WHERE BLACK HISTORY AND ISRAEL’S HISTORY INTERSECT:
“OH MARY DON’T YOU WEEP”
Celebrating the Commonality of Black American History and Israel’s History
The two most persecuted people-groups in the history of mankind are the Jews and Blacks. This has been a major point of identity and bonding between these two groups. Jewish Americans strongly supported the Civil Rights Movement more so than any other ethnic group. They often marched with Civil Rights Leaders to provide a shield of protection and support.
The most celebrated African-American preacher besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil-Rights Era was Aretha Franklin’s late father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. Rev. Franklin pastored the New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit Michigan, from 1946-1979. He was also a co-laborer with Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement and worked to end discriminatory practices against Black United Auto Workers members in Detroit. Dr. King was the premier Civil Rights leader of that Era. Rev. Franklin was the premier revivalist-evangelist in Black churches. These two men cooperated with each other for the common good of God’s people and the advancement of His Kingdom.
After attending the Baptist World Alliance in London in 1955, Rev. Franklin journeyed to Israel to visit the biblical cities and sites. In 1959 on a return trip from India, Dr. and Mrs. King stopped in Jerusalem, rented a car and took the meandering road down to Jericho, “where the walls came tumbling down.”
Did you know that iconic African American pastors now in the arms of Jesus often traveled to the Old Jerusalem, before taking the journey to the New Jerusalem? Dr. E.V.Hill, Dr. Manuel Scott, Sr., Dr. J.H. Jackson, Drs. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr., Dr. J.C. Wade, Dr. A. Edward Davis, Dr. Sandy Ray, C.L. Franklin, and Bishop G.E. Patterson would be listed in that number.
Many of the most prominent Black gospel singers have also toured Israel, including Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar and Andre Crouch. They often sang and preached about the geography, the glory, the story and the God of Israel. These preachers and singers are not just satisfied having a spiritual and musical connection with Israel; they also wanted a physical connection. Thus, they made the journey.
It is my belief that Christians, particularly those of us who preach, teach and sing, ought to love Israel and make a pilgrimage to Israel. Just as Muslims love Mecca; and devout ones want to make at least one visit there, Christians ought to more so love Jerusalem. It was the story and Scriptures of the Israelites that God used to provide the salvation and inspiration for our spiritual and physical deliverance.
Think about it: Jerusalem, Israel is the only city in the world that the Bible indicates that peace and prosperity may be granted to those who love the city of the Great King (Psalm 122:6-9; Matthew 5:35). Jerusalem is the only city on earth that can claim to be the geographical center of the world. Israel is the only nation that can claim to be the fountain of vocal and instrumental music (Ezekiel 5:5, 38:12 and Psalm 87:7).
A popular Negro spiritual of yester years is named, “I Want to Walk in Jerusalem Just like John.” Walking in Jerusalem, just like John, has become a physical and historical reality for many. African-American Christians love Jerusalem spiritually and historically. She has loved us back physically; there is a street in the modern day country of Israel named in honor of Martin Luther King. Those of us who love the Kingdom of God today ought to travel to Israel, so that we can walk in Jerusalem just like John. Where does Black History and Israel’s History intersect? My thesis is Black History and Israel’s History intersect in our songs, sermons, scripture readings, names of our churches, names of our sons and daughters, and the common legacy of slavery. Nothing illustrates this thesis better than a historical and biblical analysis of the African American gospel song, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.”
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was one of the most popular gospel songs during the Civil Rights Era. It addressed the hopes, aspirations, fears and courage of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and Rev. Franklin understood the significance of this song to African American people. Dr. King preached a sermon called “The Death of Evil on the Seashore,” that captures the biblical message of the song. His text was Exodus 14:30, “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.“ The Exodus event was the biblical basis of the song. The historical basis and inspiration for this song was worship event in a Southern church during the slavery era involving an elderly slave woman named Mary. Rev. Franklin preached about the roots and relevance of the song. Rev. Franklin explained why Mary was weeping.
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Male Quartet in 1915. The original version and various revisions of this song throughout its one hundred plus year’s history, encompasses the themes of dilemma, deliverance, heritage and hope, and comfort and care.
Various versions of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” has transcended the African American community and has been recorded by soloist and groups as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, the Swan Silvertones, Peter Seeger, Burl Ives, Inez Andrews, the Caravans and Yolanda Adams.
It was the lead song featured on the bestselling gospel album in history, “Amazing Grace” by Aretha Franklin, recorded in 1972. This song was a guaranteed “house wrecker,” which means it simply went over extremely well with Black congregations and gospel music lovers. It remains a favorite and often requested song among older African Americans. Dr. Wallace Best, a current Princeton Religion Professor, selected this classic as one of the “Ten Best Gospel Songs” in a Huttington Post February 2012 blog.
In a biography entitled Give me This Mountain; Life History and Selected Sermons of Rev. C.L. Franklin, edited by Jeff Todd Titon, Aretha’s father provides us with the history of this simple, Scripture based, celebrated, and enduring song. While preaching from the text Psalm 137:1-4 that reveals the reluctance of Israel to sing songs of Zion in a strange land; Rev. Franklin argues the point that it is important for oppressed people to have a song to sing and the benefits thereof. Here is how the song “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” originated, according to Rev. Franklin:
“The story is told by Dr. Miles Mark Fisher about an old woman, either in the Carolinas or in Georgia, in those days when a great English preacher, the brother of John Wesley, came over to preach. Many of the Negroes wanted to see this great preacher. Frequently they could sit in the church, at least in the balcony, if the balcony was not crowded, if most of the regular members were on the main floor. But on this particular occasion the place was packed, and they stood on the outside, looking through the window, listening at this English preacher preach the gospel. And when the sermon was over and the invitation was extended, one old lady walked in the front door, and walked down the aisle, and took the seat to join the church. Pastor came up and said, “Lady, you can’t join this church.” She said, “But sir, I got ‘eligion. I’ve been converted. I felt the power of God here today while the man preached, and I want to jine the church.” He said, “But you can’t join this church. Go and join some other church, some of your own churches.” And when he insisted that she could not join, she went on down the aisle, mumbling to herself, saying, “I’m going to tell God one of these days how you treat me,” as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It is said that those who were looking in the window began to sing a song. As the old lady’s name was Mary, they sang: ‘Oh Mary, don’t weep, don’t mourn; Pharaoh’s army got drownded; Mary, don’t weep, and then don’t mourn.’
“Think of the message that is wrapped up in that song. I think that everybody ought to have a song. I think that Israel should have sung down in Babylon.”
Although rejected for church membership and fellowship by a Southern White Pastor during slavery, Mary the slave was comforted, encouraged, and given hope by fellow slaves when they put to melody the story of Exodus 15:4-5:
“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;
His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.
The depths have covered them;
They sank to the bottom like a stone.”
Click here to read more.
William Dwight McKissic, Sr. is a prominent African-American Southern Baptist minister from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He is the founder and current senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. Read his blog at http://blackchristiannews.com/blogs/dwightmckissic/