California anti-vaxxers protest, singing "We Shall Overcome," a civil rights anthem with Charleston roots

The latest "new civil rights movement"

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Protesters opposed to a proposal that would limit vaccination exemptions march in the California Capitol - PHOTO BY ANNE WERNIKOFF FOR CALMATTERS
  • Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
  • Protesters opposed to a proposal that would limit vaccination exemptions march in the California Capitol
A political rally of mostly white people dubbed themselves "the new civil rights movement" while protesting vaccine laws in recent weeks in California. Anti-vaxxers also reportedly sang "We Shall Overcome," a tune sung by protesting workers in Charleston that Martin Luther King Jr. later called "the theme song" of the civil rights movement.

Days after state legislators in Sacramento passed a bill to crack down on vaccine waivers — which allow students to attend public school without some vaccinations — protesters lined hallways of the capitol chanting "no segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all." Leaders proposed the law in reaction to measles outbreaks across the nation and in California, where student exemptions to vaccine rules have reportedly gone up in recent years, per Politico. The bill was passed by the California Senate and signed into law by the governor on Sept. 4, but protests continued through last week. The new law, according to CalMatters.org, gives public health officials some oversight on the waivers and will create a database of exempted children. Critics of the law worry about a chilling effect that could deter physicians from granting exemptions.

A disproportionate number of exempted students are reportedly white and wealthy, but anti-vaccine protesters nonetheless decorated their cause with elements of the 1960s-era fight for civil rights in the segregated South, where the vestiges of slavery and white supremacy manifest themselves in racist violence and systemic inequality into the present day.



"The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice," California Assemblywoman Kamlager-Dove told Politico. "It's a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated."

One sign read, "Welcome to Calabama y'all," appearing to connect proposed vaccine requirements in California and 1960s-era discrimination in the Southern state where churches were bombed and burned by white racists who used the threat of violence and death to intimidate black Alabamans legalized segregation was ruled unconstitutional.
The origin of "We Shall Overcome" is said to be found in enslaved people held captive by white owners, though exact details are unknown. Formally written as a spiritual hymn in 1900 by a minister born to enslaved parents, it is known to have made an early appearance as a protest song during Charleston tobacco worker strikes in the 1940s. Organizers from Charleston taught the song to activist leaders in Tennessee, spreading the tune within other justice causes.

Later, white American folk singers like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Guy Carawan popularized the song as a statement alongside the civil rights movement. President Lyndon Johnson referenced the refrain twice in calling for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King recalled singing it with students jailed while protesting for civil rights. Four days later, King was killed. Accounts recall King's funeral ending with "a mighty chorus of the movement's anthem, 'We Shall Overcome.'"

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