Before the world knew about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I was listening to Pete Seeger, whose music I hadn’t heard for a long while. The last song was “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement. It always brings tears to my eyes—it reminds me that in the midst of hatred and strife, many whites and blacks linked hands and marched together unafraid, united by a common dream for a better America.

Fast forward a few hours to the president’s calm address to the nation and the world in which he reported that a crack team of Navy Seals had taken down Bin Laden. The successful, 40-minute operation culminated two years of patient and painstaking work by surprising and assassinating the most hunted man on the planet. His killing resulted in unfettered celebration throughout the United States as we finally closed the bloody and horrific chapter written almost 10 years ago on the infamous 9/11. The War Against Terror will doubtless continue, but Bin Laden’s acolytes will be forced to contemplate the ferocity of the lion they thought they’d defanged.

Contemplating President Obama’s announcement, “We Shall Overcome” began to play in my mind, and I realized how appropriate it is today. It’s no accident that “Yes, we can!” and “We Shall Overcome” have the same meaning: they both convey the will to struggle in the face of formidable opposition and a faith in ultimate triumph. Both advocate unity within diversity.

The solidarity freedom fighters felt as they braved beatings while they strove to change minds and laws in the ’60s surged in the aftermath of 9/11 when we felt close to every stranger in the street, the enormity of our shared tragedy bonding us together as never before. for many of us, the jubilation and the dancing in the streets right after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election—I know, it’s hard to believe today—and the spontaneous celebrations that erupted last night, when the president confirmed the rumor that Bin Laden was dead, issued from the same deeply felt place.

Ground Zero, May 1, 2011. (Image: DNA

The frustration of the fruitless, decade-long manhunt dissolved as we learned of the daring exploit. The long-awaited news of the death of the man who shattered our sense of invulnerability and drove us to ruinous wars unites us and revives our flagging faith in America’s greatness.


“We Shall Overcome” also resonates with Obama’s presidency. After doubts raised in the presidential campaign about his experience, complaints about his detachment, dissatisfaction with the progress and expansion of the never-ending war, the nation had accepted on some level that Bin Laden would never be brought to justice because of his skill in eluding us. At least for today, Obama is being congratulated by some of his most ardent critics. Republicans and birthers acknowledge the significance of this hard-won achievement. What seemed like the president’s aloof detachment has proved to be a screen that veiled his intense concentration on locating America’s archenemy since the first days of his presidency and his dogged determination to annihilate Bin Laden and his organization.

The president has persevered in the face of spiteful and malicious backbiting. Obama has had to subdue and hide the angry feelings that must have welled up in response— was “We Shall Overcome” playing in the back of his mind? Occasionally he is given the opportunity to strike back in a non-threatening way— viz. the joking banter, albeit not too subtle, with which he lampooned the festering annoyances of Donald Trump and the birthers at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

And since the motivation underlying the attempts to deprive him of legitimacy is said by some, including Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar of The View, to reside in racist outrage at seeing a black man occupy the White House, the resonance of “We Shall Overcome” and its association with the civil rights movement that made Obama’s presidency possible is for me inescapable.

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