On Friday, students at Howard University broke into a rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved" as James Comey took the stage to deliver a convocation address. The former FBI director was preparing to give a speech to new students at the historically black university, but was interrupted by demonstrators chanting the popular protest song and, later, denouncing Comey's own career as a public official and telling him to "get out." But what's the story behind with the song they were singing?
"We Shall Not Be Moved" has a long and storied history, and it's become a staple protest song in left-wing American politics. But its history extends beyond that: The song has its roots in a Biblical verse, which was later adapted into a hymn; that hymn then became a protest anthem, which in turn morphed into a folk song.
Like most folk music, the precise history of "We Will Not Be Moved" is a bit unclear, but its earliest form was a line in the Book of Jeremiah: Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, for he shall be as a tree planted by the waters. Although the lyrics have changed many times over the years, it's this concept — a tree that's firmly rooted and thus unmovable by outside forces — that's remained central in all of its iterations.
It was in the early 19th century that black slaves and rural whites in the southeastern United States adopted that Biblical verse into as Protestant revival song, according to one historian. They called it "I Shall Not Be Moved" — a slightly different name than its modern variant — and gave it the following lyrics:
Jesus is my savior, I shall not be moved
Jesus is my savior, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the water,
I shall not be moved
In the mid-20th century, "I Shall Not Be Moved" was adapted into a protest song by labor activists; according to one almanac, it was first sung in this context by the West Virginia Miners Union in 1931. They altered the lyrics slightly, changed "I" to "we," and "Jesus is my savior" to "the union is behind us." It was subsequently appropriated by other leftist movements active in the United States at that time, and covered by Mavis Staples, Pete Seeger, and other popular recording artists. It became very popular during the civil rights movement, and activist Maya Angelou later used the song's original iteration as the title for one of her books.
The demonstrators at Howard began their protest by singing a different variation of "We Will Not Be Moved" — the exact lyrics they sung are a bit difficult to make out in the video — but that wasn't all they said. After finishing with the song, they broke into cheers of "I love being black" and "I love the color of my skin," which elicited applause throughout the auditorium. They also declared that "white supremacy is not a debate" and chanted "no justice, no peace."
They also had some choice words for Comey himself, who is Howard University's current Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy and will thus be giving several speeches at the school throughout the year. Demonstrators shouted "James Comey, you're not our homie!" and "Get out, James Comey, get out our home!"
In a statement, the student group HU Resist explained their reasons for opposing Comey's speech.
"James Comey represents an institution diametrically opposed to the interests of Black people domestically and abroad," the group said in a statement they passed out before Comey's speech. "The 'Ferguson Effect,' for example, is an outright racist lie designed to undermine Black Liberation Movement." That's a reference to Comey's controversial suggestion in 2015 that media attention on police shootings of unarmed black people has led to an uptick in crimes against cops.
After standing silently for around 15 minutes while the students protested, Comey eventually began his speech, even as the demonstrations continued.
"I love the enthusiasm of young folks, but I wish they understood what a conversation is," he said during his speech. "I look forward to adult conversations about what is right and what is true."