Rutha Mae Harris
November 27, 1940 –
Raised in Albany, Georgia
“I’ve never been afraid when I am singing,” said Rutha Mae Harris. “Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe that there wouldn’t have been a movement.” The power of her contralto voice was thrilling and legendary.
The summer of 1961, Harris was home visiting her family after her first year at Florida A&M University. Protests had been erupting in Albany, her hometown, and Harris had to face a question that many young people involved in the struggle asked themselves – would she go back to school or stay and organize?
She knew the need. Harris grew up with strong roots in the community. Her father, Rev. Isaiah Harris, was the founding minister of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church and had been providing literacy classes and encouraging members of his congregation to register to vote since the 1940s. He taught his children to always think that they were as good as anyone else and to never fear any man. Her mother was a schoolteacher and was supportive of the Movement, “She told me that as long as I came back to finish my schooling, it was alright with her.” And so Harris stayed, fueled by the opportunity to fight for her freedom.
As young people in Albany began learning nonviolent tactics and participating in demonstrations, they found power in song. “We needed these songs to help us not to be fearful when we were doing those marches or doing picket lines,” Harris recalled. “You needed a common agent, and that’s what those songs were for us.”
Harris, Bernice Johnson, Bertha Gober, Janie Culbreth, and others began to change the lyrics of old songs they had grown up with in church to reflect the spirit of the Movement. “The Albany Movement allowed us to name the people who were using jail against us, like Mayor Asa Kelley and Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett. Not only could we call their names and say what we wanted to say, but also they could not stop our sound.”
After seeing the impact that movement songs played in Albany, Cordell Reagon decided to pull together a group that could bring those songs to the nation. He recruited Rutha Mae Harris, Bernice Johnson, and Chuck Neblett to join him in forming the original SNCC Freedom Singers. Together they traveled the country in a small Buick, singing at colleges, churches, coffeehouses, and concert halls, raising money for the Movement and sharing the experience of what was happening on the ground. In August 1963, they sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” in front of the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered for the March on Washington.
“Being a Freedom Singer allowed me to express myself about the wrongs that had been done to black people, about how badly we were treated. I also got a chance to tell the story of both the Albany Movement and the larger movement,” Harris said.
Harris still calls Albany, Georgia home. She taught at Monroe High School for 30 years and continues to lift others in song. “I love to sing,” Harris says, “Singing is my joy.”
Rutha Mae Harris, “I Love to Sing,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 144 – 146.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Since I Laid My Burden Down,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 146-152.
Rutha Mae Harris interview with Tom Dent, July 11, 1991, Southern Journey Oral History Collection, Tulane University Digital Library.
Freedom Singer: ‘Without Music, There Would Be No Movement,’ August 28, 2013, Tell Me More, NPR.