Freedom singer delivers civil-rights lessons in Seattle
Freedom singer Bernice Johnson Reagon was the featured speaker at a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle.
Seattle Times Eastside reporter
More about Bernice Johnson Reagon: www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com
Bernice Johnson Reagon was raised with the notion that spiritual music was sacred. Changing lyrics was not done.
But that's what she did during a civil-rights protest march as a student at Albany State College in Georgia during the 1960s, turning to song when she and other protesters were in a church with nowhere else to go.
"I knew we were in trouble, and I didn't think it would actually help," she told the 500 or so people gathered Friday at Mount Zion Baptist Church for a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
But people sang the revised hymns, she said, inserting "I see freedom" for "I hear music."
Over my head, I see freedom in the air. There must be a God somewhere.
In a speech at Mount Zion that was part history lesson, part performance and part message about nonviolence, Reagon, a cultural historian and civil-rights activist, spoke about the era when she established herself as a freedom singer.
Reagon was the featured speaker at a vibrant gathering at Mount Zion, with an audience that included King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, students and other community leaders assembled for Seattle Community Colleges' 36th annual celebration.
Reagon, a professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C., curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and founder of renowned Washington, D.C.-based a cappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock, wove song into recollections of protests over segregation in the South.
She sang at that protest long ago in Georgia, and she sang in jail. Reagon advised the students in the audience to think about kind of music they listen to and to surround themselves with empowering songs.
As a student, nonviolence was a hard lesson to learn, Reagon said. She recalled workshops where she was taught not to react, even if someone hit her first. It took her years to really learn the lesson, she said.
"It's not l-o-v-e," she said. "It's saying 'Good morning' to somebody. It's you saying, 'I don't know what they're going through, but I'm going to say a little prayer for them.' "
Reagon has played an important role in the civil-rights movement by conveying the lessons she learned through music, said audience member Sumayya Diop, who works in youth services at the YWCA and also is a performance artist.
Reagon established a musical model for others to follow, Diop said.
"She took that pain, that work that was so important and transferred it into performance art that thousands of us performance artists can bring to children and others," she said.
Reagon translates her struggles into a relevant message today, said Winona Hollins-Hauge, a member of the state Commission on African-American Affairs.
"This only serves to revive my energy and serves as a reminder of why I'm here and what I'm supposed to be doing," she said.
Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or email@example.com
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