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There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity. Vincent Harding did just that.

In the audio above, the theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. creates that vulnerable opening and ever so gently corrects, without admonishment, when the "We Shall Overcome" (1964)“Kumbaya” is referred to as a soft and squishy moment of song:

"Whenever somebody jokes about 'Kumbaya,' my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. …

In group after group, people were singing:

'Kumbaya. "Come by here my Lord. Somebody's missing Lord. Come by here." '

I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya."

I know I've used this this reference to a "kumbaya moment" in a slightly pejorative way. This no longer holds true. I can no longer judge using this label. Let Vincent Harding's story be a lesson for us all.

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25 Comments

Thanks Trent - a lovely moment of insight - realising that what might be a casual byword for me is precious for someone else.

Harding is one of those marvelous men who redirect people's thinking through his kindness rather than reprimand. He liberates people from hardness. It's a gift to be able to enjoy the softness of a song or a phrase or an idea.

'Redirect people's thinking through kindness...' Yes. Lovely, thoughtful response Trent. Something we all can practice.

Amen and again I say amen to this moving experience.

I am age 70. I've sung Kumbaya ever since childhood, alone and in all sorts of groups. I know the song always as soft, moving, empowering, a strong shared feeling of connection with the Spirit. Never have I heard of anyone laughing about Kumbaya . ..interesting.

Thank you VH. All so true. Since those days I have always cringed when I've heard offhand, deprecating, or flat-out insulting references to something as a Kumbaya moment.

Before the 1950s and '60s it was often a camp song, or a campfire song, or vaguely all-purpose religious and usually taught to children. During The Movement it forever took on a new dimension when it was sung in the face of violence, terror, and risk. Those who use the term flippantly today don't know, or think about, that aspect of recent American history.

I sing Kumbaya to my 6 year old daughter every single night until she falls asleep. It's a beautiful song.

What a powerful story Dr. Harding.

Just watched on PBS the MFDP documentary. I blessed and applauded all those who 'Blazed the path' for us today. Now, whenever I have to go to excerise my right to vote as a Citizen of this country, I will always remember the faces of those BRAVE members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

I teach the Mississippi Freedom Summer in my social movements classes—as a case it tells us important things about recruitment to high-risk activism—but stories like this would make that time spring to life for students.

It is a poweful moment of new learning....never to be forgotten....and therefore changing.

Listening to Krista Tippet right now. Hopeufully the Idaho legislature will not pull the plug on $400,000 in state funding for BSU Radio (91.5). If they do, many small communities in the rural and mountain areas will lose NPR.

Made me cry.  The freedom riders pre-dated e, but their commitment and sacrifice were th keystone for the arc leading the war against the war in Vietnam which I was proud to be participate in.

As we planned my father's funeral we were trying to find the ending song. Someone said "Well there is always Kumbaya". We laughed momentarily and then realized it was perfect. Dad had been a scout master and that was sung at almost every campfire. He was tone deaf and didn't sing it well. But he loved it. My husband sang it at the end as people left. I felt like I could hear my father laughing. 

That is a beautiful sentiment. Thank you for sharing.

I sang Kumbaya at camp as a boy scout from the South Side of Chicago and in college. I always had an emotional understanding of a strong wish for a whole and peaceful community. Amazingly, I did not realize how distant that longing was until I worked in the steel mills. At 68 I am still moved by the song. Thank you for your beautiful broadcast presenting the opportunity to consider something other than cynicism.

Thank you Kristta Tippet for this post and all you do and have done to promote greater civil discourse and respect between and among our many different tribal affiliations and understandings of God / Source. I am a fan of the show since it was called Speaking of Faith.

Trent Gilliss's picture

You're most welcome! And you are becoming one of the old-timers of the show. SOF seems like so long ago but it's only been two years...

Making light of a "Kumbaya moment" is one of many examples of diminishing something or someone in order to "other-ize", dare I say, dehumanize. Humans use disdain to make themselves feel superior or distinct. I need not state this on this "On Being" comment board, but clearly - we are better to strive to find the connections and like-mindedness than to draw lines of distinction through a pejorative stance.

Many thanks, Trent, for highlighting this profound view of what a real Kumbaya moment meant to someone like Dr. Harding. This is certainly causing me to evaluate how I use humor and eye-rolling to "other-ize".

Amen

Love communal singing? Show up at a hymn festival at this year's conference of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, which will be held in Columbus OH in July. See their website for more info. These events are poignant and often heart-stopping. I particularly remember one at our conference in Birmingham AL a few years ago when we sang many of the songs and hymns that were used and subsequently came out of the struggles for civil rights. You might even want to interview either Executive Director Deb Loftis or one of the many articulate past-presidents. My formative spiritual times have more often than not had their core in singing together as one voice.

I almost missed out on the strength of the spoken comments, the article didn't capture the fullness of the story. Be sure to listen!

Could you please tell me who is singing Kumbaya at the end of the segment. It is wonderful. I would like to have it as well as other hymns they might sing. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for this reminder!

I just found this and it brought me to tears. I worked with SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1965 a year after the time told of here. I have written about that time in my memoir, "In the Tracks of the Unseen, Memoirs of a Jungian Psychoanalyst."