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Conveying History Through Song

Bernice Johnson Reagon adds cultural nuance and period flavor to rousing a cappella renditions

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In late 1961 the civil rights movement burst upon the scene in Albany, Georgia, as that town's African-American population galvanized to stand against segregation. A mass meeting at the Mount Zion Baptist Church was packed with people, from student activists to comfortable, middle-aged conservatives.

Cordell Reagon, an 18-year-old organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had discovered many talented singers in the SNCC workshops held in that community, among them Bernice Johnson and Rutha Harris, preachers' daughters studying voice at Albany State College.

Reagon, Johnson and Harris were part of a small group of vocalists who led the singing in mass rallies, and that night, along with 500 others, they exploded in song.

Working without piano or any other accompaniment, the singers took the roof off the church. Everyone sang, everyone cried, the whole group swayed to the closing song, "We Shall Overcome," and people stayed on after midnight, wanting never to leave. It was one of the great moments in the American struggle for racial justice.

Her work in the movement was also a defining period in the career of Bernice Johnson Reagon, who eventually abandoned her plans for a career in classical music to work with a group called the Freedom Singers, founded by Cordell Reagon, whom she later married. She simultaneously pursued a solo career, making her first solo recording at age 19.

Bernice Reagon went on to found important musical groups herself, including the Harambee Singers in 1966 and the world-famous women's a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock in 1973. Along the way she picked up a doctorate in American history, a distinguished professorship at American University in Washington, D.C., the title of curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, and a MacArthur 'genius' grant.

Sitting with her in her small, book-crammed office at the university, I asked her about the fact that there were no instruments at that performance in Albany, just the power of the human voice.

"It's funny, I never thought about my singing there as being public," Reagon reflected. "I sang in my high school choir, college choir and the gospel choir of my church. I was an alto. And then singing in the movement rallies, in jail and in the church, it was just sort of continuing what I'd been doing. I didn't think of it as a performance."

As for the piano, it was never something that she could take for granted. "They didn't have a piano in my church till I was 11," she explained. "There was no piano in the school I went to. The SNCC workshop would be in the basement of a church: no piano. Now, if you went to the Selma campaign there would be a piano and a gospel choir, and they would tape the mass meetings. In Birmingham they had not only a piano but a Hammond organ. But in our community it was always a cappella. It's interesting to me how the different communities established their own aesthetic. Also, I just feel more comfortable with the plain voice."

Another great insight from those days was that, though the movement started with the students, older people soon joined in.

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