A Fire No Water Could Put Out (Memphis, 1968; Birmingham, 1963)

Here’s Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis, 1968, about Birmingham, the power of song, and the unique “transphysics” of the Civil Rights Movement:

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we know about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…

That comes from my favorite of King’s speeches, the one he delivered the night before he was killed, the one commonly known, now, as the “Mountaintop” speech or “I Have Seen the Promised Land.” I often share with my students the last couple or so pages of that printed speech. Almost none of them have heard it before: usually the only of King’s writings they’ve been exposed to is the “I Have a Dream” speech and, even then, most only know those four words, I have a dream, and just a little bit of their context.

In one of my college freshman classes, we were encouraged to buy our own copies of the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. I don’t know if any other book I’ve read had such an impact on me; I encourage my own students and now also you to get their (your) hands on a copy, to read (for starters) the rest of this extraordinary final speech, and to encounter, in page after page, Martin Luther King not only as icon but as philosopher and theologian, as poet, radical, and chronicler of his time.

Here’s the very end of that “Mountaintop” speech, but you need to find the whole thing:

And speaking of Birmingham and jail and Bull Connor and song:

Here’s something local singer-activist-hero Mamie Brown Mason told me a few years ago, recalling her own time in the Birmingham jail. In 1959, Fred Shuttlesworth recruited her and another singer, Nims “Bo” Gay, to lead the music for the mass meetings that fueled the growing Birmingham movement; they created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which would soon find a prolific songwriter and dynamic director in Carlton Reese. Members of that choir were among the first protestors arrested in Birmingham (in May of ’63, the jail would be flooded with marching schoolchildren), and Mason remembers singing freedom songs and leading prayers in the jail cells all day and night. On Sundays, prisoners were allowed to worship in the chapel, where there was a piano and where the foot soldiers, as they often did, remade an old song to fit the specifics of their movement. Here’s how Mamie Mason tells the story:

I said, “Carlton” — Carlton was in jail also — I said, “Carlton, that’s a nice piano.” He went to the piano. And the chaplain used to always ask one of the regular prisoners to lead the songs. She started leading the song “I Shall Not Be Moved”: “Just like a tree planted by the water.” So I took it from her and said, “Go and tell Bull Connor, we shall not be moved” — and I was making that up right then. Making a song about Bull Connor — in his jail!

“We sang to him a lot,” Mason says of Bull Connor, and laughs. “What else can he do? We’re in jail! What else can he do to me for singing about it?”

 

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