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The Organizing Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement

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We continue our celebration of Black History Month with historian, singer and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon. We discuss the music albums, “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-66,” “Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions,” and other songs and events.

The music in the former album reflects a wide range of contributions, genres and sources, some as old as the 19th century, some new songs, blues. Every aspect of the civil rights movement can be traced in the freedom songs.

The Freedom Singers were organized by Cordell Hull Reagon at the encouragement of Pete Seeger in 1962 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia. The songs brought the struggle for civil rights and its activities to a wide audience. The people involved were already singers in church choirs, in schools, etc. Organizing the music simply tapped into the singing energy of the community and gave the struggle a focus.

The first concert was in Urbana, Illinois, at a YMCA-YWCA conference. Opposition came while traveling — using bathrooms, restaurants, motels, etc. — but not during the concerts themselves.

Bernice Johnson Reagan discusses several songs — those that were written after the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1953, “Only a Pawn in the Game” by Bob Dylan and “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” by Matthew Jones; the songs and music of Cordell Hull Reagon; the song “Governor Wallace” that was written in response to state troopers meeting the first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and turning it back; “Been in the Storm Too Long” — and the 3-CD album, “Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions,” 19th century music commissioned for a joint program of the Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio produced by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

The music was organized to illustrate the evolutionary core of African American culture. Slavery is not over, according to Reagon, since it has given rise to the violence that permeates U.S. culture, from war to child abuse. To recognize this is to begin to recognize who we are. Brief discussion of “Give Your Hands to Struggle” and the Joan Little arrest and subsequent pardon.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. In our continuing series of special — well, really, specials for African American History Month, today we are taking a musical journey through the civil rights movement with historian and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the original Freedom Singers and a founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. In fact, songs were so integral to the civil rights movement, it’s hard even thinking about the sit-ins and demonstrations that rocked the South during the 1950s and '60s without thinking of music. Whether calming a mass meeting during a police raid or livening up a long march and demonstration, songs kept people unified, energized and, most importantly, pushing the movement against segregation and discrimination forward. With the rerelease by Smithsonian Folkways of the landmark three-album collection, Voice of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966, as well as Bernice Johnson Reagon's Give Your Hands to Struggle, today on Democracy Now! we look at the role of music in the civil rights movement.

We’re privileged to be joined by Bernice Johnson Reagon, best known as the leader of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock. She also sang in the groups of the civil rights movement era. In 1962, at the urging of Pete Seeger, she joined The Freedom Singers, a Black quartet singing for civil rights across the country. Later, she earned a doctorate in history at Howard University and formed Sweet Honey in the Rock, which three years ago celebrated its 20th anniversary. She’s now a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and teaches African American history at American University in Washington, D.C.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Bernice. And why don’t we begin with this landmark three-album collection, The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement? How did you decide to put it together? How did you organize it?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: This is actually a reissue. It was released in 1980 on the 20th anniversary of the sit-ins in Greensboro by the Smithsonian as a three-album box with booklet. And it was released by the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Recordings, and it went out of print. And Folkways, at the Smithsonian, has worked for a year and a half to make it possible for it to actually be available again.

When I put the project together, what was in my mind was the idea that so much of the music that was used during the civil rights movement actually came from the full range of the movement and all sorts of genres in terms of song forms. Some of them were church songs, some from the 19th century, some from the 20th. Some were rhythm and blues. Some were new songs, and some were old. And I felt that most of us had a very limited view or knowledge of what, say, a freedom song was, so that if someone really wanted to share something about the civil rights movement, whether it’s in an educational situation or a home situation, you wanted say what they sang all of the time, then the question is: What did they sing? And I thought that it would be very appropriate for the Smithsonian Institution to be involved in a project that tried to organize the music and make it available and understandable by people who might not have been participants, might have been too young, but who were very interested in that period.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re listening to “Freedom Chant” right now. Tell us a little about “Freedom Chant.” And also, this is a way to get into the SNCC Freedom Singers, of which you were such an integral part. Can you talk about The Freedom Singers?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: The Freedom Singers were organized by the late Cordell Hull Reagon. Cordell died November 12th, 1996, a victim of homicide in California. But in 1961, he was the youngest staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was organizing in Albany, Georgia, which is where I met him. And he formed the first group of civil rights movement singers for that organization out of his experiences. Rutha Harris was soprano from Albany, and I was alto from Albany. Charles Neblett was the bass, and Charles Neblett, Cordell had met when they both worked in Carroll, Illinois. And so, he basically created the personnel of the group of Freedom Singers.

