Music has always played a central role in African culture in religious ceremonies, rites of passage, social rituals, and festivals and as a form of communication and expression. Deeply rooted in African culture, music can calm one’s spirit, uplift another’s soul and inspire another to not give up and keep fighting against injustice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” those fighting for civil rights “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that we shall overcome, black and white together.”
Last year, we marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of stolen, enslaved Africans in bondage on this continent. The sounds of struggle for freedom, equality and justice begin with the struggle to end slavery. We noted then that full freedom for all is still not a fact of life in the United States, and so the sounds of struggle continue.
They are the cries of babies whose African American mothers die following childbirth at a shockingly high rate. They are the sounds of frustration of individuals caught in a system that denies their full humanity. They are the sounds of anger at the widespread denial that such a system persists.
The legacies of slavery are still with us, and so the struggle to achieve freedom, equality, and justice is still our work to do. We will hear freedom songs and other inspiring songs this MLK Day because the music tells part of the story of African American history and the history of movements to dig out the white supremacist roots that hold our country back. With moving songs, powerful words and courageous action, Dr. King and other freedom fighters have shown us that nonviolent methods can bring the change we seek.
According to Dr. King during the 1961 Albany Movement, “[t]he freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle. They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” His words ring as true today as they did during the civil rights movement.
As we mark our 45th annual event in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, we will do so in unity with fellow Cincinnatians committed to honoring Dr. King’s legacy. At 10:30 a.m., following the King Legacy Awards Breakfast sponsored by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the MLK Coalition, hundreds of people will gather outside the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater. After brief remarks and prayers, marchers will proceed to Fountain Square for an interfaith prayer service and then continue the march to Music Hall.
The annual Commemorative Program will begin at 12:00 p.m. at Music Hall. This year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Tammy Kernodle, professor of Musicology at Miami University in Oxford will offer reflections on the theme, “Sounds of Struggle…Songs of Freedom.” Between performances by the award-winning MLK Chorale, under the direction of Lois Shegog, Dr. Kernodle will explore the songs that have carried the spirit of freedom movements of the past into the present day. Additional performances will be presented by the Nouveau Chamber Players, a CSO youth ensemble, by WordPlay’s Cincy Scribes, and by an interfaith children’s choir.