February 22 1943 – November 12, 1996
Raised in Nashville, Tennessee
“Without these songs, you know we wouldn’t be anywhere. We’d still be down on Mister Charley’s plantation, chopping cotton for 30 cents a day.” — Cordell Reagon
Music formed a vital part of SNCC’s work. It reinforced people’s courage, strength, and endurance during times of fear–while isolated in a jail cell, or surrounded in a church by a howling white mob, or sitting in a mass meeting before a protest march the following morning. In rural churches, music formed a connection more basic, more fundamental than political rhetoric but opened the door to political conversation.
Cordell Hull Reagon was instrumental to the powerful role music played in SNCC and the Movement. Reagon was a 16-year-old high school student in Nashville, Tennessee when he impulsively joined a SNCC march in his city, simply because it “looked exciting.” His hasty decision grew into a life-time commitment to SNCC’s organizing efforts. Reagon, a soulful tenor, co-founded and was among the first group of Freedom Singers, SNCC’s singing group that traveled across the country raising money for the organization. “Part of the draw had to be the music,” Reagon reflected later, “I loved music, and music was what held the Movement together.”
Reagon was stewarded into SNCC’s field organizing by James Forman. His first assignment was working with Bob Moses on voter registration efforts in McComb, Mississippi. Soon after, he joined Charles Sherrod’s organizing in Albany, Georgia. SNCC workers referred to Reagon as “the baby of the Movement” when he became SNCC’s youngest staff member in 1961. His experience as a SNCC field secretary prepared him to write the Freedom Songs that were filled with the joys, determination, and brutalities faced by civil rights activists. He had lived these experiences.
After arriving in Albany with Sherrod, Reagon’s plan was to be “like neighborhood boys” while he led nonviolent workshops over at Albany State College. On November 22, 1961, when two Albany State students were arrested for trying to to desegregate the Albany train station, he was among those who led a 600-person march to city hall. Nearly 450 arrests were made, making it the biggest mass arrest in civil rights history. During his time as a SNCC field secretary, Reagon was arrested at least 30 times.
Reagon found the potency of song to be particularly powerful in Albany where there was a rich hymnal and church choir presence. It was there, in 1962, that Reagon brought together the first Freedom Singers group, which included, Bernice Johnson (who later married Reagon), Charles Neblett, and Rutha Mae Harris.
The SNCC Freedom Singers traveled to mass meetings in churches, northern fundraising events, concert halls, including a Carnegie Hall concert with Harry Belafonte, and to recording studios across the nation as they spread SNCC’s vision of social change. Within their first nine months, the Freedom Singers had traveled to forty-eight states in a donated compact Buick. Their goal was to fundraise for SNCC and reach anyone who would listen and be encouraged to join the Movement. Furthermore, the Freedom Singers inspired organizing groups to make singing a part of their nonviolent resistance and the building of group solidarity.
Reagon continued working for social justice until his death in 1996. In the later years of his life, Reagon reformed a group of Freedom Singers that performed at the 1994 National Black Arts Festival and Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).
Pete Seeger, Everybody Says Freedom (New York: Norton, 1989).
Craig Werner, A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America (New York: Plume, 1998).