And he was the commentator during our concerts, who wove the narrative so that people would understand what the song meant, if there was an event around the song. So, we called ourselves, in those days — and I’m talking now about 1962, 1963 — sort of like a singing newspaper. We saw our responsibility as being very connected to making sure as many people as we could reach understood the complexity of organizing against racism in this country and that you were not always in a position of having a large march with lots of cameras present. Sometimes it was very tedious, mundane work, but no less dangerous. And so, we saw ourselves as really trying to keep an open window on the organizing activities going on in some of the most dangerous areas of the South.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing before you became a part of the SNCC singers?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I was a student in Albany State College in Albany, Georgia, and became involved in the movement when I was a junior at Albany State College, and was a member of the NAACP Youth Council and was arrested in 1962 with the first marches in Albany, Georgia, and was initially a member of the Albany Movement executive board — and this is the leadership organization for the Albany Movement — and then moved from there to becoming a participant with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through singing with The Freedom Singers.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re coming up on the anniversary of the birth of Cordell Hull Reagon. He was what? Born February 22nd?


AMY GOODMAN: And there’s going to be a big memorial service for him in New York City on that day. Why did he think — why did he think that song was the way to go as part of SNCC?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m not sure that can be contributed to Cordell. Music occurred in the movement because the people who peopled the movement were singing people, so that even before there was a movement, Black people were singing, either in church or in high school or on the corners or in organized choirs on junior high, high school and college level. The African American culture is just a rich singing culture. When you take a culture like that and move it into a kind of crisis, a trauma state, which is what you would have to say happened with the civil rights movement activity, then you actually get an expansion and an empowerment and explosion of the singing, because the singing matches the increased energy coming out of the community.

Cordell, I think, was in high school when he went on his first march. He was a tenor, so very quickly he moved into the song part of the movement. And he absolutely loved singing. He would lead a song at any point for any reason. And he did the full range of songs, whether it was like the doo-wop songs that teenagers liked or one of the spirituals from the 19th century. If it worked with organizing for freedom in the South, Cordell would be someone who would be there.

He was introduced to a different kind of singing in Albany, Georgia, and said many times he had never heard Black people sing the way we sang in Albany. And he was actually talking about a congregational Southwest Georgia song style that’s located in the church. And he was actually talking about vocal power, just what the sound felt like when you got 400, 500 people in a church singing freedom songs. And what happened initially was, people began to write in the newspaper about singing in Albany.

And Pete Seeger was one of the people who really encouraged Cordell and Jim Forman to think about the idea of using songs in a more organized way, not only in the mass meetings, in the jails, to sustain movement activity, but also to actually form a group and use it to spread the news about the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you travel as the SNCC singers?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Oh my goodness! We first — our first concert was at a YMCA, YWCA conference in Urbana, Illinois. At that conference, we sang to chapters of the Y on college campuses. And that one convention almost booked a year of concerts, because those chapters went back, and they said, “We want this group to come to our schools.” So we traveled everywhere. It was one of the first times I really got to leave Georgia. It was the first time I went to Minnesota, first time I went to Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, all over New York.

There was especially a strong group that came out of Schenectady, Albany, New York. And we ran into another group called the Albany CORE Singers. They were a group that supported CORE, and they had formed their own singing group, and they did benefit concerts. We did a joint concert with them. We went to Ohio. We went to California. We went in Texas. We were back throughout the South — Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. So, it was quite a coverage of the country. It was quite a way also to see the country, traveling in a six-cylinder Buick station wagon.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever run into opposition while you were singing?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: No. We ran into opposition traveling as Black young people through the country, because you have to go to bathrooms, you have to go to restaurants, and you have to go to — you have to have hotels. And there were places outside of the South that gave us problems. We had to look for places to stay sometimes. Motels would say, “We don’t have any room.” And we said, “Do you know where we can stay?” And they would send us someplace. We would get there, and everybody there would be Black. And we said, “Aha.” So we found out that the South was just below Canada in a very real way.

