Freedom Singers

On the night of the Albany Movement’s first mass meeting, Black people from across the city gathered at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. After listening to testimonies from Albany Movement leader C.B. King, student activist Bertha Gober, and several others involved with the struggle, the congregation rose to sing “We Shall Overcome.” “I threw my head back and closed my eyes as I sang with my whole body,” recalled SNCC’s Southwest Georgia project director, Charles Sherrod, remembering the power of the singing. “Nobody knew what kept the top of the church on its four walls. It was as if everybody had been lifted on high.”

A mass meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, 1962, Danny Lyon, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 28, dektol.wordpress.com

Sherrod and his SNCC comrade Cordell Reagon had come to Albany in October 1961 to begin a SNCC project in Southwest Georgia. Shortly after their arrival, the pair began organizing nonviolent direct action workshops for local high school and college students who wanted to be a part of the Movement. They opened these meetings with freedom songs that they had learned through their involvement with the sit-in movement. They taught the young Albanians the song “We Shall Overcome”–originally a turn-of-the-century hymn but converted into a movement protest song by Nashville activists during a workshop at the Highlander Folk School.

Freedom songs and freedom singing reached new heights during the Albany Movement. At mass meetings, the singing was done in a congregational style. “There weren’t soloists; there were song leaders,” explained Bernice Johnson. Song leaders began a song, but “the minute you started… the song was expanded by the voices of everyone present.” The effect was powerful and empowering.

A photograph of the Freedom Singers, undated, crmvet.org

Cordell Reagon was struck by the depth of the congregational style of singing in Albany. After talking with SNCC executive secretary James Forman, he formed the original SNCC Freedom Singers to sing movement songs to audiences across the nation. Reagon, a tenor, recruited Bernice Johnson to sing alto, Rutha Mae Harris to sing soprano, and Chuck Neblett to sing bass. They were occasionally joined by Albany activist Bertha Gober. The group hit the road in December 1962 on its first tour organized by Toshi Seeger, Pete Seeger’s wife. “We traveled all over the country in a compact Buick,” Rutha Mae Harris recalled. “On one tour, we managed to go fifty thousand miles in nine months without any flights.”

The group plugged into SNCC’s emerging northern network to secure venues and audiences. They mostly performed on college campuses, local churches, house parties, and coffeehouses. Sometimes they sang at larger venues as well. In 1963, the New York Friends of SNCC chapter organized a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, where the Freedom Singers performed alongside major Black artists, like Harry Belafonte and Thelonious Monk. The group’s first tour raised nearly $50,000 for SNCC, a major contribution of funds for the expanding young organization.

But the Freedom Singers did more than raise funds; they brought the Movement vividly alive wherever they went. Using songs, “interspersed with narrative, to convey the story of the Civil Rights Movement struggles,” Bernice Johnson explained, “they became a major way of making people who were not on the scene feel the intensity of what was happening in the South.” She described the group as “a singing newspaper” that forced the issue of Black second-class citizenship into public consciousness.

Sources

Guy and Candie Carawan, eds., Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Songs of the Freedom Movement (New York: Oak Publications, 1968).

Guy and Candie Carawan, “Last Chorus: Cordell Reagon,” Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine (February 1997), 30.

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).

Rutha Mae Harris, “I Love to Sing,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 144-146.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Uncovered and Without Shelter, I Joined This Movement for Freedom,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 119-127.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, “In Our Hands: Thoughts on Black Music,” Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine (January 1976).

Leslie Paige Rose, “The Freedom Singers of the Civil Rights Movement: Music Functioning for Freedom,” Applications of Research in Music Education vol. 25 (Spring/Summer 2007), 59-69.

Anne Stephani, “Sounds of Freedom: Songs in the 1960s Southern Civil Rights Movement,” Complutense Journal of English Studies vol. 23 (2015), 55-67.

Click Here to View Document Songs of the Southern Freedom Movement, [1963], crmvet.org

Click Here to View Document Agenda for SNCC Staff Meeting in Selma, Alabama, December 13-16, 1963, crmvet.org

Handbill; We Shall Overcome / The Freedom Singers Sing of Freedom Now! undated, Social Action Vertical File (SNCC), WHS

Flyer; The Liberal Arts Student Council of Howard University Presents Dick Gregory and the Freedom Singers, April 25, 1964, Arthur Waskow Papers, WHS