It takes a freedom fighter like Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon to explain just how the freedom songs of the 1960s worked.
While most of the lyrics to these precious melodies were forged during the fight for racial freedom in the 19th century, student activists sang them nearly 100 years later while being beaten, jailed and even slain during the fight for equality waged in the ’60s. The notorious Eugene “Bull” Connor, who arrested thousands of students for challenging the status quo of the Jim Crow South, reportedly even released a group of students from jail because he could not stand their singing.
A world renowned singer and founder of a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon knows the experience all too well.
In 1961, as a student at Albany State College in Albany, Ga., she and many others were arrested for protesting the arrest of another group of students who tried to purchase tickets from the white-only counter at a Trailways bus station. The arrest took place despite the fact that the U.S. attorney general at the time, Robert F. Kennedy, had issued a ruling that all interstate commerce companies were to use integrated facilities. It was the largest single arrest of American citizens in U.S. history.
Reagon was the featured speaker at “The Cultural Autobiography of a Freedom Singer,” an all-day event where she received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. The event was part of Berklee’s 15th Annual Liberal Arts Symposium. The liberal arts program offers insight into freedom songs through a curriculum intended to provide a cultural context for understanding the connection between music and society.
Berklee President Roger Brown cited Reagon’s contributions to society as one of the first organizers in Albany to register people in the black community to vote. This deed, and many others, motivated her to pursue the use of music as a tool for social change.
Standing at the podium, Reagon, a contralto, gave a lecture that wove song into with a tapestry of stories about freedom, justice and equality.
“I was born in singing,” she said, recalling her childhood in southwest Georgia — a place, she said, where song was as important as the meals people ate or the air they breathed.
“[People] never named the title of a certain group of songs,” she continued. “They said they were spirituals and they would say, ‘Sing that song about Daniel,’ and you just knew what to sing. It wasn’t until white people started to come into the communities [that anyone would] ask what the name of a song was.
“You would be absolutely shocked by the question. It was almost like someone asking you to name the sentence you just said.”
Reagon began to sing the African American spiritual “We’ll Stand the Storm.” She then asked the audience to chime in with her, with a chorus of voices rising to the occasion. At the end of the song, she talked about its meaning.
“‘Standing’ the storm means going through it,” she said. “You will get there when you get there, if you get there, but you are not promised relief. You are promised that there will be storms.”
Among her many accomplishments, Reagon is curator emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where she is on the planning committee for the building of the institution’s African American museum. She is also the cultural historian for the African American Lectionary, which can be found online at http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org.
Calling herself a “database,” Reagon said that her life is about the development of the freedom singer that she is, and that she enjoys using that development as a framework for communicating with contemporary audiences.
Reagon had the honor of singing at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum’s Inaugural Peace Ball celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January. She and her daughter, Toshi Reagon, sang four songs, including the popular “I Remember, I Believe.”
Asked if she felt the event marked another milestone in the fight for racial equality, she said it did. But she also joked that, in stark contrast to the dangerous battles of the civil rights era, the biggest threat that evening was whether or not the car that picked her up for the event would get through security.
“They had closed off all the streets that led to the event, and I got to the hall 30 minutes late,” she said. “By the time you got to where you were going, you were just so relieved to be there.”