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Lift Every Voice and Sing

Activism informs his life ... and his music

Ken Giles ’71 was just 15 when, sitting in the House of Representatives chamber, he heard President Lyndon B. Johnson tell a joint session of Congress, “We shall overcome.” Those words quoting the famous song, spoken in support of the Voting Rights Act, had a profound impact on Giles: The music of activism would become a major cornerstone of his life.

In that spring of 1965, Giles was a congressional page, going to school on the top floor of the Library of Congress, and reporting to the Senate for work. He shared his memories in Democracy’s Messengers: The Never-Before-Told Story of Young Americans on Capitol Hill.

“Being a page influenced me throughout my life,” reflects Giles. “It confirmed my belief that we can use government to change our society to fulfill the lofty goal of treating everybody equally.”

Since retiring from the federal government, Giles has taught the violin. Performing with the DC Youth Orchestra Program, Giles’s students play both classical and protest songs, learning the power music has “to teach and document social change.”

In June, 30 of his students played labor and civil rights songs at a conference, experiencing an echo of Giles’s 1965 epiphany.

“It was glorious—my students were playing songs like ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and the audience was doing just that,” says Giles. “In that moment, you realize the power of music.”