from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

A song for today: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest”

On days like today, like last Monday, like September 4th, like July 15th of 2013, May 2nd of 2012, and like many, many more, I reach for Sweet Honey in the Rock‘s “Ella’s Song,” a song composed of legendary civil rights leader Ella Baker‘s own words. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” Ella said. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” Sweet Honey sings.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, an incredible African-American women and social justice focused a cappella ensemble, has taught me so much about the power of song, protest, and art. My mom and I would listen to their music throughout my childhood, jointly singing “Ella’s Song” as a part of our “Girl Power” repertoire.

Now as I have gotten older and as the racist killings and political terror continues,”Ella’s Song” has become a site of conflicting comfort. I have returned to it in mourning for America’s defunct justice system, in celebration for women civil rights visionaries, in rage that our young leaders have been systemically and systematically silenced, and in distress that as even though my listen counts increase, there is no concurrent structural change. I find myself grasping to its melody while reading coverage of these horrors. I share it with friends in shaky hopes that this song might soothe us (if only for five minutes at a time).

In Spanglish, “Ella’s Song” roughly translates to “She Song.” In this case, the amazing Ella Baker. Throughout her lifetime of advocating for grassroots racial justice, Ella Baker always focused on the importance and power of young people. In her own 1927 college valedictorian speech, she urged: “Awake youth of the land and accept this noble challenge of salvaging the strong ship of civilization by anchors of right, justice, and love.” Her belief in young people touched so many throughout 1960’s organizing, including Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and the composer of this song. As the newest youngest generation, we surely owe it to Ella to remember her insistence on grassroots, non-hierarchical organizing, and her determination to bring those who are on the margins of the margins to the forefront of our movements.

“Ella’s Song” is still our song. We who believe in freedom still cannot rest. But we who are disgusted, enraged, exhausted might need a moment of comfort today. We might need a mantra for our march, a credo for our confrontations, a song for our solace. And because others have said it and sang it so much better than I ever could, I leave you with Ella’s words:

Ella’s Song, Composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, copyright Songtalk Publishing Co. 

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

And that which touches we most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survive

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At time I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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