Rev. Lowery's "stemwinder"

Jesse Jack­son men­tioned that he had expect­ed Rev. Joseph Low­ery to end the bene­dic­tion with a "stemwinder." What's a stemwinder? Well, appar­ent­ly, it's a old-timey term used to describe "a rous­ing polit­i­cal speech." (Jesse was right, too).

Lord, in the mem­o­ry of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new begin­ning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yel­low will be mel­low, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

Per­son­al­ly, I thought this was a nice way to play­ful­ly deflate the pomp, and to test the stric­tures of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, but the folksy tone seems to have tweaked the guys I watched on Fox News a few min­utes ago.1 It's prob­a­bly worth­while to note that Low­ery was ref­er­enc­ing (at the very least) an old blues stan­dard, Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown, and White" — though the lyrics of the song like­ly have roots and ref­er­ences elsewhere. 

I went to an employ­ment office,Got a num­ber 'n' i got in lineThey called everybody's number,But they nev­er did call mineThey said, "if you was white, should be all right,If you was brown, could stick around,But as you black, hmm broth­er, get back, get back, get back"I hope when sweet victory,With my plough and hoeNow i want you to tell me brother,What you gonna do about the old jim crow?Now if you was white, should be all right,If you was brown, could stick around,But if you black, whoa broth­er, get back, get back, get back

Con­sid­er­ing that Rev. Low­ery has been there since the begin­ning of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment — he helped to lead the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott — I think he's earned the ben­e­fit of the doubt (at the very least) when it comes to wind­ing stems. (And as I was writ­ing this, his Wikipedia entry was updat­ed to note that the con­clud­ing words were "part of a civ­il rights chant that Low­ery has includ­ed in many speech­es over the years," link­ing to a cou­ple of speech­es in which he has used the same con­clu­sion). 1 Also, some peo­ple are peev­ed about "white will embrace what is right;" most seem to inter­pret an insult­ing insin­u­a­tion that "white" has not done so yet. I assume these peo­ple are them­selves white. And that they take every­thing very, very personally.

2 replies on “Rev. Lowery's "stemwinder"”

White peo­ple who were offend­ed are not tak­ing it any more per­son­al­ly than if a white man said "when black will embrace what is right." The line wasn't deliv­ered clear­ly indi­cat­ing that this was past tense. The impli­ca­tion seemed to be that whites have not done so. Con­sid­er­ing that Oba­ma could not have been elect­ed with­out mil­lions of white peo­ple vot­ing for him, it seems a bit insult­ing. And yes, you assume cor­rect­ly that "these peo­ple are them­selves white." I don't expect peo­ple who aren't to care one way or the oth­er– espe­cial­ly when the only race being slight­ed is the one that is blamed for all evil in the world. Any way, as a white per­son I already knew that despite what Oba­ma rep­re­sents– proof that ANYONE can suc­ceed in this great coun­try– many blacks were not going to give up vic­tim­hood and the con­ve­nience of blam­ing their sit­u­a­tion entire­ly on others.

Hi, James. What I meant to imply by point­ing out that peo­ple are "tak­ing it per­son­al­ly" is that I don't think Rev. Lowery's con­clu­sion was intend­ed as an indict­ment. Many peo­ple of var­i­ous col­ors still find com­fort and inspi­ra­tion in hymns like "We Shall Over­come" (and oth­er inspi­ra­tional songs of the time, like the one ref­er­enced above), even if what is being over­come is not as clear and present as it was in the past. The fact that Barack Oba­ma was elect­ed doesn't mean that every­thing has changed. After all, 48% of the US didn't think he was the best per­son for the job, and I would wager that some per­cent­age of those peo­ple vot­ed against Oba­ma on the basis of race more than they vot­ed for McCain. Any­way, I think that Lowrey's jovial tone indi­cat­ed that even he intend­ed it to be an acknowl­edg­ment of how much things have changed along with a feel­ing that there is still progress to be made.

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