Singing for Justice

Me singing "We Shall Overcome" at the Capitol rotunda. Photo by Tom Krajewski.

When I first convinced a couple friends to join me in a few verses of “We Shall Overcome” on the first floor of Wisconsin’s Capitol I did not know that I was about to embark upon a year-long commitment to singing for justice. On that day we were testing the limits of free speech as police had been arresting protesters for holding signs on the first floor and I was curious if they would also arrest someone for singing in protest. We were not threatened with arrest that day, though that happened to me several months later.

A couple days after that first time a couple other friends were on the first floor of the Capitol and I got them to join me in singing it again. The song, which has been an anthem for the civil rights movement, has such power and meaning in that context, and it seemed to me that it had meaning for the Wisconsin Uprising as well. For me, the issue in Wisconsin was never just about the unions. It was also about the utter contempt that Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Tea Party activists have shown for the poor and disenfranchised. It was clear that they had declared war upon the poorest of our citizens, people who often could not stand for themselves, and I have always been on the side of the underdog.

Shortly after that I was in the Capitol by myself one day and decided that the legislators and any citizens who were there needed a reminder that we were still there, that we were not going away, and that we would eventually overcome the assault on all of our social compacts. There were no friends there to join me on that day. So I sang, by myself, my voice reverberating in the cavernous building, and I have done it almost every day since then, weekdays and weekends, just missing some vacation and sick days.

It has not always been easy. Sometimes I have raced there after a long day of work and just made it in time. Other days I have not had the energy, but forced myself to go anyway. In addition, I have always been terrified of singing in public. Even after a year of singing that song almost every day in the Capitol I still get short of breath and have a hard time swallowing as I near the time to sing. But I do it because I must.

If I had been able to make the Solidarity Sing Along every weekday I may not have ever done this. I didn’t intend to embark upon a one-man sing along when I started, but it was a way for me to have my voice heard, somewhat more literally than most, and it became a source of spiritual fulfillment for me as well. It is a little difficult to explain, but when I am there, in that moment of singing, I feel connected to the universe in a special way. I feel connected to all the worldwide struggles for racial, economic, and social justice. I feel connected to the core of my humanity.

Along the way there have been some interesting moments. As mentioned I was threatened with arrest for singing without a permit, a situation I got resolved by sending a letter to my State Senator and the Capitol Police Chief, which resulted in a meeting and an okay to continue what I had been doing.

One day a middle-aged woman in a red coat stood across the rotunda from me and slowly moved closer and then joined me in singing. It turned out that she was a professor from Russia who had learned the song as a youth. We had a nice political discussion afterwards.

I have had people threaten me as I stood there singing. One day just a few weeks ago a man pushing a stroller kept circling past me and practically screaming, “Be quiet. Please be quiet,” but with an incredibly angry edge to it. It was clearly not a plea for the child in the stroller but for the child within himself who did not want to open himself up to a voice different than his. There have been a few other times where people either threatened me or said something nasty. None of those people have ever seemed willing to stick around afterwards to talk about our differences.

There was a day that a couple stood and listened and then came up and thanked me afterwards. They turned out to be conservative political activists and we ended up having an interesting discussion, where we found some common ground and where I was able to sway them just a bit on a couple of their ideas. Although we walked away with most of our notions still intact, we did find our common humanity.

One afternoon an elderly African-American man came up and stood by me while I was singing. I couldn’t tell if he was judging me in some way or what he might be thinking, but I looked at him and smiled as I was singing and a few moments later he joined me. He had an incredibly beautiful voice and together our voices blended nicely. He turned out to be a homeless man.

I’m sure there are other stories I could share that I am just not remembering at the moment. There have been many days when I sang to an almost empty building with no response at all. There have been many days when I finished singing and dozens of people applauded, or several in the building raised their fists in solidarity. I was invited to sing for the Thunda Around the Rotunda rally in front of a couple thousand people, and managed to get through that without a terrible bout of stage fright. I have had a homeless person respond to the lyric, “We’ll walk hand in hand” with “No, we won’t.” I have sung by myself and I have been joined by friends and strangers.

How long I will continue this I do not know. I foresee at least three more months and what I do after that may in large part be determined by the results of the recall elections. For now I will just continue to sing. When I stop I will still continue to fight for justice in other ways, and I will always carry this song in my heart.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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