Freedom Highway

staple singersBy Nick Coke

I’m listening to The Staple Singers bellowing out ‘Freedom Highway’ from their legendary live performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church in 1965. It’s three days after my second visit to the Jungle in Calais. I’ve tears in my eyes and a sickness in my stomach.

Pop staples introduces the song:

“A few days ago, the freedom marchers marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I know some of you know about that. That was in March of nineteen hundred and sixty-five. And from that march, word was revealed and a song was composed. And we wrote a song about the freedom marchers and we call it the ‘Freedom Highway’, and we dedicate this number to all the freedom marchers.”

I’m holding the original record sleeve in my hand. It’s a thrill to know that the person whose hands pressed this vinyl half a century ago and the first owner of this particular LP would have lived through the Martin Luther King led march that made history. The concert was recorded only 3 months after that event.

The guitar kicks in, then the drums, hand-clapping and finally the vocals.

March for freedom’s highway
March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
Made up my mind and I won’t turn around
There is just one thing I can’t understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.
Yes I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.

portaloosI’m back in the Jungle, standing in the winter rain and mud. There’s a hopelessness hanging in the air I hadn’t sensed the last time. There are rumours of a government demolition, of police brutality, of vigilante gangs beating up migrants whilst the authorities turn a blind eye. I’m told by a Syrian refugee about the orphans living in the camp with no-where to turn. I’m struggling to see the freedom highway.

Pop Staples knew when he composed his song that he was writing about an historic moment. Today we are making history. Future generations will look back and wonder about our response to the biggest humanitarian disaster in Europe since the Second World War. We will be judged for what we are doing and what we are not doing.

The Jungle in some ways has come to symbolise the British response. It’s the closest we’ll allow those fleeing war and poverty to get before they meet our high border fences. It’s a third of the distance than from Selma to Montgomery.

As I listen to The Staple Singers from 50 years ago, I can’t help but dedicate this song to the people I met in Calais. May you one day experience freedom – freedom from war, freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression, freedom from fear. May you find freedom – may you overcome. And Lord – help me be a freedom marcher.

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