Why Don't We All Just Kumbaya?

One of the most pitiful sentences I hear today is “Why don't we all just Kumbaya?” I often hear it spoken in an angry, dismissive tone. Frequently, the speaker is scolding another who advocates for negotiation and compromise. In such a case it is proclaimed in a manner which implies getting along and working things out is somehow weak and hypocritical.

When I hear the sentence, my mind's ear perceives the sounds of hard boot heels on pavement and breaking glass. My mind's eye sees the body of Martin Luther King on a balcony in Memphis. I think of Fascism and the death of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement. These conjoined images reflect at least two historical events. My connection to the first began in 1984.

That year I was traveling cross-country from Alaska to North Dakota. Along the way, I stopped to visit with an elderly relative who was a widow in a new relationship. This eighty-something lady was in the company of a gentleman friend who was pushing ninety. Despite his age, he was active, mentally alert, and interested in where I was going. When I told him that my destination was my birthplace of North Dakota, he got very excited.

“Did you know Bill Langer?” he asked. He was delighted to hear me say I knew of him and my grandmother had worked for him as a nanny. Langer had been a lawyer, Attorney General, Governor and Senator for the State of North Dakota. This man whose name was also Bill, went on to tell me about his relationship with Bill Langer. Let's call him German Bill, because he was born in Germany and had migrated to the U.S. around 1939.

According to German Bill there had been extensive communications between Americans of German descent and citizens of Germany in the 1920s. The purpose of these correspondences was to lobby for humanitarian changes to the Treaty of Versailles, which was imposed upon Germany by the victors of World War I. The treaty's provisions caused great economic hardship for the German people. Many historians and analysts have come to believe the adversity led to the ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany and consequently World War II. German Bill and Bill Langer came to be the American and German endpoints of one of a series of lifelines between the United States and the Weimar Republic[1].

The lifelines failed, and not just because of resistance from the victorious Allies, but also because of resistance within Germany itself. German Bill described the calculated efforts of the Nazi Party and Hitler to block the lifting of reparations, because the difficulties that were visited upon the German people gave the Fascists cause, power and a motivated voting block.

Bill made reference to German phrases that were counterparts to “Why don't we all just Kumbaya?” He described the struggle between those who wanted to negotiate, compromise and work for peaceful solutions and those who wished to exploit suffering for political gain. The last had their own version of “Kumbaya”. What happened in Germany is now history. The anti-kumbaya people won and World War II killed upwards of eighty million people[2].

Kumbaya My Lord is a folk song that originated near the southeast coast of the U.S. in the early part of the twentieth century. Kumbaya is the equivalent of “come by me” in the Gullah dialect, which is spoken in the Sea Islands off of the shores of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. The song became the unofficial anthem of the early, nonviolent phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The lyrics of the song ask God for His strength and comfort.

That nonviolent phase died when Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis in 1968. King had studied and adapted the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi, who had lead the Indian independence movement. Many on the Right gloated over the loss of this courageous man. Many militants on the Left took advantage of the shock, grief and anger over his death to push the Civil Rights Movement in a violent direction. An insane Right-Winger killed King and opportunistic Left-Wing ideologues killed the best part of the Civil Rights Movement.

So, when I hear “why don't we all just Kumbaya”, I hear the weakness and the hypocrisy of the speaker. I hear the weakness of clinging to a rigid ideology. I hear the hypocrisy that comes from believing, no matter what, that one's belief system makes him better than others. I hear the hard boot heels on pavement. I hear Kristallnacht.

I think there is a very stormy time coming in America. I see a Right getter Righter, fearful of changing demographics, blindly mistrustful of government and blindly trustful of a cancerous industry of AM-Radio little Hitlers. I see a Left getting Lefter, fearful of global climate change and restricted voting rights, blindly mistrustful of the Right and blindly trustful of jive-talking phonies. It will be a very rough time if some of us don't just Kumbaya.



[1] Weimer Republic – the representative democracy that followed the imperial government of Germany and preceded the Nazi Government.

[2] Estimates of the total death toll of World War II vary from 48 million to 80 million.