Almost two hundred years after a determined Quaker named Elihu Embree launched his abolitionist newspaper, The Emancipator, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, some other good Tennessee people took up the name and the cause. Their medium was not newsprint but music, their message reaching for the ear and the heart first, rather than the eye and the mind.
Music has the power to encourage us, to soothe us, to sustain us, to challenge and inspire us. Sometimes the same song performs different roles, depending on how you sing it.
It is that kind of music—the music that sustains and inspires movements for social change—The Emancipators play. They play it at concerts, at protests, at benefits; they play it in churches, in parks, in barbeque joints, in a circle, on stage, on the radio. They don’t play for money or applause, though their music deserves a lot of both—they play because they love music and believe in it.
And that’s what makes it so much fun to listen to, even when it’s getting you riled up or breaking your heart.
The current generation—Larry, Mitzi, Durant, Kevin and Mark—have been preceded by others. From the beginning, Larry and Mitzi have anchored the group, uniting their separate gifts in one lovely song after another. Some of them they write, some of them they borrow, all of them they make their own as they share them with us.
They are aptly named. The music of The Emancipators intends nothing less than liberation—people, creatures, hearts, institutions, the Earth, set free from everything that represses, crushes, breaks, injures, denies, mistreats, threatens and destroys.
A lot of times when we are presenting the Peacemaker Award we note the recipients are deserving and point out their work represents other who are equally deserving. But tonight, we honor The Emancipators and declare there is no one like them in East Tennessee. Plenty of bands, sure, and lots of musicians. But the dedication to offering their musical gifts, time and time again, for the cause of justice, peace and the Earth—no one else is doing that.
OREPA has been the grateful beneficiary of The Emancipators work, but so have other organizations—Narrow Ridge, the Rose Center and others. As you’ve already discovered this evening, it doesn’t really matter where they are playing or for whose benefit, it’s hard to keep from singing along.
One of Larry’s many excellent songs captures the mission of The Emancipators. “Sing peace,” says the chorus, “every race and creed / Sing peace, with all the least of these / Sing peace; hear the mountains shout / Sing peace, all people, let the light of peace break out…”
That is why we are proud to honor The Emancipators and the light they bring into the world, into our community, and into our lives this evening.
Elihu would be proud, too, I think, if he were able to see and hear how his legacy thrives.
If you missed the evening, you can peruse the program here: