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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


The Last Two Movements of Margaret Bonds’s Montgomery Variations and the 2022 Defeat of Voting Rights Legislation

This past week, Senate Republicans were joined by two pseudo-Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, in killing legislation that combined two bills that Republicans had previously blocked four times with a filibuster, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Despite having the word “republic” and “democracy” built into their parties’ names, those who killed this legislation are awfully afraid that people -- “certain people,” mind you -- will actually vote. They’re adamantly opposed to everyone’s power but their own.

After seizing victory from the jaws of defeat by resoundingly defeating the twice-impeached former Resident and gaining nominal control of both houses of Congress, there was reason for optimism, cause for hope as this legislation approached the floor. That was two steps forward. But now we’ve taken a step backward, and legislative attempts to protect our elections from voter suppression, partisan sabotage, gerrymandering, and dark money will have to be rebuilt from the ground up – the ground beneath which the Republican Party and its henchmen make their business.

Two steps backward, one step back: we’ve been here before. One of many such instances: the roller-coaster hope-to-tragedies-to-hope-to-victory journey of 1963-64. The summer of 1963 was characterized by widespread hope among people of good will, as President John F. Kennedy’s civil-rights legislation made progress, but it was dashed by racist violence that, in addition to multiple bombings of Civil-Rights workers’ homes, took the lives of Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. That terrible tragedy – celebrated by those who, like the Republicans and two pseudo-Democrats who killed the voting-rights legislation in the Senate this past week, opposed Black enfranchisement in U.S. society – was followed by the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in November 22, 1963.

It was a bleak time, and Margaret Bonds translated its violence and despair into music. She had been inspired to compose The Montgomery Variations, a work that begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, during a tour of the South (with stops in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) in the Spring of 1963. She was in Birmingham as Martin Luther King, Jr., was preparing to launch his Birmingham campaign. That tour, combined with her previous experiences in the Jim Crow South, gave her a deep and long-lasting understanding of the racist hatred that would cost those four girls their lives. She translated that understanding into two programs for the Variations – one written apparently sometime before July, 1966, and the other after that date. Those events inspired these words and this music under the titles “One Sunday in the South” and “Lament”:

That was probably how The Montgomery Variations ended in 1963-64: with a heartbreaking lament for all the hatred, all the violence, all the victims of the folk who were determined to stand in the way of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the laws of this nation.

But then things began to change.

They began to change as the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, immediately after assuming office, sent an expanded version of Kennedy’s civil-rights legislation to Congress. After desperate lobbying and filibustering from – you guessed it – Republican Senators, the bill was passed and finally signed into law on July 3, 1964. Finally, discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was forbidden by federal law. The tide of White-on-Black violence continued, but with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as it was now known) all legal barriers to integration were removed by federal law – and Black Americans had won a vision of equality and hope unlike anything seen since the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier.

And here is the conclusion of the new movement that Margaret Bonds wrote to conclude The Montgomery Variations during that Freedom Summer of 1964:

And so, dear reader, we’ve been here before: at a point where one political party – the Republican Party – does everything within its power to stand in the way of democracy. No lives were lost this year, fortunately – all that was killed this past week was a bill – but even so, let’s not deny that millions of lives and livelihoods will fall victim to the perfidy of those Senate Republicans and the two pseudo-Democrats.

And let’s take inspiration from Margaret Bonds. She composed The Montgomery Variations “with love, devotion to the Negro Race and Humanity, and God and everything noble” (or so she told her close friend and career-long confidant Langston Hughes later in 1964), and even though the vision of peace and divine love that she musically envisioned in that radiantly beautiful “Benediction” never came in her time, she was able to realize it in her music.

After a fifty-eight year silence, that musical vision has finally been published and realized in a professional recording, authorized by Margaret Bonds's heirs, by one of this country’s great orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra. And so we may hope that Bonds’s vision, and with it a new and even stronger version of the voting-rights legislation killed this past week, will be realized in our time as well.

Perhaps we, like those of the Civil Rights movement, will be able to draw inspiration from Bonds's vision, seizing victory from the jaws of defeat and creating a new and bolder voting-rights act in 2022.


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