Mama Madison: Many teachable moments in CTM's "Most Valuable Player"

From labor history to Black History Month

"We shall overcome. We shall overcome."--I've heard these words sung so many times this past week down on the Square. The protest song probably hit its emotional apex last Friday when Jesse Jackson swept into town and led a huge crowd inside the Capitol in the singing of the revered anthem. This particular song made sense for him for so many reasons. It is so strongly associated with both the labor as well as the civil rights movements that it got me thinking: What are the lessons can my kids learn from watching a worker's rights campaign unfold a 10-minute bus ride away from home -- smack dab in the middle of Black History Month?

In my limited and admittedly weak research (Wikipedia, okay?). I learned that "We Shall Overcome" is based on a spiritual and was first committed to paper at the turn of the century by an African American minister in Philadelphia. But the hymn really gained traction in fall of 1945 when the predominantly female and black members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union began their five-month strike against the American Tobacco Company.

As we've seen down at the Capitol this week, music can really help keep hope alive in bad winter weather. One of the strikers, Lucille Simmons, led the picketers in an early version of the song at the end of each day's protest. Simmons, in turn, taught the song to Zilphia Horton, the music director of the Highland Folk School; a Tennessee based training school for the labor movement in the South.

Through Horton, Pete Seeger was introduced to the lyrics. He changed what was then "We'll Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" because it was easier to sing, and published it in his People's Songs Bulletin in September of 1948. The rest is protest music history.

But something else pretty amazing was happening in a different African American labor movement in the late 1940's, as well. It is precisely this time period that opens the Children's Theater of Madison's current production Most Valuable Player-The Story of Jackie Robinson We meet Jackie (an inspiring Trevon Jackson) in 1948, the year after he's broken the color line in baseball, and he's hit a bit of a slump. The play is told in flashback from here, with the audience learning more about the torment Robinson endured at the hands of school kids growing up, and the racism he encountered in college sports that continued well into his baseball career.

So, while Seeger was helping to make "We Shall Overcome" the musical symbol of the strength that comes with hope, Robinson was finding the strength to take the field -- to play with heart while facing insults, death threats and the cleats of opposing players digging purposefully into his leg. While Zilphia Horton was learning lyrics, Robinson's white Dodger teammate Pee Wee Reese was putting his arm around him in solidarity and support, silencing the Cincinnati hecklers during the team's first road trip in 1947. Yes, precisely while this song was making its way around activist circles, Robinson, with the constant encouragement of visionary and supportive Dodger's General Manager Branch Rickey (a perfectly cast Sam White), was making his way around bases to win the National League's Most Valuable Player award in 1949.

My two younger kids and I didn't know a lot about Jackie Robinson before seeing the production this past weekend. But we all came away with an amazing appreciation for everything he did to advance civil rights in this country. Robinson came nearly a decade before Rosa Parks wouldn't move to the back of the bus. His story occurred a full twenty years before Martin Luther King was assassinated while in Memphis to lend his support to the racially charged Memphis Sanitation strike.

As we enter the second week of protests and a time of uncertainty, I am thinking about Jackie Robinson and the lessons he taught my kids and me. There are intersections of these two waves of fighting for our rights that I don't want to lose in awkward explanations of budget shortfalls and collective bargaining. Yes, I am worried about this city and about my country. And I am worried about my state and the state of public education. But just thinking about what he had to overcome, and the grace in which he did it, gives me resolve to overcome -- whatever that might end up meaning.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Talking about race with Families for Justice

Like many parents, I look at the wide world around my kids and do my best to prepare them for life. We talk about working hard, being kind and responsible, Internet safety, stranger danger, and the (gulp) birds and the bees. But what about a topic such as race?

Mama Madison: Checking it twice

If you're like me, looking around your house in the weeks before Christmas will probably have you convinced that the last thing your kids need to find underneath the tree is a pile of new toys.

Mama Madison: Managing holiday lists

I spend a lot of time talking to my kids about how lucky we are to have what we have. Though our house is tiny and our van is unequipped with automatic doors, we have all we could ever need, and a lot of what we want.

Girls on the Run of Dane County marks a decade of changing young lives

On the evening of Nov. 6, a throng of people gathered at Monona Terrace. They were there to attend an impressive anniversary shindig, but the real buzz of excitement centered on the event's guest of honor.

Mama Madison: Mom dates are hard

You may call them "play dates," but I like the term "mom dates," especially since my kids are still too young to really care that there's another small person to squabble over toys with.

Mama Madison: No judgments with No Excuse Mom

If there is an excuse for not working out and eating healthy, I have used it: I don't have time. I'm too tired. I'll start tomorrow. I'm no good at this, I give up. I don't know where to start. Yes, I have used all of these and more.

Mama Madison: Introducing kids to your CSA box

At almost a year old, my kids are in the blissful stage of life where they'll eat nearly anything that I put in front of them (at least as long as it doesn't require much in the way of molar action).

Mama Madison: Changing tables, changing times

My family recently went through something that we have not experienced in over eight years. We have become a household that no longer harbors a crib or a changing table.

From museum to school with MMoCA

"There really is no wrong way to do it." That's how Madeline, age 13, describes creating artwork. She and her classmates at Prairie View Middle School in Sun Prairie are honing their artistic skills by participating in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Art on Tour program.

Mama Madison: Coping with toddlers in a Wisconsin winter

I'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.