Dr. David Forbes, dean of the Shaw University Divinity School and pastor emeritus of the Christian Faith Baptist Church in South Raleigh, vividly remembers Guy Carawan 55 years ago leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome” in Raleigh.
Forbes was a 19-year-old Shaw University sophomore attending the organizing conference of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), for college students who wanted to become involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
“There was no way for us to know what the outcome of the movement would be,” said Forbes, who went on to be one of the student leaders of SNCC’s Raleigh chapter. “But that song, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ was futuristic. Looking back at it now, it was revolutionary. In four years a sit-in movement by college students had arrived at the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and at Congress.”
Forbes described himself as a “proud and naive, but not overwhelmed” by the Easter weekend gathering on Shaw’s campus.
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“It was a big thing, with reporters from Paris and Moscow coming to witness a civil rights movement that was taking place on the ground here in the United States,” Forbes said. “I understood the significance of the moment and that song drove it home.”
Hundreds of students from all over the South who attended the meeting, organized by Ella Baker, field secretary with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. She had been assigned the task of organizing students by then- SCLC leader, Martin Luther King Jr.. The students, Forbes said, were inspired by the words and instructions of Civil Rights leaders including King, Baker Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice who was then an NAACP lawyer.
They were also inspired by Carawan, a tall, lanky folk singer who accompanied himself on guitar.
“Guy was a very nice guy. He fit the student movement to the T,” Forbes said. “This was the era of the flower children and youth counterculture and Guy was the designated bard and musician of the movement. He was a good teacher. He would sing a song then he would get us to sing it.”
One song Carawan sang that weekend, told listeners, “My dog likes your dog, your dog likes my dog, so why don’t we sit under the apple tree, why don’t we come together?” Forbes recalled.
The civil rights event’s activities were spread throughout the campus and with nightly mass meetings at the old Memorial Auditorium where the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts now sits and where Carawan sang.
“I can close my eyes and open my ears and hear Guy,” Forbes said. “He was an unforgettable type personality.”