A simple song destroyed the walls of Jericho

Sheraton5SAN FRANCISCO — “This Little Light of Mine” knocked down the walls of Jericho for Tamam Tracy Moncur and thousands of demonstrators in the United San Francisco Freedom Movement.
“I was known for firing up This Little Light of Mine on the picket lines,” recalls the co-chair of the AdHoc Committee which brought an end to segregated employment by San Francisco hotels. “I had heard the Freedom Singers from Mississippi and they were very inspiring to me.”
Although just 18 years old at the time, Moncur could not have been better prepared to be a 20th century Joshua, as she recalled during a phone interview.  “My mother was a radical.  I was wearing an Afro in the 1950s before anybody even thought about it.  She was a playwright and a poet and an educator who had her own day care center in Berkeley where we learned black history.  We would go out and do presentations at churches and schools.”
At about seven or eight, she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Oakland Auditorium and soon thereafter Malcolm X at UC-Berkeley.  “My parents would take us up on the Berkeley campus to hear lectures.   They were both such riveting speakers.  I remember I was bored in the Oakland auditorium but when Martin Luther King Jr. came on, I paid full attention.”
When King urged students across the country to demonstrate at Woolworth’s, Sims and her high school colleagues at Berkeley High School picketed the Berkeley store.  Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.,  was the site of one of the first sit-ins by four students from N.C. A&T State in 1961.
That same year, the Congress of Racial Equality launched its first Bay Area chapter, co-founded by Ella Hill Hutch, the receptionist from the ILWU headquarters.  The ILWU’s members were key financial supporters and volunteers during the Montgomery bus boycott which brought King to national attention.
When CORE began picketing in San Francisco to open up jobs at major employers, Sims had begun attending San Francisco State as a freshman, but picketing was second nature by then.  
“We’d been picketing Woolworth’s in Berkeley, so I knew how to keep folks motivated with a song,” she recalls.   Within a few sessions, she was seen as the leader of the San Francisco demonstrations.
“I was a lot better on the picket lines than the overall strategy,” said Moncur.

Ecstatic.  Tamam Tracy Moncur hugs Roy Ballard after announcing a settlement in the Sheraton Palace sit-ins on the front page of the S.F Examiner.
Ecstatic. Tamam Tracy Moncur hugs Roy Ballard after announcing a settlement in the Sheraton Palace sit-ins on the front page of the S.F Examiner.
For much of 1963 and 1964, her every pronouncement was front page news.  When she promised a thousand demonstrators at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, they showed up two days later.  The next morning, Mayor John Shelley worked out an agreement for all 35 major hotels in the city to promise equal opportunity hiring.  
Sims made the announcement from a counter in the hotel.  “We were ecstatic.   It was a good feeling.  We were hopeful and idealistic.”
Part of the deal was to drop charges against the demonstrators, but a county judge continued the trials.   In Moncur’s case, only she was found guilty, a case that was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I was devastated,” said Moncur, who moved to New York with her mother six months later to pursue a career as a jazz pianist and poet.  
“I’ve spent most of the last 50 years thinking about it as little as possible,” she revealed.  Marrying another musician, trombonist/composer Grachan Moncur, she has raised six children and now has seven grandchildren.  For more than 25 years, she taught elementary school in Newark, writing a book The Diary of an Inner City Teacher.
She’s also on YouTube with two poems, Black Boy Mother’s Blues and Stop Bashing Teachers Stop!
Moncur sees a need for the renewal of that hope among this generation of youth.  “My 16-year-old grandson is taking an interest in what I did back in the 1960s,” she noted.  “What today’s young people have to deal with is so much more intense than anything we encountered, or even what my children had to deal with.  My daughter teaches high school and you won’t believe how many funerals they attend.”
The importance of music to the United San Francisco Freedom Movement is the focus of an entire panel in Students and Scholars Marching for Civil Rights, an exhibition being shown in local hotels to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil disobedience.
Moncur’s musical skill was not unique among the core organizers.  John Handy, a CORE vice president, had just returned from six years as a jazz soloist in New York City; and Ray Taliaferro, the 23-year-old minister of music at Third Baptist Church, was conducting joint performances between the church  choir and the San Francisco Symphony.
The role of music in the demonstrations may have inspired the Sly and the Family Stone song “A Simple Song at Last,” which specifically connects walking and singing in its lyrics.  Stone was a leading disc jockey in the Bay Area on black radio during the period.
Musical traditions in San Francisco’s African-American community go back to the “Ethiopian airs” heard in Gold Rush mining camps in 1849.   Third Baptist and two other black churches founded in 1852 presented operas and did extensive music training.  The first colored school, opened in 1854, required students to play at least two instruments and speak two languages.  As late as 1920, musician was the leading profession for black workers in San Francisco, according to the U.S. Census.


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