Most of the time, the people who came to our concerts were people who were already drawn to what they were hearing about the civil rights movement. And they were people who were determined to participate, sort of felt that they didn’t want this movement to pass with them sitting and watching their television. So, when we walked into a church or a school or an auditorium to do a concert, we met mostly Americans from the local community who were just trying to figure out how they could register their vote with their lives on what they thought was something very important happening in this country. It was an interesting way to find that there were Americans from many different walks of life who were very, very disturbed by racism, and especially wanted to not be sitting on the couch if there was a struggle to fight it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bernice Johnson Reagon, and she — well, you all know who she is, but she was a member of the SNCC singers. She was a founder of Sweet Hone in the Rock. At the Smithsonian, she put together this Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, which is a reissue of a set of records that were produced in the early 1980s. One of the songs that I love so much that’s in this CD — that’s in this box of CDs is “The Ballad of Medgar Evers.” And here you do the rendition that was sung by the SNCC — that was sung at the 1965 Atlanta SNCC conference. It was written by Matthew Jones. Can you talk a little about “The Ballad of Medgar Evers”?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Medgar Evers was killed in 1963. I was in Danville, Virginia, when we got the news that he had been killed. And very soon after the killer had been identified, there were two songs written about the murder. One was Bob Dylan writing “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” saying that there were people behind Byron De La Beckwith who killed — who were killers just as well of Medgar Evers.

Matthew Jones took — this tune is “The Ballad of Jesse James.” This is the same tune. Matthew Jones wrote this ballad, and it captured much more what those of us felt who knew of Medgar Evers and knew his work. He was a member of the NAACP in Mississippi but was respected by all of the organizations working in that state and was an incredible coordinator and a courageous man in terms of his work. And this was just a very, very powerful ballad. And I saw the film, The Ghost of Mississippi, and this ballad is in the film.

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: In Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963
There lived a man who was gray
He fought for freedom all of his life
But they laid Medgar Evers in his grave

They laid Medgar Evers in his grave
They laid Medgar Evers in his grave
He fought for freedom all of his life
But they laid Medgar Evers in his grave

He spoke words of truth for all men to hear
Black and white alike for to save
Then a hate-filled white man named Byron De La Beckwith
Laid Medgar Evers in his grave

He laid Medgar Evers in his grave, Lord
He laid Medgar Evers in his grave
Then a hate-filled white man named Byron De La Beckwith
Laid Medgar Evers in his grave.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, Matthew Jones and the SNCC Freedom Singers singing “Ballad of Medgar Evers.” We’ll be back with Bernice Johnson Reagon in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our conversation with Bernice Johnson Reagon, singer, historian and activist. You also have a song included in Voices of the Civil Rights Movement that remembers another group of young people who were killed, and that was Andrew Goodman and [Michael] Schwerner and [James] Chaney in the Mississippi River.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I was a member of the first group of Freedom Singers. And in 1964, there was another group organized. And in 1964, they were training volunteers to go to Mississippi, when they got news that some of the first volunteers who had gone down to work during the summer were missing. And the Freedom Singers actually say they were traveling in a car after the decision had been made to drag the rivers of Mississippi. And they heard over the radio that there were — as they dragged the bodies, they were not finding James Chaney, Andrew [Goodman] and Mickey [Schwerner].

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Goodman.


AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. But they actually were finding people nobody ever looked for, Black men who had never been looked for. And so, Marshall Jones, tenor — he’s the brother of Matthew Jones — wrote this song, “In the Mississippi River,” a very, very powerful statement that captured what they were feeling as they traveled hearing that news.

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: And they were thrown in because of hate
In the Yazoo River
And you can count them nine by nine
In the Tallahatchie River
In Mississippi, this ain’t no crime
And you can count them ten by ten
And we wonder when the right will win

In the Mississippi River
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord
In the Mississippi River
Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord
In the Mississippi River, yeah
Well, we got to stop them from goin’ in the river
Got to stop them from goin’ in the river
Got to stop them from goin’ in the river
With their heads cut off
Got to stop them from goin’ in the river
Tied by the hands
We got to stop them from goin’ in the river
Tied by the feet
We got to stop them
In the Mississippi River
In the Mississippi River.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernice, what is your favorite song in Voices of the Civil Rights Movement?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I don’t have that about songs, in general.


BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I really have the song that I’m singing at the moment, because the next moment it’ll be another one. Music, for me, is really — has to operate close to my life. My life changes, and therefore I need different things at different times. And so, I have songs that I love that are from all over the place. And then, in a particular moment, I only have the song that I’m singing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask —

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: And that’s not like a favorite. It is the one that I need to get through that particular situation.

AMY GOODMAN: I went to the event you had at the Smithsonian just a couple weeks ago during the inauguration weekend, where you invited C.T. Vivian, the founder of the Center for Democratic Renewal, and Anne Braden, a longtime civil rights activist — he, African American; she, white. And you had a conversation with them about their lives. After they spoke, the SNCC singers came up, or course, without Cordell, because ha had died just a few months before. And afterwards, I asked them about Cordell and what they thought of when they thought of Cordell Hull Reagon. And all of them said “Dogs.” That’s what they thought of right away. They thought of him singing “Dogs.” Is there a song you think of with Cordell? I mean, of course, he was more than just a fellow SNCC singer for you. You were married to him.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I mean, everybody says “Dogs,” because nobody else can sing it. And I think it was kind of a signature song. When we were doing his memorial service here and the program, everybody said, “Well, who’s going to do 'Dogs'?” I said, “I’ll clip it out of a video.” So, for his memorial service, I had a video clip, and Cordell sang “Dogs” himself, and we backed him up.

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: Dog, dog, dog, dog
My dog a-love-a your dog
And your dog a-love-a my dog
And my dog a-love-a your dog
And your dog a-love-a my dog

I’m talking about a black dog
I’m talking about a white dog
I’m talking about a coon dog
I’m talking about a rabbit dog
All them dog, all them dog
All them dog, Lord, Lord
All them dog a-love-a your dog

And then why can’t we sit under the apple tree
You won’t walk with me
You won’t talk with me
Well, why don’t you hold my hand
And tell me you understand
Now, can’t you see that you and me
We’ll be so happy
Sitting under the apple tree

My little doggie was playing one day
Down in the meadow by a bundle of hay
Another little doggie came along
He said let’s get together and eat this bone

And then why can’t we sit under the apple tree
You won’t walk with me
You won’t talk with me
Well, why don’t you hold my hand
And tell me you understand
Now, can’t you see that you and me
We’ll be so happy
Sitting under the apple tree?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: The thing I think I remember most about Cordell was his voice. So, there’s not only “Dogs,” but “Which Side Are You On?” the song by Florence Reece that came into movement. Florence Reece was a white Kentucky woman in 1932 whose husband was a labor union organizer. And she wrote “Which Side Are You On?” That came into the movement during the Freedom Rides, when they were in Parchman Penitentiary.

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on?

Oh, brothers can you hear me?
Oh, tell me if you can
Will you be a no-good tom
Or will you be a man, my lordy?

Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Cordell also led “Ain’ Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.”

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: Ain’t gonna let nobody, lordy
Turn me 'round
Turn me ’round
Turn me ’round
Aint gonna let nobody, lordy
Turn me round
I'm gonna keep on walkin’, yeah
Keep on talkin’, lordy
Marchin’ up to freedom land

Ain’t gonna let Chief Pritchett, lordy
Turn me 'round
Turn me ’round
Turn me ’round
Aint gonna let Chief Pritchett, lordy
Turn me round
I'm gonna keep on walkin’, yeah
Keep on talkin’, lordy
Marchin’ up to freedom land.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: And I really think of those songs.

The other thing I think about is like his talking. He really was quite a talker in between the songs. And he was somebody who really talked about nonviolence in a way that I had not heard and took years to understand, because it was just beyond anything I could comprehend. I understood not hitting people, and if I hit somebody, I was not going to be able to participate, so I thought I could keep that straight. But he would always say nonviolence is love for your fellow man. And I just couldn’t put that together for the longest. It took quite a while. But he had gone through training with Reverend Jim Lawson, a pacifist who worked with SCLC in Nashville. And he was very, very serious about what nonviolence could do, as strategy, as tactic and also a way of life.

