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Music Journeys: Paisha Thomas & Bill Cohen

Jan 16, 2020

Paisha Thomas and Bill Cohen performing songs from their upcoming show Songs of Struggle.
Credit Foley

Two Columbus performers are joining forces for a concert celebrating the Civil Rights Movement.

Paisha Thomas and Bill Cohen will perform songs that rekindle the spirit of the early 1960's. "The Songs of Struggle" concert will also feature footage and images of some of the demonstrations and protests for basic human rights. 

BC - Our show does something a little different. Our show says it wasn't just about the leaders. Let's think about the hundreds and thousands of people who followed Martin Luther King into the streets, who were at the lunch counter sit-ins, who were hosed by those Birmingham fire hoses and knocked to the ground, who were beaten by the police billy clubs and bitten by police dogs, who were arrested, and who in some cases were killed. So we try to celebrate that whole movement from 1960-1965. Black people and white people working together for human rights.

PT - Yeah, I have to go by news and education and history and moments like this with Bill since this is just before I was born. But I think this is a time in cycles of history where people have a hope in humanity and a belief that the only way to make a revolution is to join together and see each other as equals. They were hopeful and at the time really believed that this joining together in resistance was going to make big changes in our society at the time.  We do go over how it's a shame that white people had to die just to bring some kind of sense of value to black lives. The country wasn't outraged before that when black people were being murdered and beaten. When white people started to die, the country kind of woke up to the fact that this is a systemic problem. 

BC - It was mostly black people who died and got beaten, but they did have white allies. We're coming up here almost exactly to the 60th anniversary of the first lunch counter sit in, which was February 2, 1960. That started with black students in North Carolina. They sat down at the Woolworth lunch counter. They were refused service because that was story policy to not serve black people at the lunch counter. But they sat there for days and days and weeks and months. They were aided by other black demonstrators and some white demonstrators. And that spread like wildfire all across the Deep South. A year later, all the lunch counters were desegregated. 

We Shall Not Be Moved performed by Paisha and Bill...

BC - A year or two later, it was the freedom rides. So we're going to show footage of the Greyhound bus that went from Washington D.C. down through Tennessee and Alabama and Mississippi. The demonstrators were violating state laws in the Deep South that said black and white people cannot mix. The buses got fire bombed. The people were forced out of the buses and got beaten senseless. We'll show those very stark and compelling images, and then we'll sing a song that the demonstrators would sing to embolden themselves.

I'm On My Way To The Freedom Land performed by Paisha and Bill...

PT - I'm from Piqua, Ohio. When we did talk about civil rights, it was Dr. King or some pretty story. The way I receive this information and process it is by looking at today and the patterns that seem to me to be repeating themselves. People protesting war and at the same time strangely still protesting things related to race. I wasn't alive back then. I wasn't there for the civil rights movement, but I feel like we're still trying to overcome.   

BC - I think in some ways people do take for granted the rights we have today. Just the freedom to vote. We'll be talking about the 1964 Freedom Summer when whites from the north went down to the southern states and joined with blacks who were already there and who were being threatened with violence if they registered to vote. There was this big campaign to get them registered to vote. Two white demonstrators and one black protester were down there, and they were killed simply because they were trying to help people register to vote. It was all about voting. And yet we still have people today that say it's too difficult to vote or they don't have time to vote. Don't have time to vote? People died! They died and got beaten and were arrested and lost their jobs and all sorts of things for your right to vote. That's another reason we do this show - to remind people that a lot of our freedoms had to be fought for.  

Oh Freedom performed by Paisha and Bill...

PT - I do a lot of police accountability work. It's so exhausting to talk about let alone do. Bill mentioned voting. There's that side of it. Then there's the exhaustion from people whose votes never seem to quite bring us that freedom , that equality. People are still dying. I think where we are for some people - the crowd who wants us to get over it and believe that we all have the same chances - haven't engaged with this story and the ones of people like John Randolph's Freedpeople. To be able to see the cycle repeating itself. Obviously, we're not being beaten in the backs anymore, so yeah we've had some incremental change but the system is still deeply flawed. That's what we keep fighting to get past.  

BC - We'll be mentioning some names that'll be totally unknown to people and talk briefly about how they were killed.  They were just ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, and they were murdered. I think this is one of the messages of the show. Social movements don't need to wait for leaders. They eventually get leaders. But you can start yourself. You don't need to wait for a leader to take your own small action. When you join with other people who are thinking the same things, then you have power.

PT - I think to your point too about today. I've seen social media posts where someone will say something like - I don't see anyone doing anything about x or whatever. But it only takes a moment to find people around you that are doing this work, that are fighting for justice. The People's Justice Project. The Juvenile Justice Coalition. There are interfaith coalitions around town still meeting together to make some kind of difference. To your point, Bill about joining with other people who are doing things. It's not hard to find people today doing justice work. 

BC - Here's one final song that we do during our program. I think it symbolizes the whole thrust of it. You're going to face all kinds of mountains and obstacles. But these folks in the early 1960's, they didn't let police dogs stop them. They didn't let billy clubs stop them. They didn't let fire hoses stop them. They didn't let arrests stop them. They didn't even let death stop the movement. They just kept their head down, and they kept marching forward. 

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around performed by Paisha and Bill... 

Paisha Thomas and Bill Cohen perform Songs of Struggle Saturday night at the Maple Grove United Methodist Church on West Henderson Road. The free show begins at 7. Any proceeds from the event will be split with the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The podcast concludes with Paisha's new song When? in its entirety. 

Here's a link to the full NPR story on Franklin McCain.