The civil rights movement is defined by its icons—big leaders, striking images, soaring bits of oratory and moments of extreme courage. They’re snapshots of a bold era, fixed in time, locked in history. Too locked, if you ask me.
The triumphalism in which so much of American political culture is wrapped often cloaks our history as well, thus relieving us of the burden of learning from it. I don’t believe our ahistorical politics are accidental; those who wish to preserve the status quo of racial inequity have worked hard to relegate the civil rights movement to 1960s nostalgia. So as Rinku Sen wrote earlier this week, it’s time for us to develop a new racial justice movement, built upon (not confined by) the freedom movements that have preceded us.
But about those icons. There’s one medium that, for me, most effectively pulls the past into the present, and that medium is sound. If you read or speak with people who joined the black freedom movement of my parents’ generation, they invariably stress just how important the sounds were to them—the songs, the chants, the intonations of political sermons. That’s owing in part to the broader arc of black history; sound has been a crucial part of black communal organizaton since long before our diaspora reached the Americas. But it’s also owing to the inherent power of sound in organizing, because in some ways movement is simply about having a voice, about standing up and declaring, We will be heard.
So the good folks at Pacifica Radio Archives lent us a collage of sounds they collected at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As people gather from around the country today and into next week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that groundbreaking event, we hope tapping into the voices that rose up from it will help you connect yesterday with today, and carry it forward into tomorrow’s movement.