AMY GOODMAN: For him to have struggled against nonviolence all these years, and yet to meet a violent end, to be killed, is just a very sad statement.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Well, I think people change. The Cordell Reagon we’re talking about is the Cordell Reagon who was 16 on his first march. And when we talk about him in the civil rights movement, it’s about 10 years. So we’re talking about between the time of 1960, when he’s about 16, to about 26. He was in his fifties when he was killed. And the journey between those times, one of the things, he has four children. Two of them are our children together. And one of the things they experienced going to memorial services for their father was meeting a Cordell Reagon they did not know. And the time is different. There is no mass nonviolent movement. And I think the culture reverses to its base structure. And slavery was a very violent system. And slavery did not just happen in the South; it happened to the nation. So, as a birthing nation, we are a very violent culture. And I think we are reaping some terrible, terrible fruits from what is integral to being American.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there needs to be a massive nonviolent civil rights movement, a resurgence of what we saw in the ’60s, considering all the figures now with the number of African Americans in prison, the whole attack on affirmative action around the country, the escalating number of people in poverty?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m a historian and a radical, and I don’t see resurging something from the past to address contemporary issues. I think we really have to do something that is of the time we’re in to address what we’re facing. There is a major effort to resolve issues in this society by locking people up in jail. And it is absolutely expanding. So people are going into business, and states almost are going into business. It’s almost like — it reminds me, when I hear about a state like Texas renting itself out, I think about Kentucky and Virginia and Maryland breeding slaves. I mean, there’s a market now for locking people up. And there are states going into it. And there are corporations where people can buy stock into prison industries and prison-based industries. That means you have to build them. There’s a technology to it. And this is major. And I think the civil rights movement addressed an issue during its time. But I think we’re going to all be very challenged to get very serious about trying to find ways to respond in complex ways to what we’re seeing in our society.


AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about racism, but going back in time, one of the songs that has been released in Voices of the Civil Rights Movement is “Governor Wallace.”


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where that came from?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: The Selma to Montgomery March, the first march that took place on the Pettus Bridge, was met by state troopers on horseback driving people back across that bridge. And people sitting in their communities in this country got up, packed their bags and traveled to Selma. I mean, it was like they said, “OK, you want somebody to push across the bridge? Try us.” And like buses were coming into Selma, Alabama, and people were getting off and saying, “We plan to address this very issue.” And it might be hard to think about an America that prone. And there were people — they would have families. They would have jobs. But they would see something like this, and they would feel, “This has to be addressed with my life, my body. I cannot stay in this town, in this house. I will not cook another meal. I can’t even take care of my children. I have to pack my bags, and I have to be in Alabama.” And so, this song is a song that came out of the response to the violence against nonviolent marches on the Pettus Bridge. And it’s addressed to Governor Wallace. It says, “You cannot put all of us, who are going to pour into Alabama, in jail. You cannot jail us all.”

SNCC FREEDOM SINGERS: He was on his way
He was trying to make it
To the pearly gates
He saw a picket sign
That said “Down with hate”
So, Governor Wallace, oh yeah
You never can jail us all
Governor Wallace, yeah
Segregation’s bound to fall

AMY GOODMAN: Now, “Been in the Storm So Long” is one of my favorite songs, and in this collection, you’re singing it. Where did you sing this?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: You mean where did that recording come from?


BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I think that recording was recorded at Andrew Young’s house by Guy Carawan in 1962. And it was a song I’d known a long time. And we were just trading off songs, and I just — that song came to me, and I just performed it.

AMY GOODMAN: At Andrew Young’s house?


AMY GOODMAN: And someone had a tape recorder.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Yeah. Andrew Young’s house was open.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’ve been in the storm so long
I’ve been in the storm so long, children
I’ve been in the storm so long
Oh, give me little time to pray
Oh, let me tell you, mother
Just how I come along
Oh, give me little time to pray

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, “Been in the Storm Too Long.” Bernice Johnson Reagon will be back with us in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Bernice Johnson Reagon, and today we’re talking about, well, a number of things, including a lot of the work that she has been involved with, not only in her singing today, but in the CDs that she has helped put together. In addition to Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, you have put out an epic work called Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions. Can you talk about this?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I did, as a result of my work at the Smithsonian, with National Public Radio and the Smithsonian, 26 one-hour shows on the history of African American sacred music tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the process of doing those shows, we actually commissioned performances of music. And what we have are four CDs of music that was created specifically for this series.

