By Dwight Owen Schweitzer
“My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing….. land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring…” Those words I think, more than those of any other song I can think of, capture the soul of America and her hopes and dreams for herself and the future of her people.
It is not surprising that Marion Anderson sang it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1938 when she was not allowed to sing in Independence Hall in Washington D. C. because she was a negro and Eleanor Roosevelt saw to it that she had a venue that would propel her into history that day. It is also easy to understand why Martin Luther King Jr. evoked those same words in the same place a generation later in one of the most moving speeches ever uttered on these shores. The words of that the song of freedom, chosen to be sung and uttered by those less free precisely because in them is where the light of freedom burns the brightest.
While ‘God Bless America’ was written by a Jew, I would venture to guess that were a poll to be taken of American Jews as to what song they think best reflects the essence of our country and it’s message to the world they would pick ‘My Country T’is of Thee’ and for the same reasons that Marion Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. did.
Freedom is not an abstraction, not to Blacks and not to Jews, the more so because we share a historic path away from oppression. I can think of no better expression of that longing than in the words of Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poetess who found immortality at the base of the Statue of Liberty, her words crying out to the world under that beacon of freedom to send their “…tempest tossed to me…”