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“Everybody gets several opportunities in life to risk everything they have to become what they can be.”
— Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon
Dr. Jill Eichhorn of Women’s Studies, APSU, told me that she didn’t know exactly what Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon would do for us, but guaranteed that whatever she brought to us would be “great.” Since Jill knows well my interest in civil liberties, and since CO author Terry McMoore had published a story about Dr. Reagon coming here on March 19, I knew I had to see this.
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon is Professor Emeritus of History at American University. She recently retired after 30 years from performing with Sweet Honey in the Rock, a cappella ensemble she founded in 1973.
APSU President Tim Hall said he knew how music has the capacity to make us listen. It arrests and challenges us. Growing up in a family whose father led singing in the car after church, Hall couldn’t think about war without hearing the song in his head, Where have all the flowers gone by Peter, Paul, and Mary. When civil rights issues surface his mind visits the song, We shall overcome. So it was that he welcomed with utmost respect the civil rights leader, speaker, singer and composer, Bernice Johnson Reagon, to speak.
With a beautiful introduction by graduating senior, Sherrylon Bolden, Ms. Reagon took the stage. She said that nowadays when she participates in civil liberty roundtables, she realizes that her reality of civil liberties greatly differs from this generation’s, and the events that took place in her lifetime are yet to be covered in the history text books.
Her talk involved telling the stories and history that she was a part of and that she honors, as should we all. She introduced her talk as one that would describe what those “people who appeared to not have any power” did to reset the equation.
In Florida, two people, Harry Moore and his wife, decided to register black people to vote. Harry lost his teaching job because of it, to which he said, OK, now I’ll have more time to register people. They were the first two leaders of the NAACP to be assassinated. On Christmas Eve, 1951, a bomb that was planted under their house went off. In her beautiful voice, Reagan sang a song to us which had the words, No bomb can kill the dreams I hold. Freedom never dies. Reagan said their memory lives within the song. She said as long as we remember the imprint of a life, it is still with us.
Terrorism is not a new issue to Reagan. She said that she has lived with two issues of it everyday of her life. And so do many of us.
Reagan said that even with all that danger, we can’t be paralyzed; we are expected to keep going. “If you’re alive in this world, you already have things you’re afraid of. Everyone expects you to go to your maximum anyway. If you’re not dead, then carry out your schedule.”
She sang to us: No bomb you can make can stop us from being free…”
Regan mentioned the death of Emmett Till, a black youth from Chicago who moved to segregated Mississippi and was brutally, brutally killed because on a dare he whistled at a white woman.
From the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture: From 1889 through 1918 mobs lynched 129 persons in the Midwest, 9 in New England, and 2,915 in the South and Border South. The nation reached a total of 3,587 by 1930. By 1900 this “punishment” was reserved almost exclusively for blacks.
Reagan talked about the Greensboro sit-ins.
Reagon said that sit-ins became a student activity across the nation for blacks and whites. People picketed stores all over the country thanks to the media coverage. The owners of the company helped put a multiracial committee into the mayor’s office. Reagan sang a song: Heed the call, American’s all, side by equal side…Brothers sit in dignity, Sisters sit in pride….
Reagon said that for schools to be integrated, the military had to occupy the school. You cannot maintain military occupation of a people.
The segregation limits set for blacks were set in law. But it becomes clear to people after awhile that they are at fault for going along with the set-up limits. They realize that they have “bought into” the threat of terror and it’s up to them to challenge those limits.
Reagon cited Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who led many other slaves to freedom; she was also an abolitionist, Civil War soldier, and women’s rights advocate. Tubman said: “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Greyhound buses had a rule: white people sit in the front, black people in the back. Both blacks and whites decided to challenge that. They got on buses in New York headed to New Orleans and switched designated area seats. Blacks sat in the front, whites in the back. In order for this to work, if you were a white, you had to know some blacks, said Reagon. You had to work together. Everything went fine until they hit the Mason/Dixon line. In Alabama a bus was burned (on Mother’s day). The riders were beat up in Birmingham. Buses were cancelled. In Mississippi the riders got off the bus and into a paddy wagon. Reagon sang a song, Freedom’s coming and it won’t be long…
The law abiding citizens who broke the law did it because they had to break the law to stand for equality, to combat segregation. And they were combating it with their lives. Reagon asked us, What were slaves charged with when they ran away from slavery? “Stealing.” When you were a slave, you were someone’s property.
On November 27, 1961, Reagon left school with Miss Albany, GA, to walk around the court house showing support for the eight freedom riders incarcerated within. Reagon had announced their decision to do this to other students but as they were walking away from the college, she could not help but feel dread at this decision. Miss Albany then told her to look back. She didn’t want to but Miss Albany insisted. When Reagon turned she saw a long line of students following them and she was pleased.
Seven hundred people were put in jail in one week, the largest mass arrest in history. Albany had four jails for each category, four for white males, four for white females, four for black males and four for black females. They moved them to stockades with 11 women crammed into cells made for four, with four bunks and one toilet, and people of all ages who did not “get along” with each other, Reagan was called again and again to lay a song on the situation. “I feel better, so much better, since I laid my burden down… she sang the crowd into peace and focus again and again.
Though extremely uncomfortable, Reagan said of that jailing that they could lock up her body and not have actually jailed her at all. She knew there was no place else for her to be. Her convictions were only strengthened by it.
Since those struggles and others she has gone on to be an award winning music consultant, composer and performer for several radio, film and video projects.
For me, seeing Dr. Reagon on the same day I listened to the speech about race by Barack Obama was extra meaningful to me. Here was a woman who had stood in the front lines of civil liberties, who acted and prevailed against the law despite the fear of death. Here was a woman who truly knew segregation in the south. It is not possible for a nation to go up to her and say, there, there, it’s all over, everything is fine now. Don’t dwell on the past. NO! As a member of this nation, I must experience her story through her words and songs. I must seek to understand what life was like for her because she is a part of me that I must come to terms with. I cannot push her story down like I push down all my uncomfortable past. Until her voice and those like hers, are heard, I cannot expect her to treat me as an equal. I need to hear about her social prison, her bravery and her feelings. And I need to forgive myself for having the human capability to do what those white people did to the blacks.
Debbie and her family moved to Clarksville slightly after the tornado of 1999. Debbie founded the group, Clarksville Freethinkers for Peace and Civil Liberties, in 2004. She participated in Gathering to Save Our Democracy, a group dedicated to obtaining free and verifiable elections in Tennessee. She has supported groups including the NAACP, Nashville Peace Coalition, PFLAG, Friends of Dunbar Cave and the Mountain Top Removal Series of Films and speakers. She participated as an artist in the ARTZ gallery group in Clarksville and won Best of Show, First and 2 Second Place awards for four of her sculptures. She won a voter’s choice award for a performance at the Roxy Regional Theatre. She is a wife, mother and cancer survivor. She is always amazed at the capabilities of the human spirit, and the wisdom to find humor when there is none.
TopicsAustin Peay State University, Civil Rights, Discrimination
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