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At The D.C. Protests, A 'Lean On Me' Singalong Offered A Moment Of Solace

Jun 6, 2020
Originally published on June 6, 2020 7:09 am

It had been a long, hot day of protests in Washington, D.C. As dusk descended on the nation's capital on June 3, a man in the crowd held up a microphone. The man, Maryland-based singer Kenny Sway, asked the protestors to kneel — and to turn on their cell phone flashlights.

"I asked them if we can light the city up tonight," Sway says.

And with the lights on thousands of phones beaming bright as far as the eye could see, Kenny Sway lifted his voice with a familiar refrain: "Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow." Pretty soon, a chorus of thousands joined him in singing the late Bill Withers' beloved hit "Lean on Me." Sway says it sounded like heaven; it was breathtaking.

"It sounded like unity and togetherness," he says. "It sounded like love and pureness of the people. It was one race. It was one moment."

You can watch the video, which D.C. magazine Washingtonian captured, below.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Finally this hour, a moment of calm and beauty. Sundown Wednesday, Washington, D.C., protesters filled the streets near the White House. NPR's Melissa Block brings us the story of musical catharsis.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It had been a long, hot day of protests. As dusk descended on the nation's capital, a man in the crowd held up a microphone. He asked the protesters to kneel - and one more thing.

KENNY SWAY: I asked them if we can light the city up tonight.

BLOCK: Light the city up they did. And with the lights on thousands of phones beaming bright as far as the eye could see, performer Kenny Sway lifted his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWAY: (Singing) Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow. Lean on me. Y'all sing it.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) When you're not strong. And I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on.

BLOCK: That chorus of thousands, Kenny Sway says it sounded like heaven, breathtaking.

SWAY: It sounded like unity and togetherness. It sounded like love and pureness of the people. It was one race. It was one moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) You just call on me, brother...

SWAY: Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) ...When you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on.

BLOCK: Bill Withers released "Lean On Me" in 1972. Much later, in an interview with the website Songfacts, he described it as a rural song, a song that reflected his experience as a black child growing up in West Virginia, where, he said, you could count on people to help each other out.

And Withers told this story. One day when he was about 18, serving in the Navy - this would've been in the late 1950s - he was driving home from his base in Florida - cheap car, bad tires. And, as Bill Withers told it, one of those tires blew out on a rural road in Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL WITHERS: So this guy comes walking over the hill that looked like he was right out of the movie "Deliverance."

BLOCK: So you've got a white man in the Jim Crow South approaching a black man on a country road.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WITHERS: And he says to me, oh, what happened? You had a blowout. Well, I didn't have a spare tire. This guy goes walking back across the hill, and I'm a little bit - you know, I mean, I'm not too comfortable here because I know where I am. And he comes back, walking with a tire. And he actually helps me put the tire on the car. So my circumstance - this was not an idealized concept. It was real to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWAY: (Singing) Won't you call on me? Yeah. Won't you call on me? Yeah.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWAY: (Singing) Oh.

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.