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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: NewSouth authors one thread in the tapestry of his life

Guy and Candie Carawan, authors of Sing for Freedom. (Courtesy Patheos)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is tireless in his efforts to promote peace and community in his native North Carolina and elsewhere throughout the South. His biography is a colorful tapestry of both Civil Rights and faith-based threads. It tells of a celebrated speaker at churches and conferences covering all denominations and backgrounds; a spiritual writer in the New Monasticism movement; the founder of the Rutba House, where the formerly homeless can regain a sense of community; and the director of the non-profit School of Conversion, where he is “making surprising friendships possible.” The list goes on and on. So it was with great delight that we read his back-to-back blog postings about authors published by NewSouth Books who’ve been an inspiration to him.

In one posting, “A Conspiracy of Silence? Listen to Our Grassroots Leaders,” Hartgrove both praises Bob Zellner, author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, and criticizes our national civil rights leaders in their failure to support grassroots organizing. In an apt and amusing analysis, Hartgrove likens Zellner’s life to Forrest Gump’s in its “unplanned quest of self-discovery.” “For over 50 years, Bob Zellner has walked alongside some of America’s most important voices for justice,” Hartgrove observes. “Which is why his question is so important: why have civil rights organizations themselves fallen silent about the most effective grassroots organizing in the country?” Hartgrove’s posting discusses the NAACP Convention’s embarrassing attempt to silence civil rights activists, and other disappointments for the modern Civil Rights movement in North Carolina and the South, and also the shining beacon of hope that is Rev. William J. Barber.

His conversation with Candie Carawan, co-author of Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, can be found in a separate post that commemorates the passing of Pete Seeger, influential folk singer of the Freedom Movement. Candie Carawan and her husband Guy (pictured, above) were fellow singers and close companions of Seeger’s, and lifted their resonant voices with him during the national struggle for justice.

Of their collective contributions Hartgrove says, “Those who sang with Pete felt hope, and it inspired them to press on together. No song from his repertoire is better know than ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which became the anthem of the Freedom Movement around the world. (I’ll never forget listening to little kids on the streets of Baghdad singing it while American bombs fell in 2003.) Though Pete learned the song from tobacco workers at Highlander Folk School, it was his friend at Highlander, Guy Carawan, who taught the song to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), just after they had started the sit-in movement in 1960. Candie, one of those students from Fisk University, ended up marrying Guy and singing with him for the next half a century.” Carawan and Hargrove agree on the central role folk music played in building a sense of community and achieving social change, and Carawan acknowledges Guy’s debt to Seeger: “Pete was a model for Guy of how you could use your artistry and your love of folk music to support peoples’ struggles for justice.”

Read “A Conspiracy of Silence? Listen to Our Grassroots Leaders,” and “Remembering Pete Seeger & the Power of Song with Candie Carawan”, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, at the Patheos website.

Sing for Freedom and The Wrong Side of Murder Creek are available from NewSouth Books or from your favorite bookstore.