Wednesday, January 11, 2012

America's Story (part 5) - Amazing Grace

January 16, 2012 marks Martin Luther King Day.

This relatively recent federal holiday celebrates the achievements of its namesake, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , as an influential American civil rights leader. And rightly so. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech given at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963 is one the top speeches in America's story.

And I can still remember, as a young school girl, that terrible day in April of 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated and the nation went into mourning.

In the tumultuous 1960s, We Shall Overcome was the anthem of the southern civil rights anthem. Yet, Amazing Grace, one of the most beloved songs in American history, was also used by Civil Rights marchers at that time.

In the clip below, Pastor Wintley Phipps gives the moving story behind Amazing Grace.  The lyrics were written by a former slave ship captain, John Newton. The composer of the melody is unknown, but bears the fingerprints of a West African sorrow chant.

For history of the song Amazing Grace, here is the timeline.

In the 18th century, the United States of America declared her independence from Great Britain, fought a long war for freedom, and won. Among the founding documents, Thomas Jefferson wrote these words, often quoted in the cause of civil rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

(from the Declaration of Independence)

Yet ironically, after the American Revolution, Great Britain was ahead of the United States in some areas of civil rights.

The story of William Wilberforce and the prime minister William Pitt, the younger struggle to abolish slavery is told in Amazing Grace (2006):

 The Amazing Grace story and America's struggle for civil rights can be summed up here: American Anti-Slavery and Civil Rights: A Timeline in Context

If we had only learned from England ... at least on this issue ... we may have averted the Civil War and the deep wounds that have divided our nation. Yet, in our history (as well as others), Amazing Grace speaks to our souls as shown in the clip -

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost and now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

* It was used as a requiem by the Cherokee Indians on The Trail of Tears (1838)

* It was sung on both sides of the American Civil War (1861-1865)

* It was sung during gatherings of the Civil Rights movement (1950s, 1960s)

* It was sung for comfort after September 11 (2001)

And the song will endure for ages to come ....

In the world of science fiction, Amazing Grace made it to the 23rd century, such as in this scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), after Captain Kirk delivers his eulogy for Mr. Spock:

The impact of Amazing Grace and the struggle for Civil Rights ... to right the wrongs ... are part of America's Story, which is

to be continued ...


For other posts in the America's Story series:
America's Story (part 1) - The Speech that redefined us, November 19, 1863   (2011)

America's Story (part 2) - Savages!  (2011)

America's Story (part 3) - Over There - 1917, 1941  (2011)

America's Story (part 4) - Christmas 1944, when we said NUTS to the enemy  (2011)


For other posts on Civil Rights:

July 1776 & July 1863 (2009)

MLK, Malcolm X & Epiphany (2010)


Photo from Wikipedia CommonsI Have a Dream

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