It was during at one hot, sweltering summer's afternoon service at my at my Grandfather's church, that I first heard this song. I'll never forget it Rev. H.D. Webb, Sr. who sang it and it lingered in my memory for all these years. As a matter of fact after I started preaching I sang it as well but with none of the force and power that I heard Pastor Webb sing it.
I think 'Precious Lord' is one of those songs that can be sung only after one has experienced enough heartache, pain, disappointment and loss, that the only way one can continue is if God takes your hand.
So I can understand in some small measure, what this song meant to its author, Thomas Dorsey and Civil Rights maven and icon Fannie Lou Hamer. That Elvis Presley sang it as well doesn't give it legitimacy, it simply speaks to the breadth of human dependency upon the Divine and the universality of that dependence by all men.
This story is about how that song came to be written (right by all accounts I've heard), and how it inspired Fannie Lou Hamer to transcend the pain and sorrow of mistreatment, as well as how it even inspired Elvis Presley.
I believe it can inspire those of us who work for social justice today!
By Jerry Mitchell
They whacked Fannie Lou Hamer with a blackjack, and when she tried to cover her face with her hands, they hit those, too.
The former Delta sharecropper buried her head in a mattress, hoping to kill the sound of her screams. "They beat me until my body was hard, 'til I couldn't bend my fingers or get up when they told me to," she later said.
Law enforcement officers had ordered inmates to hit Hamer after she and fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were jailed on June 9, 1963, for trying to integrate a whites-only waiting room at the bus station in the small town of Winona.
When Hamer returned to her jail cell, fellow activist Euvester Simpson put cool towels on her head to soothe the pain. By the next day, Hamer had revived. She began to sing, her fellow activists joining in.
Hamer would best become known for "This Little Light of Mine," but another song she loved to sing was "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," altering the lyrics at times.
The message seemed meant for them: "Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on."
The music of the movement was "the glue that held us together, even in our darkest times," Simpson said. "It gave us the courage to keep going."
The song's author, Thomas Dorsey, grew up in the Deep South, but rather than pounding the pulpit like his father, he pounded the piano. He moved to Chicago and became blues musician Georgia Tom. But after a nervous breakdown, he decided to become a music minister. His wife, Nettie, became pregnant.
On a trip to St. Louis, he received a telegram: "Your wife just died. Come home." He found out his newborn son had died as well and buried them both in the same casket.
In the days that followed, he kept his distance from music, but one day while visiting a beauty training college, he happened upon a piano and placed his hands on the keys. Dorsey wrote the song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
He gave up the blues and started the first Christian music-publishing house run by African-Americans. By the time Dorsey died in 1993, he had written nearly 400 songs, but he regarded "Precious Lord" as his greatest work.
It found a place, too, in the heart of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Elvis Presley exploded into national consciousness in 1956 when more than 60 million Americans watched him perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
In the Mississippi native's third appearance on Sullivan and last TV performance of the '50s, he played such hits as "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel," finishing with his first televised gospel song, "Peace in the Valley," written by Dorsey.
A week later, Presley, backed by the Jordanaires, recorded several gospel standards, including "Precious Lord."
"If it's a popular religious song, people don't particularly care about race or authorship," said Kip Lornell, an ethnomusicologist at George Washington University. "It's really about the message."
Freedom Summer culminated in August 1964 in Atlantic City. Civil rights activists protested Mississippi's all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. They sat with their signs around the clock and joined in gospel songs.
Inside, Martin Luther King Jr., Aaron Henry and Ed King laid out their cases before the Credentials Committee, but it was Hamer's words that riveted the nation, describing the jail beatings she and others received.
"All this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens," she said. "If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, where the land of the free and home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are being threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America."
President Lyndon Johnson's representatives suggested a compromise, where two Freedom Democratic Party delegates could be seated at the convention. "We didn't come all this way for no two seats 'cause all of us is tired," Hamer responded.
Hamer never gave up pushing. When the next Democratic convention took place in Chicago two years later, she finally got that seat she'd waited for.
Hamer and Presley died within months of each other in 1977, and the gospel songs they loved filled the funerals of these Mississippi rebels.
"Shewas so much more than a wife, a daughter, a mother and so on," SNCC leader Joyce Ladner said of Hamer. Friends called her "Fannie," but SNCC workers knew her as "Mrs. Hamer," "the mother" of their movement.
A song Hamer loved wafted through the air: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weary, I am worn."
Hodding Carter III, whose newspaper family in Greenville had stood up against injustices, spoke to the hundreds gathered:
"Because of Fannie Lou Hamer and others like her, I am free from myself, my history, my racism and my past. I just want to thank her for that."