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Bernice Johnson Reagon On Leading Freedom Songs During The Civil Rights Movement


This is FRESH AIR. Bernice Johnson Reagon has sung freedom songs at civil rights marches and sit-ins, at organizing rallies and in prison. Born in Albany, Ga., she was a founding member of the Freedom Singers, an acapella quartet that began performing in 1962. After encouragement from Pete Seeger, The Freedom Singers became associated with the activist group known as SNCC, whose initials, S-N-C-C, stood for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Reagon recognized early on the impact music would have in inspiring and fueling a social movement.

"As a singer and activist in the Albany movement," she once wrote, "I sang and heard the freedom songs and saw them pull together sections of the black community at times when other means of communication were ineffective. It was the first time I knew the power of song to be an instrument for the articulation of our community concerns," unquote.

Here's a taste of a song by The Freedom Singers.


THE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, turn me 'round, turn me 'round. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round. I keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marching up to freedom land. Ain't gonna let segregation, Lordy, turn me 'round, turn me 'round. Ain't gonna let segregation, Lordy, turn me 'round. I keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marching up to freedom land. Ain't gonna let no...

BIANCULLI: The Freedom Singers eventually disbanded. And in 1973, Reagon went on to found the a capella group Sweet Honey In The Rock. Reagon sang with that group, which is still performing and recording, until 2004. Reagon also has become one of America's leading scholars of freedom songs. In 1980, she produced a series of albums for the Smithsonian Institution called "Voices From The Civil Rights Movement (ph)." She's received both a MacArthur award and the national Medal of Honor.

Terry Gross spoke with Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1988 and asked her how The Freedom Singers emerged from the protests and gatherings of her hometown in Albany, Ga.


BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Albany, Ga., was a singing movement. And when the news reporters began to come down - they came down in December '62 as a result of King being arrested. I was already in jail, so I missed most of that. Well, what they began to write about was the singing. No matter what the articles said, they talked about singing.

I grew up in Albany. I never knew that there was anything different about the choral, congregational style in Albany. But the students who came out of Nashville to organize, Andrew Young, who came out of Louisiana with King to Albany to organize, Dorothy Cotton out of Petersburg, Va., came to - They all talked about the singing in Albany being like no other singing they'd ever heard. And as a result of that, Cordell Reagon, who was the SNCC field secretary, and James Forman, who was executive director of SNCC, began to talk about forming a group. Pete Seeger was somebody who suggested that a group of singers traveling might actually help to build support for those parts of movement activity that did not get on the news.

And SNCC was at that point trying to go into what they call Black Belt areas. These are areas in the South where black people outnumbered whites, usually three to one. And if we could break into voter registration in those areas, it would really turn around political power. But knocking on doors and getting people to register to vote is not the same as getting 700 people arrested. And press was very difficult to get. So The Freedom Singers came out of a need to have another kind of structure to generate support about that kind of organizing activity.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: We call the songs that you sang freedom songs, but some of them were spiritual. Some of them were old all slave songs, too, weren't they? I mean, how did...

REAGON: The freedom songs came out of the repertoire first - the standard repertoire of what you were singing so that you would have a song like, (singing) Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

That's a spiritual, but that song just moves straight into civil rights movement activity. And you can understand it. If you're in the black church, you learn about Paul and Silas being locked up in jail. They were really radical SNCC workers. They are the first Christian organizers into Europe. And they go into this town, and they're preaching. And they throw them in jail. They start to sing and pray. And as a result, the jail let them out. Well, even though they preach about this in the black church, if you grow up in a black family, the best badge you can have is that you never got into trouble with the law. So at the same time, you're preaching about these radical Christians organizing, going forth, you're trying to really stay cool within your society.

When you're in the civil rights movement, that's the first time you establish yourself in a relationship that's pretty close to the same relationship that used to get the Christians thrown in the lion's den. And so for the first time, those old songs you understand in a way that nobody could ever teach you. So that - songs like "Hold On" - "Eyes On The Prize" - "Hold On" - "Oh, Freedom," ****

REAGON: "This Little Light Of Mine," "We Shall Not Be Moved," "We Shall Overcome." All of those songs were church songs. But they got new meaning as a part of the civil rights movement. Added to that were new songs that people created.

GROSS: Well, you created some new songs and changed some of the words to traditional songs. What was the first song you did That with?

REAGON: "Oh, Freedom." Over my head, I see freedom in the air. That was the first demonstration in Albany, Ga. And we had never walked in that kind of line in the city of Albany in its history. And we circled the courthouse twice. This is 1961, November. The ICC ruling - that's the Interstate Commerce Commission - had ruled that transportation across state lines could not be segregated. So students had been arrested for trying to buy tickets in the white ticket counter. And we demonstrated in support.

Once we finished that demonstration, we couldn't go back to the campus. And we went to a black church, which is the only place in the community we had to go. And I remember Charles Jones, who was a SNCC field secretary - we got in there together. And he said, Bernice, sing a song. And I started, over my head, I see freedom in the air. Well, the song really is, (singing) over my head, I see trouble in the air. Well, at that point, I did not see any trouble. So when I got down the line and got to the word trouble, trouble didn't come out. Freedom came out. And the end of the line, (singing) there must be a God somewhere. So that was the first song that I changed.

GROSS: You know, you must have also really had to know what song to sing under which circumstances 'cause there were times, probably, you needed to sing a song to help organize people. Other times, you needed to sing a song to help people find their courage, to stand up to what was about to happen. Did you intuitively have a sense of what song to do when?

REAGON: The song that you're supposed to sing that suits the occasion comes up in you if you're in the occasion. Yourself so you don't have to make a list if you yourself are part of what's happening. The song will just come up. And if you're a song leader in the black tradition, you're socialized as a song leader to know a wide range of songs. And you see people coming up with songs all of the time in church and actually at football games. Everywhere in the black community there's music, there's this selection and picking. And, usually, there is never a naming. Now we are going to sing. Somebody starts up a song. If they are good leaders, it's the right song for the moment. So that's something you learn.

GROSS: Was there a time when you were with The Freedom Singers - an example of a time where you sang a certain song, and it really kind of changed the mood or brought the mood to the next level?

REAGON: The singing with The Freedom Singers is different in a way than singing in the movement on the scene. By the time we formed The Freedom Singers, we were transporting a microcosm experience. So we would be these four people standing in this hall, singing and talking about the movement. But many times in the movement, one of the strongest things was a song called "This May Be The Last Time." It's a song that is a powerful mood setter. You can't really sing the song without thinking about the statement you're making. And it says, this may be the last time, maybe the last time - I don't know - maybe the last time we all sing together, maybe the last time we all pray together. Many times, that song would be done just before a march. And it would make you know something of the potential cost that you were going into in taking the stand you were taking.

BIANCULLI: Bernice Johnson Reagon speaking to Terry Gross in 1988.

Monday on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the use of LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and marijuana to treat mental health issues. Our guest will be Julie Holland, a psychiatrist involved with that research. For nearly 10 years, she was in charge of New York City's Bellevue Hospital's emergency room on weekends. We'll also talk about dealing with anxiety. Her new book is called "Good Chemistry." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine - let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Tell Governor Wallace I'm gonna let it shine. Tell Governor Wallace I'm gonna let it shine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.