And for me, it was as a scholar participating in putting a foundation into what we know about American culture, contemporary culture, that I wanted to be a part of making accessible to the general public information about the foundational structures of African American culture. Most people know something about Black music. Most people have some kind of African American music they really like. And in many cases, it’s contemporary. And I thought that this would be very important in terms of making the story of the evolution of the sacred music tradition as a foundational core of African American culture available.

And there are some wonderful performances in this collection. It really celebrates community-based music. There are 19th century songs, rain shouts by groups out of Georgia and South Carolina. There are spirituals that come out of the university and college tradition. These are arranged spirituals where people trained in the European music tradition set spirituals in a blend form. And there are performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the title of your whole collection, Wade in the Water, is sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: That’s right. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does “Wade in the Water” come from?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: It’s a spiritual. I learned the spiritual at the same time I learned the story about Harriet Tubman. And I was actually told that it was a Harriet Tubman song. When I interviewed older Black people and asked them to talk about “Wade in the Water,” I remember my teacher, my elementary school teacher, saying, “A lot of times when you sing 'Wade in the Water,' people might think you’re talking about a pond or a river.” And she said, “But that’s not what 'Wade in the Water' means. 'Wade in the Water' means go ahead. ’God’s gonna trouble the water’ means you are going to be challenged. It is not going to be easy. There is going to be trouble. That is not a reason to go back. Go ahead. If you want to be different, you have to go through trouble.” And sometimes it’s an important lesson because there’s also something in our culture that says, “Stay out of trouble. Don’t get into trouble.” And in this case, this song says, “If you want transformation, you better not avoid difficulty and obstacles. Trouble is good for changing your life.”

THE FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: Some say I’ve never been redeemed
God’s gonna trouble the water
Just follow me down to Jordan stream
God’s gonna trouble the water
I’ll tell you how my Lord has set myself free
God’s gonna trouble the water
And when I get to heaven, how happy I’ll be
God’s gonna trouble the water

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water

AMY GOODMAN: The whole movement against affirmative action, I see very much as a movement that says, “Slavery is over in this country. Face it. It’s gone. It’s centuries away.” But there’s a whole other movement in this country that’s about reparations. What do you think about that? And do you think that African Americans will ever see actual reparations, as some Jews have from the Holocaust, as Japanese Americans have, despite the fact that it wasn’t enough, from being interred during World War II?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I’m not sure if I can actually respond to that, because I can’t — I don’t do a lot of prophecy stuff. I do think that there is a need to understand that we are a culture created by a slave culture and that we still operate out of lessons learned and taught during a time when that system was intact. And so, many of the things that we learn, we learn there, the kind of women we learn how to be, the kind of men we learn how to be. If you can think of the batterers, the leading men of society beating people all the time and integrating it into their lives and into their personality across a 300-year period, you can’t tell me that’s not related to the violence we have to deal with. If you can — if I can tell you about the child abuse that a young child experiences who’s Black on a slave plantation, the battering that Black people experience, where you are whipped for anything, the sexual violence and sexual harassment, we’re talking about 300 years, formative culture in this country.

I think we are just beginning to be able to even study slavery. So, people who are suggesting that it’s over are actually a little nervous because there are actually courses on American slavery on the college level now. There are actual people who are saying we have gotten — we should have gotten mature enough as a culture to actually become fluent in this part of our history. And for the first time, we might be able to intelligently talk about what shape it has on what we do today.

So, my response to people who say it’s over is that they are being very naive and immature, and that they are suggesting something that’s pretty dangerous for the society. We are at a point where we can actually start to talk about being a society of many peoples and many cultures. And people are saying, “That should not continue. We’ve had enough of that.” Well, how can you have enough if you’ve just gotten to the point where you can discuss it? And that’s like getting to a point where you actually don’t have to lie about what kind of country it is, that there’s a maturity that’s implied in being able to enter discussions and studies about your history, that we need to see more of, especially in terms of our leaders, who seem very afraid to enter a period where we actually talk about these things.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been on the staff of the Smithsonian, and you continue to work with this institution of many museums.


