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Saunders: ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ I’m gonna let it shine | COMMENTARY

October 2020 would be a great time to write a pre-election piece, but that would mean that I have to wade into all the nastiness surrounding the presidential campaign and rehash what I think of the presidential candidates and their running mates. That sounds futile at this point in time when there is so much division in our country largely spawned by turning everything from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and race relations into a political battle, pitting the Democrats and the Republicans against each other at every turn. Frankly, I’m afraid of the potential for chaos or worse facing this nation. Therefore, I will steer clear of most electioneering this October!

Rather, I have been humming and singing a little gospel song I learned as a child that Amazon and Walden University have been using for their commercials on television, with Walden University thanking trained nurses as essential employees during the pandemic. You guessed it — “This Little Light of Mine.” You may also remember it from your childhood Sunday school days when the teacher asked you to sing with your right index finger in the air and making a horizontal circle when you sang “let it shine.” The chorus was sung at the beginning and end and in between each stanza.

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This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine

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This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine

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Let it shine,

Let it shine,

Let it shine.

The stanzas, with repeating verses, encompassed all situations that a young child could understand about the Christian life: 1) Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine; 2) Don’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine; 3) Shine all over the whole wide world, I’m gonna let it shine; and 4) Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine.

Supposedly written by Harry Dixon Loes in 1920 for children, this song ended up being one of the anthems for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s and even today as marchers will not let their voices be silenced or their light for justice be diminished. What was intended as a song for little children became a rallying cry for those who were treated unjustly and unfairly.

As the story goes, a Civil Rights leader by the name of Fanny Lou Hamer was arrested for trying to register to vote. As she was being detained she began to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” It would later be sung as Civil Rights leaders marched in peaceful protests, demonstrating their willingness to let their light for freedom and justice shine and thereby bring about change for the good of all.

In 1963, blues singer Bettie Mae Fikes turned the song into one of defiance after several of her friends had been viciously attacked. In retaliation she added names of oppressors of black people to the lyrics such as the former sheriff of Selma, Alabama: “Tell Jim Clark, I’m gonna let it shine.” And her followers would add: “Tell the KKK, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Even in recent times the song was used by counter-protesters to quell a crowd of white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. When things were becoming loud and contentious, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou began singing “This Little Light of Mine” with other anti-Nazi volunteers, and he reports that the tensions went down: “We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.” In that situation “This Little Light of Mine” became a nonviolent weapon and became a way of fulfilling Jesus' words in St. Matthew when he told his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (St. Matthew 5:16).

Many of these uses of “This Little Light of Mine” seem far removed from my childhood Sunday school class. And yet this gospel song has survived, giving courage and protection to many. Survivors of the Civil Rights movement believe that the song is “anointed” or blessed, according to Eric Deggans in his article, “This Little Light of Mine Shines On, A Timeless Tool of Resistance.” Deggans even calls the song an American anthem, “which has made so many who sing it feel a little less alone and a little more free.”

By calling the song a “timeless tool of resistance” I believe that Deggans has hit on something special about “This Little Light of Mine.” By living by its words we are resisting our natural inclinations to sit back and do nothing, when, in fact, we should be actively demonstrating our abilities and gifts for making the world a better place.

So, how do you feel when you sing “This Little Light of Mine”? Is it a song that rouses you, unites you with others, celebrates your gifts and calls you to action? Does it make you feel special and essential, that somehow God has given you some special gift or gifts that you must share? Does it make you see that each person has unique gifts, that when shared with others makes us part of the whole and therefore united?

So, let your light shine in the voting booth or on your write-in ballot this fall! As for me, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Go, Joe!

Hermine Saunders writes from Westminster. Her Prime column appears on the second Sunday of the month.

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