing of the civil rights movement. Singing also concretizes messages. The singing actually embeds the message into your spirit. And singing also transforms you," he explained.
"It's amazing, but when we went to jail, people were singing," the reverend continued. "And in the midst of singing it didn't even seem like they were getting locked up. But the movement and singing have always been interrelated." he added.
Highlighting his perspective as a person of faith, Rev. Barber recalled Mahalia Jackson’s classic rendition of "If I Can Help Somebody," a song quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1968 "Drum Major Instinct" sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:
If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, he is traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
"That was a song that she would sing in the presence of Dr. King when he was down and depressed, and it would remind him that though he was tired and had all these threats, he had a life that he didn't want to be in vain," said Rev. Barber. "And the only way to have life not be in vain is to help somebody. So singing is tremendously important."
Rev. Barber concluded: "In the scriptures, it says, 'whenever there is a need for a prophetic truth, you must first bring the minstrel.' In other words, the music must open the mind, the heart, and the context in order for you to touch the conscience."
All I can say to that is "Amen."