AMY GOODMAN: Is there a possibility that there will be a slave museum or a museum of African American history?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: There is — there have been an initiative to organize a museum, as one of the Smithsonian museums, dedicated to African American culture and history. And that effort is in a holding pattern. There has to be political change, I think, before we’ll see the initiative come forth again. In the meantime, the Smithsonian has taken the offices that were formed to begin to look at that possibility and assign that office a work of actually putting together exhibitions, putting together conferences, so that the work of documenting and sharing African American culture continues, even though this particular issue seems very much tabled at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a CD which also has come out through Smithsonian Folkways, Give Your Hands to Struggle. And it’s you singing.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Most of these songs I wrote. This recording, I released for the first time in 1975. It was the year I got my dissertation from Howard. And I think I actually, as I was getting near the end of that particular struggle, needed to see if I still could sing. And I took songs that I had written over the past decade, so these would be songs that would be in the period after my work as a Freedom Singer. And I went into the studio with a small record company called Paredon, organized by a woman named Barbara Dane, and over a two-day period sang songs I had written.

There are two traditional songs on this recording: “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” which is the first freedom song I changed, and “Old Ship of Zion,” a song from the 19th century. And the other songs cover a number of different issues for me. There would be — there’s a song that I wrote when I first came from Africa — I came back from Africa the first time. I wrote a song called “Why Did They Take Us Away.”

There’s a song around the Joan Little case. Joan Little was a Black woman who was arrested as a conspirator in a burglary in Wilmington, North Carolina, very, very small woman, under five feet. And when she was in her jail cell, her jailer forced her to participate in a sexual act. She, in the process of that process, took the knife he was using as a weapon and killed him and escaped. There was a dead-or-alive warrant on her head for the murder of the jailer. But the country responded that that is not really the case. And we actually succeeded in organizing in this country so that Joan Little was not imprisoned for the murder of this jailer. She was actually released. Then she was rearrested for the original charge. And she actually was also released from —

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I steered clear of controversy, I stayed real cool
’Til along came this woman that was only five feet tall
Charged and jailed with breaking the law
Then the next thing I heard as it came over the news
First-degree murder, she was on the loose
Tell me who is this girl
Joan, Joan, Joan, Joan

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: That song was very important to me in terms of the organized women’s movement in this country. It was one of the issues, as an African American woman and an African American girl, I knew too much about. It is very difficult to be born female in this country and not be — not be fearful. One of the first lessons you get is that it’s a culture that preys on girls and teenagers and women. And so you go through your life with this little trail of fear as a girl and as a woman in this culture. And so, the Joan Little case was important to me because I thought, “Aha, they die!” — rapists, you know. I thought it was an interesting idea to add to this culture of fear I was living with. I owe Joan Little a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: How many daughters do you have?



BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: Mm-hmm. And I have one son, Kwan.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you raise Toshi as an African American girl in this society?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: As best I could, yeah. I don’t do a lot of talking about my parenting. As a parent, I was always struggling for survival and for time with my children. I was a working parent. Most of the time, I was a single parent. And so, some people will say, “How do you do what you do?” And I generally say, “I do the best I can.” And I’m never — you know, was never satisfied with the balance I created between work and — work being work as a historian, work as a curator, work as a singer – and my home life with my children.

And I identify with so many thousands of working parents. And I try to remind my students today that most women in the world work outside of the home. This has been true for a long time. And it’s a class notion that women should be in the home with children. It is a very narrow strata of females who have been able to be married, have children and be home. Most women in the world are forced to work outside of the home, especially if they have children, because there isn’t any other chance for survival.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you manage to do it all, Bernice Johnson Reagon? How do you manage to be a mother, to tour around the country with Sweet Honey in the Rock, to be a professor at American University, to work with the Smithsonian Institution, and everything else you do?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON: I do the best I can. And I balance all the time. My mother crossed categories of work, so I’m socialized to operate in more than one category. And I think, frankly, many women are.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I have to say, we’re very grateful that you do all that you do. And I want to thank you very much for being with us for this hour.


AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! is produced by Dan Coughlin, Errol Maitland. Joe Gill engineered today’s show. Errol Maitland mixed it. Our executive producer, Julie Drizin. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can call 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!

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