By Francesca Norsen Tate
Freedom and joy both rang out at Plymouth Church last weekend.
The landmark congregation whose founder, Henry Ward Beecher, was famous for his impassioned sermons lambasting the evils of slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War, presented “Let Freedom Ring,” a concert with three acclaimed musical groups. And prefacing the music was another surprise of history.
Maurice Middleberg, executive director of “Free the Slaves” (FTS) explained the goal of his international organization—to end all forms of slavery in today’s world. The program notes state, “Free the Slaves liberates slaves around the world and changes the systems that allow slavery to persist. FTS runs programs in many of the world’s trafficking hotspots, including Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Haiti, India and Nepal.”
According to FTS’ website, one of the Guiding Principles is believing that “all people have the right to be free from any form of slavery and to realize their true potential.” FTS works worldwide with governments and other organizations to eliminate the incentive to enslave people. Their “Our Work” tab states, “Slavery will end when: Communities no longer tolerate it; Businesses no longer profit from it; Development agencies no longer ignore it; and governments no longer allow it.”
For Middleberg, Saturday was a poignant moment that united his family and two points in history. He pointed out that his wife is a descendant of famed 19th century abolitionist Owen Lovejoy. A Republican Congressman and Congregational minister, Owen Lovejoy died in Brooklyn in 1864. His funeral took place at Plymouth Church, where Middleberg said he was honored to be standing 150 years later. He showed the audience a sketch of Lovejoy.
The quest for freedom—from slavery both of body and soul—was then expressed through music. The Inspirational Voices of Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the direction of Jeff Bolding, opened the concert. One of the most prominent African-American faith institutions in the U.S., Abyssinan Baptist Church is at the forefront of spiritual empowerment, social justice and reform through the building of communities. The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, III is the pastor of Abyssinian. The church celebrates its bicentennial this year with a celebration titled, “Abyssinian 200: True to Our God, True to Our Native Land.”
Following the Inspirational Voices was Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. Shelton got her earliest musical experience singing in her Baptist Church. She drew her inspiration from the growing soul movement—Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. She branched out into the secular music world, singing R&B, all the while continuing church work.
Upon settling in New York City, she met Cliff Driver, who would become her musical mentor and collaborator. He performed with the group on Saturday. The Impressions were the headline act at “Let Freedom Ring,” and it was at this point that an already exuberant audience let loose with cheers and hand-waving. In fact, the audience held both a musical and spiritual dialogue with all three ensembles throughout the concert.
Some of the popular songs: “It’s All Right,” “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready,” kept the audience on its feet. At one point, lead singer Reggie Torian paused and spoke of the values he felt are most important in this world: “Love and mercy.”
Claude Scales of the Brooklyn Heights Blog provides a history insight on the song “Choice of Color.” This song, he writes, “was released in 1969, a time when racial tensions were high. They were slated to appear on a late night talk show, The Joey Bishop Show, but before they went on they were told that ABC management had decided they should not do this song. They told Mr. Bishop, who said they should go ahead and sing it.” Before the Impressions took the stage, Daptone records’ The Dap-Kings, featuring Binky Griptite on guitar, gave an instrumental interlude. The Dap-Kings remained on stage for the rest of the concert as the Impressions’ backing band—with Fred Cash’s son joining the group on bass.
Griptite also brought Shelton back onstage to join them for a song. The Impressions concluded the set with “Move On Up”, with the audience exuberantly clapping and waving hands, and multi-colored show lights dancing on the set and the entire Plymouth sanctuary.