Singers left mark on Civil Rights Movement

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- The music harkens back to days of the civil rights movement, but to the Freedom Singers, it never went away.

Albany State University Assistant Professor of Music Deanna Weber, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the impact the Freedom Singers had on the Movement, told a crowd at the Albany Civil Rights Institute Thursday, their effect was far-reaching.

"Their impact was mainly to spread the word about the Movement," Weber said. "They got the word out to people in the other parts of the country to people who didn't know what was going on down here."

The original group of four Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers -- Rutha Harris, Bernice Reagon, Cordell Reagon and Charles Sherrod -- banded together at Old Mt. Zion Church in 1961.

"They started in the churches because that was the only place they could gather without fear," Weber said.

Shortly afterward the quartet performed a concert at Morehouse College where they caught caught the attention of activist singer/songwriter Pete Seeger.

Seeger was intrigued by the young group and agreed to underwrite their expenses if they would tour the nation.

Sherrod, not wanting travel so extensively, dropped out and was replaced by Charles Neblett.

"The concert at Morehouse was the start of it all," Weber said. "Seeger wanted a group to go out and tour. He said people would die before going to hear another singer, but they would come out to hear a story."

The quartet's first tour appearance was at the YMCA in Urbana, Ill. in Dec. of 1962.

Over the next nine months they played 200 college campuses and managed to squeeze in stops at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival and capped it all off by performing at the March on Washington.

"They soon became part of the national stage," Weber said. "Then Freedom Singers began popping up in cities all over the country. What always struck me about the original Albany group was how young and committed they were. Cordell was just 16 at the time and the others weren't much older."

Fifty years later the original Freedom Singers have passed the torch to a younger generation -- eight of them -- who see it as their duty to keep the dream live.

"Both my father and mother and aunts and uncles went to jail during The Movement," Angie Gibson, a current Freedom Singer, niece of Rutha Harris and teacher at Robert Cross Middle School said. "I sing because it is my way of paying them back for the freedom we enjoy today."

Dougherty County Assistant District Attorney Victoria Jones is the newest member of the group.

"I'm the rookie," she said. "I was honored when approached by Rutha to become a Freedom Singer. The group has a rich history in the Civil Rights Movement and helped us make strides forward."

Gibson said every time they sing it is like stepping into a time machine.

"I feel blessed each time we sing because it takes me back" she said. "I can visualize the time and the story because the songs bring it to life."