Singing to Freedom

Bernice Johnson Reagon is distinguished professor of history at American University and former curator at the Smithsonian

One of the things about the singing in the [civil rights] movement was that it was more powerful, almost, than any singing I had heard in church. It was basically church singing, a cappella singing, but there was a power that really was different for me.

Pete Seeger, who was a supporter of SNCC, reminded the organization that there had been singing groups in other movements. Cordell Reagon put together the first group of singers. We traveled all over the country. We ran into people in this country who were as desperate as we had been to not let this movement pass without participating. We became a window through which they could get information and get connected. Sometimes we also were sending the only money that went back to the office to keep things going in the field. It's an interesting way for a singer to take music to a concert stage.

I'm basically a 19th century singer, which means that I'm not a soloist, I'm a song leader. Song leaders start songs, but you can't finish them without some help. So singing does not make sense to me without the congregation. The song is not a product. The song exists as a way to get to the singing. And the singing is not a product. The singing exists to form the community. And there isn't anything higher than that that I've ever experienced.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2004
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