Whoever said activists lack a sense of humor hasn't met Bernice Johnson Reagon. The unforgettable alto for the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and a former member of the civil rights-era Freedom Singers, Reagon is living proof that working for justice and living with laughter are mutually compatible.
"The first time I ran into the term 'religion,' people were asking whether you had any. You know, some people had religion and some people didn't have religion. It wasn't a good thing if you didn't have it. If you didn't have it, you needed to go find it," Reagon recounts with a chuckle to an audience at Iliff School of Theology. Her childhood recollections and her memories of the African-American freedom movement are documented in "The Singing Warrior," a video interview conducted by the Veterans of Hope project in Denver.
Created by Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding and produced with the help of Rachel Harding and Sudarshan Kapur, the Veterans video series aims to preserve and pass on what Vincent calls the "sacred history" of older activists to younger generations. Five videos have been produced; 50 more are in the works. Each offers a 40-to-50 minute interview-conversation with a "veteran" of human rights or social justice struggles, including those who struggled for civil rights within the United States and those who worked for human rights in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, and across the globe. And each video pays particular attention to accounts of spiritual formation—from Reagon's early years in the black church to environmental activist Valdina Pinto's work as a Candomble priestess to activist-scholar Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons' embrace of Sufi mysticism.
Simmons' interview suggests that laughter is not the only way to make peace with one's childhood. In an emotional recounting, she says, "Often as (my grandmother) taught me to cook and taught me to sew and make quilts...she would just be singing and she'd get happy. But then she would also cry and if we were baking biscuits she'd start sifting all over the floor. I used to wonder about this and I'd say, 'Momma, what's wrong?' She'd say, 'Momma's happy.'"
The strength of her grandmother's faith inspired Simmons to explore her own spirituality and to pursue a degree in higher education. She attended Spelman College and there joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The rest, as they say, is history.
OR IS IT? The video series operates on a number of fronts in addition to historical documentation. It is a pedagogical tool for churches and schools. It retrieves life-narratives that might otherwise fade from our collective memory. And it serves as an instrument for building, as Harding says, new "communities of hope" within younger generations. In an interview with Sojourners, he explains, "This is a very unique project...it's not simply oral history or a telling of stories. It's a ground for building new works of democratic change for the future."
But "very unique projects," as any nonprofit administrator can tell you, often prove very difficult to fund. Harding says that one obstacle to the success of the video series has been the task of obtaining stable support from funding sources. "Foundations tend to operate with fixed categories for their grant recipients," he says. "Some of them couldn't seem to decide where our project fits within their groupings."
But the project's most important support is not financially based. At the end of the 1980s, the Hardings conducted a series of intergenerational retreats for justice advocates and for students. Called "Spirit and Struggle," the retreats served as a forum for young people to learn from their elders and for elders to learn about the issues facing contemporary youth. "The students were the ones who encouraged this project," Harding says. "They came away from those retreats and said, 'We don't know your stories; we need to know where you came from; we want to know how you became who you are.'" That desire to hear the stories of justice leaders provided the impetus for the Hardings to begin their project. And the students' participation in the interview series provides ongoing support and enthusiasm.
The results seem well worth the efforts. In one video, we hear former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young share the difficult decision he made as a young adult to pursue the ministry rather than an Olympic track career. In another, we learn how activist-scholar James Lawson Jr. created a community of hope through a prison prayer group during his incarceration in Kentucky. Upcoming interviews will include poet Sonia Sanchez, farmworker-rights activist Dolores Huerta, and southwest Georgia activist Charles Sherrod. And in all the videos, we discover a fundamental commitment to spirituality as a force that brings forth justice.
BUT WE ALSO miss a few things in the Veterans series. We miss seeing any footage of the veterans in action, whether photographs of the freedom movement during the '50s and '60s or clips from contemporary settings. We miss hearing from those whose lives were affected by the veterans' work. And we miss the energy that might have emerged from a live question-and-answer time with the audience.
These missing pieces can be attributed more to the need for fiscal conservation than to oversight. The Veterans of Hope is a fledgling undertaking overseen by people of conviction. Its proceeds—five videos sell for $90, individual videos for $20, and accompanying educational study guides for $5 each—will benefit the continuing work of the Veterans project, which includes workshops, training sessions, further development of the video archive, and retreats for veteran activists.
After she was released from her first two-week incarceration, Reagon was asked to sing at a large freedom meeting. She recalls that when she opened her mouth, her voice had completely changed. "I sang the same song (that I had sung before going to jail), 'Over My Head/I Hear Freedom in the Air,' but my voice was totally different. It was bigger than I'd ever heard it before. It had this ringing in it. It filled all of the space of the church. I thought that was because I had been to jail.... I tell people, if you don't sometimes walk through trouble, you'll never get to meet the rest of yourself."
Vincent Harding is correct when he says that the videos he oversees are not simply oral histories. They are better described as a retrieval that looks back while also looking ahead. The Veterans series retrieves for its viewers those catalytic moments when people of action and faith first discovered a new voice within themselves. And the rest, we might say, is the future.
Stacia M. Brown, a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta and a Sojourners contributing writer, works for the Emory Center for Ethics in Public Policy and the Professions. For more information about the Veterans series visit www.iliff.edu/about_iliff/special_veterans.htm . To order a video, call the Iliff Cokesbury Bookstore at (303) 765-1445.