America’s civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968 was defined by heroic leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Moses, brutal violence that shocked the nation, and inspirational music that galvanized volunteers in the campaign for the right to vote “Freedom Summer”.
Tonight (Sunday, August 21) on the Mississippi Public Broadcasting Network, these hymns of love and peace will be commemorated before the nation, beginning at 7 a.m.
“For a brief moment, a few daring musicians stood at the crossroads of a musical and cultural revolution. They were America’s rhythm rebels, and the spirit of what they created then lives on today,” MPB said as he announced “Freedom Songs: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement.” .
In 1964 some of us of a certain age in Pike County experienced this music live at a church on historic Summit Street in McComb. One of the most prominent folk singers of the day, Joan Baez, performed there during the height of Mississippi’s “Long, Hot Summer.”
During the evening’s final anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” attendees shook their arms in unity for the song considered the most significant of the turbulent movement.
As a rising senior at McComb High School, I had heard about Baez’s appearance in the local newspaper, the Enterprise-Journal. My father worked there for 35 years and was the lead reporter covering the year-round violence perpetrated against black businesses and homeowners by Ku Klux Klan klaverns.
As a child journalist who took photos and did darkroom work, I was tuned in to famous visitors like Baez in the “bombing capital of the world.” The place had been given that epithet during a summer in which the Klan burned down 13 black churches, homes and businesses in McComb and Pike counties.
Dad never knew that my group of classmates had learned of his next gig or our full intentions to attend. Months later, when I told him about our secret mission, he was livid. “Do you have any idea that the Klan might have bombed the church that night?”
I told him a little sheepishly that when my group heard that Baez was coming to McComb, nothing could have stopped us. Missing a chance to hear the glorious voice of the world’s most famous walkman? Not in this stupid teenage life.
Charlie Hewitt, a respected local musician whose various bands excelled in folk music made popular by Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, said he felt some anxiety about leaving, but that he couldn’t resist the chance.
“We slipped through the back door to the back row. A huge young black man took his place outside the door, wearing a red Ole Miss sweatshirt. I knew if the Klan bombed the church that night, the blast would go through that door. A few other young white people sat in front and that made us feel a little safer,” Hewitt recalled.
“Once we heard Joan’s beautiful voice and saw her pretty face, fear didn’t cross our minds that night. She asked if there were any requests. Hawkeye (James Higginbotham, another local songwriter) asked for “There But for Fortune”. Joan said she had sung that song before. Hawk was disappointed…but for the rest of his life he told everyone he spoke to Joan Baez personally,
“Luckily we finished ‘We Shall Overcome’ and the evening without bombs, a welcome break from the all-too-frequent explosions that summer. We only heard the beautiful music from this lovely singer who looked and sounded like an angel.
Tonight the angels sing again.
Mac Gordon is originally from McComb. He’s a retired journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]