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.

In Western formal choral tradition, there's an aim for a blend so you cannot distinguish where the parts are coming from. With congregational singing, I could drive up to the church and they could be singing and I could tell you who was there, because the individual timbres of a voice never disappear. That congregational style is one of the things I think is important for democracy—the individual does not have to disappear, and it does not operate as an anti-collective expression.

If you've got a group of people and all of them are saying "I," you actually have a group. If you have a group of people and they are saying "we," you don't know who is going to do what. Just try to organize something. You say, "We gon bring food tonight." If you are the nervous wreck organizer, you will leave that meeting and you will end up bringing enough food for everybody because you won't know who or if anybody's going to bring anything. So you've got the vegetables, and the chicken, and the cake just in case because nobody said, "I'm bringing this," "I'm bringing that." You don't get a group until you get some individuals who will say "I'm in."

"We Shall Overcome" was originally "I Will Overcome." "We Shall Not Be Moved" was "I Shall Not Be Moved." I'm so glad they didn't change "This Little Light of Mine/I'm Gonna Let It Shine." So you've got these collective expressions in the African-American tradition that are "I" songs. Those songs are a way to express the group. However, one of the wonderful things about evolution of songs is that the change of some of the songs to "we" documents black people coming together with a predominantly white Left that was heavily intellectual about collectivism. They told us very quickly, "‘I' means individualism and ‘we' expresses the group. ‘We' means we're together." We said, "Okay, if you need it—‘We.'" Because the important thing is that you're here and if in order to be here you need this "we," we're going to give you this "we." We'll do all the "we's" you need. You get a document of when another presence joined in collaboration and commitment against racism by following the changes in the words of the songs.

THERE ARE SO many different ways to deal with developing leadership, but first you have to not trust yourself as a leader. You have to put yourself in the position to be overthrown. You can't have the desire to stay in the leadership position until you die. You can't look at the black church as a model for that. I found it instead looking at the forms of songs and the forms of games. There are forms where every time the cycle of the song or game turns, there is another [person who is] "it." You who were the leader one minute is the follower the next. I think so often about this principle of being in a group of followers who are also a group of leaders.

In black singing, I can raise a song and then the next verse comes from someplace else in the room. The person doesn't have to come to the front, and nobody turns around to see who is leading. They just follow. There are times when there are two voices leading two different verses, and one voice pulls out and the other voice sails forward. I never figured out how that works. But I've seen it. And it's a most amazing experience.

You are a member of the congregation when you walk in the door. All you have to have is courage to make your voice heard when the song is raised. There is no audition that says, "You're good enough now to lead. You're good enough now to sing." I think that teaches us so much about democracy.

THE MOVEMENT changed my understanding of the church. There were songs that I heard for the first time, the lyrics, because of the movement, and they were church songs. The old people who were singing them were singing them out of their lives and their belief. But until I used my life to stand for right, I didn't understand the songs. I actually understood the crucifixion in a different way. I was able because of the movement to really understand lynching as a kind of crucifixion.

The point of Jesus was not inaccessibility or distance, [a person] so perfect you would never even think about trying to be like him. Because I was in the movement, I had some human experiences that made so much more of what I'd heard about Jesus accessible to me. The reach was not so far. It is not a big, amazing thing to live a life of integrity, following a path—it can be done. There was so much about my belief system that came together because of the movement. There was so much about what I had absorbed in church that actually became digestible, to the point where there is no separation and there is no church or religion outside of me that guides me. It's internal for me. It was the movement that made it internal.

There's the church song, "I looked at my feet, and my feet...I had a new walk. I looked at my hands, and my hands looked new. I opened my mouth, I had a new talk." I was baptized when I was 11, but I was born again in the civil rights movement. That's when it happened for me.

Bernice Johnson Reagon was distinguished professor of history at American University and former curator at the Smithsonian Institution when this article appeared. She retired in 2003 from the a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock, which she founded in 1973. In the early 1960s, Reagon was active in the civil rights movement and a member of the original SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers. These excerpts are from an interview conducted by Rachel E. Harding and Vincent G. Harding at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, as part of the Veterans of Hope Project, documenting in word and video the stories of social justice activists.

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