“We Stand Against All Racism” by John Van Dyke Wilmerding (Music Video)
In Episode 5 of “Where Do We Go from Here?” special guest John Van Dyke Wilmerding shares with host Maurice Lajuane Harris a story of how he has been using music to effect racial reconciliation and racial healing. John performs a portion of a song, “We Stand Against All Racism” (to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”), at the end of the episode. This page contains a transcript of the interview excerpt explaining the background of the song, a link to the complete music performance, and a downloadable lyric sheet.
Maurice: I want to go all the way back to how the interview started with our shared interest in music because you’re going to share a song with with us on this episode, and I want you to talk about the song. It has a lot of historical significance as a traditional song. Many people are familiar with it.
John: Ok. Anyone who’s studied abolitionism and the abolitionist period before the civil war will have probably encountered the name William Lloyd Garrison. He was an abolitionist and was part of a group—I believe they were in the Boston area or in the Northeast somewhere—and they were crusading against slavery. During that period, when everything was in flux and the country was trying to grapple with that very difficult issue, he decided that he would spread that idea, help encourage people to reach deeper within themselves for the resources for that struggle, by writing an anthem, a song. And he chose “Auld Lang Syne” which is probably one of the most familiar melodies in all of western civilization. And he wrote new words for it. So, it became a song called “I Am an Abolitionist”.
Now, fast-forward to 2015. On the 17th of June, 2015, I was entering a workshop in Philadelphia at a Baptist Church led by Ruby Sales who is a name well-known in the Episcopal tradition, and I went there the day after the massacre in Charleston where nine people were murdered, because they were black, by a white supremacist. And I went there, of course, “much exorcised” as we Quakers would say, very, very, very moved and traumatized like everyone else there. But as a white man, and with only one or two other white people, in a black church filled with black people who were gathered to do anti-racism work, I was welcomed so warmly, and caringly, and lovingly, that it reached more deeply into me than ever before how racism diminishes white people.
At the end of that workshop, Ruby encouraged me to do anti-racism work among white people. This was a discernment that happened there. It involved me, and who I am, and my makeup personally, and others there who gave me reinforcement and feedback about who I was, and my agonizing question of what more I could do against racism. And that summer, I went to the New England yearly meeting of Quakers and the New York yearly meeting of Quakers. In New York, there are actually more substantial anti-racism work that’s been done in recent years. And I just debated and dialogued with other Quakers: What can we do? What can we do? And not many people were able to get beyond this idea: Well we just have to understand it. And be who we are, you know. And be a member of the human race. And then we’ll all take care of itself. Not many white Quakers were able to get beyond that kind of an idea which is almost like an “all lives matter” idea, you know.
After both of those yearly meeting sessions, where I met with many hundreds of Quakers, I sat down and I encountered this historical account of William Lloyd Garrison’s “I Am an Abolitionist”, and I said, “Let’s try that.” I said to myself: Let’s try this because, look, it’s come down to us over generations and more than a century and a half. So, I wrote new words to “Auld Lang Syne”, and it’s now called, in my own authorship, “We Stand Against All Racism”.