“This Little Light of Mine” can be heard from nurseries to protests; classrooms to rallies. It was the anthem of the Civil Rights era and serves today in a similar capacity.
But it feels like more than a rallying cry, though. At this point in history, it’s essentially a psalm; a prayer with the power to motivate as well as heal.
I’ll give you an example. Just a few years back, NPR reported that:
“In 2017, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used "This Little Light of Mine" to curb passions during a counter-protest, [he stood] before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. "We had originally said we were going to stand silently," says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. "But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling — mostly homophobic slurs — at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren't with us, who we had not trained. [They] were getting amped up."
Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. "I know song can do that. So I just broke into 'This Little Light of Mine.'”
…the clergy and volunteers who sang…[were] standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of "You will not replace us" from the rally crowd. "The tensions went down ... and it shook the Nazis," Sekou says. "They didn't know what to do with all that joy. We weren't going to let the darkness have the last word."
Jewish tradition is familiar with song as a shield, disarming words of hate with poems of joy. This is why we pass songs from generation to generation - Hebrew trope, prayer nusach, any melody - traditional and modern. We teach these songs to our children not just for archiving, but because they are vehicles for connection and healing. When there is a birth - we sing. When there is a death - we sing. Even in the death camps - we sang.
Throughout the generations, if we weren’t singing “This Little Light of Mine,” we were singing something like it. Or Zarua la’tzadik - light is sown for the righteous…Light One Candle for the Maccabee children…simply blessing the lights of Shabbat every week is an act of love and an act of defiance. Think about it…all these millenia later, our people are still pausing time every Friday evening to kindle two tiny lights. In the thickest darkness, the flames of the Sabbath candles pierce through with the light hope. It is a testament to the eternal light of God entrusted to our people centuries ago, meant to be shared far and wide for as long as we can muster the courage to do it.
I think you’ll agree with me that the voices of our young people tonight act in a similar vein. What a testament to Dr. King’s legacy to see the next generation engaging thoughtfully with the political process - standing up for the poor, shining a light on the forgotten, holding a light up to hate?
We can’t talk about the next generation tonight without invoking one of the most famous lines from King’s I Have A Dream speech. You know it:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
And, similarly, there’s: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
The poetry and the imagery here is powerful. Yet it is also easily mis-understood as a call to erasing difference. I do not think that Dr. King’s call is for colorblindness.
More precisely, he’s preaching for the leveling of roadblocks and the removal of social and economic impediments. He’s preaching to actively raise up the downtrodden and to expressly invite in the marginalized.
He’s asking for the self-reflection and humility of those who hold positions of wealth and power, so that all the children in each new generation are afforded the same opportunities to grow and reach their potential.
For sure, he is dreaming of a future where racism and poverty are eradicated. Where the children of the next generation will not experience the hardships of our own. And while we work for that, it is our responsibility to empower these same young people and encourage them to take up the torch of justice and carry it forward.
Our job - us adults - is to pave the road and then get out of the way. It is our job to teach them the songs, to train them in the skills, to inspire them, and then…this is really important…to listen when they begin to speak (even if what they have to say scares us at first).
In addition to King, God acts as our role model this week. The haftarah reading comes from the first chapter of Jeremiah. We hear God’s initial call to the prophet:
“Before I created you in the womb, I selected you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations!”
And Jeremiah replies, “Who, me?! הִנֵּ֥ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֖עְתִּי דַּבֵּ֑ר כִּי־נַ֖עַר אָנֹֽכִי God, I don’t know how to speak, I am just a kid!”
And God replies, “Do not say, ‘I am just a kid.’ Get up, go where I tell you to go, say what I tell you to say. Don’t be scared because I am with you!”
And then God reaches out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth, saying:
“Here…I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow [that which is wicked],
To build and to plant [a better future].”
And that is the beginning of Jeremiah’s prophetic journey.
We have given the children of our community the stories, the words, and the songs. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement have given them the values, and in the case of Dr. King, their lives.
We can honor Dr King’s legacy most by dedicating ourselves to empowering the next generation through seminars, stories and songs. We can continue to build up a world of truth and justice while also slowly letting go and entrusting it to them.
As we walked up the Capitol steps with our temple teens, I had an out of body experience. Just 2 years ago, a mob of rioters descreated those very same steps, forcing their way into the halls of Congress - shouting words of violence, leaving trash and dishonor in their wake.
I looked over at our teens. They were dressed professionally, with carefully researched presentations in hand, respectfully climbing the marble and entering the building. This was democracy. This was the next generation staking their claim and declaring their dreams. This was the America we believe in.
God of our ancestors - l’dor vador, nagid godlecha - from generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness. We will sing of your hopes and dreams for humanity - those songs you taught to our forebears and were sung by the prophets. We will continue to break the chains of oppression while linking together the bonds of freedom and fellowship. This is the chain of love that we envision tonight. That is the dream we, and our children, commit ourselves to this evening.