Thurl Bailey remembers his mother singing as she did household chores each evening, already exhausted after a day of cleaning white people's homes for 50 cents to $1 an hour.
Today, the song that still sticks with Bailey: "We shall overcome."
"She'd always start out with a hum," Bailey, a former power forward for the Utah Jazz, told those attending the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission Drum Major Awards Luncheon Friday.
"It wasn't until we were older that we understood why our mom would teach us that song, why she loved it so much," he said. "It is so catchy, the lyrics are so powerful."
Bailey said the song started as a slave song, with no one recognized author nor one version. Later, after slaves won their freedom, he said, the song was recorded as "I will overcome" and spread throughout Southern black churches. The lyrics eventually changed from "I" to "we" and from "will" to "shall." Some versions added new verses.
"The song insinuated itself into the civil rights movement," Bailey said. "The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. heard the song and understood its power . . . Dr. King understood that the movement now had an anthem."
Bailey said the song was used by protestors at the national Capitol to send a message to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The Civil Rights Act had just passed, but the president had done little to protect protestors who were beaten in the South, Bailey said.
Finally, Johnson gave a speech to Congress in which he promised to pass a voting rights law.
"He ended with words that no American president had ever said," Bailey said. "We shall overcome."
Bailey said it's important to remember King's legacy and the civil rights movement.
"These rights were not easily won," he said. "Someday, in another time and another place, people will sing the song again."
The luncheon served to honor Utahns who celebrate King's ideals of diversity, equality and human rights for all. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he was only 3 years old when King spoke of the "drum major instinct."Comment on this story
"He challenged us all to be drum majors for justice, to be drum majors for peace," said Huntsman, who presented the Teacher of the Year award to Dovie Goodwin, 97, one of the state's first black teachers.Other Drum Major award recipients were: Volunteers of the Year: Pamela Atkinson and Pastor France Davis; Community Based Organization: Utah Issues; Adopt-a-School of the Year, North Star Elementary; Corporate Sponsor, American Express; Adopt-A- School Sponsor, State Farm Insurance; Special Recognition, Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake.