How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

On a lazy September day in 1957, Pete Seeger took up a twelve-string guitar at the Highlander Folk School in southern Tennessee.  The song he performed, “We Shall Overcome,” was  old hat for him by then.  But a young preacher in attendance was hearing it for the first time.   The next day, as he crossed the border into Kentucky, Dr. Martin Luther King hummed the tune from a backseat, and remarked: “That song really sticks with you, doesn’t it?”

There’s little in the human experience that art cannot digest. Art clarifies what cognition alone cannot. And when it reflects not just individual experiences, but collective pains and aspirations, its power to unite people is unparalleled. While King’s and Seeger’s childhoods were wildly divergent, the civil rights movement subsumed them both around one human truth: we are all equal, and we have a responsibility to one another.

Homelessness, like segregation, is a blight on our conscience; it’s a monument to apathy, revealing a systemic failure to honor our most basic obligations. Bruce Springsteen once said that he seeks in his music to “measure the distance between the American promise and the American reality.”

I think often of Katrina as a microcosm of the larger crisis. In November, the Law Center’s Eric Tars and UN Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik toured substandard and abandoned housing in New Orleans. What they found was countless thousands who’d twice been robbed of dignity — first by a hurricane, then by their government.

Since 2005, there’s been a lot of articles and videos documenting the disaster.   If I’m honest, most of them run together.  When I think of Katrina, of people’s suffering, what I most remember are 27 words growled by Springsteen at the New Orleans Jazz Festival:

Them who’ve got got out of town
and them who ain’t got left to drown
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

In an age where technology makes artistic expression easier than ever to disseminate, I’m waiting for men and women of conscience to step up to the plate.  If no one cries out for justice but Woody Guthrie’s ghost, if we have to look back to Leadbelly to feel a man’s pain, then we will have failed as human beings.

Our world is a better place when its artists help interpret it.

-Andy Beres, Grant Writer

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