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Gospel music powerful educator on social justice struggles

One of the Black history documentaries that I had marked on my to-see list is the recently released “Gospel” series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

“Gospel,” as Gates eloquently explains, “explores Black spirituality in sermon and song,” something that African Americans who were raised in church can definitely relate to.

Episode three titled “Take the Message Everywhere,” with the focus on the choir music of the 1970s and ’80s, took me back to some of the most memorable gospel soundtracks of my youth from iconic artists like James Cleveland, Walter Hawkins and Shirley Caesar. Episode two, “The Golden Age of Gospel,” includes an extensive analysis of how gospel music encompassed the spirit of the civil rights movement with renowned singer Mahalia Jackson lending her voice and financial support to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in backing a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

From my experience, explaining the connection gospel music has with civil rights has deeply resonated with students in my English composition classes the past few years that I have shown the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” documentary in February. The scene with Freedom Singer Bettie Mae Fikes belting out Charles A. Tindley’s Negro spiritual “Stand by Me” at Selma, Alabama’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church depicted the passionate bond that connected the marchers and civil rights leaders like Lewis and King.

“Gospel” shows footage of Jackson singing “I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned” before King spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. This video clip radiantly captured how she musically articulated the arduous journey many had traveled. As Jackson transitioned into “Lord, stand by me” with a rousing crescendo, it was a call for continued faith to endure the tough challenges ahead.

What particularly stood out for me in the film’s detailed focus on Jackson is an interview that she gave explaining why she would not cross over to secular music. Her career did eventually veer a little down this path when she catapulted to stardom in the late 1950s after appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” However, her response to the reporter’s direct question of “don’t you love money?” was probably surprising to many. “I don’t believe I can put in the blues what I can put in these gospel songs,” Jackson stated. “This is a story I’m telling every day, and it’s a story I’m telling because it’s a part of my life and experience and belief and faith that I have in God.”

Jackson’s answer beautifully summarizes the essence of what gospel music truly is: the good news in song of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom the Scripture proclaims is the “mediator between God and men.” When songs are composed regarding Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, how it reconciled us to God and how it provides victory over every circumstance we face, it is a profound expression of praise and trust from the soul. One of the best-known gospel songs that illustrates this type of praise and conviction is the classic “Precious Lord” composed by Thomas Dorsey. The third verse expresses the despair we often feel when “darkness appears and the night draws near,” but then conveys the confidence in praying to God for guidance with the assurance He is holding our hand. Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s funeral, and it was the first gospel composition that I learned to play on the piano.

As the “Gospel” documentary continues to stream this month, it will expose a new generation to this powerful and spirited genre that was one of the major bedrocks of the civil rights movement. People faithfully carried God in these songs “marching up to freedom land,” and the music will always reassure us that we are never without hope.

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