Rutha Mae Harris was raised in a sheltered and protected household by a loving mother and father on Whitney Avenue along with seven other siblings in Albany.
ALBANY — When I got the assignment of interviewing a person of my choice for our new “A Table With a View” series, I knew that Rutha Mae Harris would be my first pick.
Although I have lived in Albany for almost three decades and have seen her perform on numerous occasions, I did not know Harris.
I wanted to learn about her and find out what childhood experiences may have motivated her to devote her young adult life to the Civil Rights Movement.
It turns out her childhood in segregated Albany was quite happy and sheltered.
“I did not even know that segregation existed (as a child),” said Harris. “My dad sheltered us from everything.”
Although she became known across the nation as one of the founding members of the Freedom Singers, Harris said she reached adulthood before becoming socially aware of the need for equal rights.
It was then she became aware of what she could not do simply because of the color of her skin.
“We did not go to the movies, restaurants or anything like that,” Harris said. “He (her father) would tell us that he bought food and that is why we eat at home. That is why I bought this house.”
She was raised in a loving household by a strong father (Baptist minister) and strong mother (teacher). There were eight children, divided equally by gender.
The parents were her protectors as a child and her home at 623 Whitney Ave. was her safe shelter.
From that sheltered upbringing rose an imposing figure in terms of an entertainer and a difference maker in the Civil Rights Movement.
A DIFFERENCE MAKER
I’ve interviewed many so-called celebrities during my newspaper career, but many of those were people who enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame and then disappeared.
Few helped write history along the way.
Harris, however, was a difference maker. Her role in the Civil Rights Movement as a Freedom Singer is well chronicled. While not often in the headlines, she and her fellow singers played key roles in the movement in Albany and throughout the South.
I did make a call to Harris and issue the invitation. I arrived at Cafe 230 in downtown Albany promptly at 1 p.m. as we had arranged, but she was already waiting on me. It was my first time meeting her, so we exchanged small talk while looking over the menu.
She opted for the pot roast with creamed corn, peas, salad and soup while I ordered baked chicken, creamed corn, peas and a salad. We each had unsweetened tea.
While we talked, it was apparent that we had very difference experiences as children, but had one striking similarity. Both of us were pretty much oblivious to the civil unrest in much of the country in the early 1960s.
230 W. Broad Ave., downtown Albany
Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays-Fridays
Pot roast, creamed corn, peas and soup
Baked chicken, creamed corn, pea and salad
Two unsweet teas
Total (including tax) — $18.86
Harris went to an all-black Monroe High School and graduated from there in 1958. She then went to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Fla.
Harris returned to Albany when the Movement started and got an education of a different sort.
“One day I was approached while walking down the street and asked if I wanted to be free,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Why are you asking me if I want to be free? I am free.’”
“I kept talking and joined the movement and realized I was not free,” she said. “I discovered there were many things people had gone through that needed to be changed.”
A FREEDOM SINGER
With an enhanced understanding of her lack of civil rights, Harris became a Freedom Singer at the age of 21. She never went back to Florida A&M for her sophomore year after that summer of enlightenment
The role of the Freedom Singers initially was to sing at the mass meetings called by leaders of the Albany Movement to discuss strategy. The singers were formed by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or SNCC.
Harris, who started singing in her dad’s church as a junior choir member, was a natural for the Freedom Singers. She remembers her first solo in middle school singing “I Love Life and I Want to Live It.”
“I’ve been singing ever since,” she says.
Harris says her father had died by the time the Albany Movement started, but that her mother and all of her brothers and sisters got involved in it.
Their house on Whitney Avenue was a freedom house, meaning that SNCC workers who came to Albany to help organize the movement and register blacks to vote often stayed in their home.
“That is one experience I will cherish for the rest of my life,” she said.
I asked Harris if she was arrested during the Albany Movement.
“I was arrested three times in Albany,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Whatever they wanted it to be,” she said, laughing. “I did nothing wrong.”
She disclosed that she was never beaten by the all-white law enforcement team but that she was dragged up steps at the courthouse on one occasion. “But I was taught how to protect myself,” she said.
I asked her if she was fearful during that time.
“Fearful,” she said. “There was fear, but my dad taught us to fear no one. Of course, there was fear, but it did not stop me from doing what I wanted to do. I knew that my participating in the Civil Rights Movement that I might be beaten, I might be shot at, I might be killed. “I knew that, but it didn’t stop me. But, of course, there was fear.”
CROSSING THE BOUNDARIES
As the movement in Albany died down and the Rev. Martin Luther King moved on to Birmingham, Harris said her role changed. She accepted an invitation from SNCC to join the Freedom Singers and go on the road.
The Freedom Singers would be used by SNCC as a way to raise money to finance the movement.
Harris was joined in the group by a friend, Bernice Johnson of Albany. The founding member was Cordell Reagon, an organizer of the Albany Movement and SNCC’s field secretary. Reagon and Johnson eventually married.
Harris said she and Bernice Johnson had much in common. “We were both PKs — preacher’s kids,” she said.
For the next nine months, the Freedom Singers traveled to every state in the country. The group put more than 50,000 miles on the vehicle raising money for SNCC.
Harris says many of the songs performed by the Freedom Singers were taken from spirituals, gospel songs and rhythm and blues songs.
“One of my favorites was ‘I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Jesus’ except we substituted freedom for Jesus,” She said. “Another one was ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Everybody liked that one. It crossed all boundaries. You didn’t have to change the lyrics, but you could add lyrics.”
Harris said the Freedom Singers were paid very little money, but that the traveling broadened her mind to other people and other ways of doing things. It also brought her a marriage proposal.
There was no fairy tale ending to the story.
“I was asked by a young man named Willie Bolden for my hand in marriage,” Harris said. “He asked my mother and she said no. I thought that was the worst thing ever, but she knew more than I did at that time.
‘She said you can’t take care of my child making $10 every two weeks. So. I am still single and still living at 623 Whitney Ave.”
AN AMAZING LIFE
Harris came off the road and returned to Albany in 1967 to resume her education at Albany State University. She earned her degree in education and taught in the public school system here.
“I majored in music, vocal music, but never did teach it.” Harris said. “I guess I wasn’t supposed to. The Lord has a plan for us and my plan was to teach and I enjoyed it.”
Harris later formed her own version of the Freedom Singers, who perform each month at the Albany Civil Rights Institution.
Harris noted that ACRI is struggling to survive and called on Albanians to support the facility both in terms of finances and attendance.
“If people in Albany would just go and visit it,” she said. “More people visit it from out of town than from in town.”
Reflecting on her career, Harris said she is still amazed at her life.
“I had no idea that my singing in the Movement would have taken me as far as it has,” she said. “I had no idea.”
It’s taken her to the White House. She performed in New York City, Chicago and dozens of other places after the Movement. She was featured in the choir in “The Preacher’s Wife” movie starring Denzel Washington.
“I’m on the second row in the choir,” she said. “You can’t miss me. It was a wonderful experience. The choir became real well known nationwide and we traveled to Spain more than once.”
Harris continues to get invitations to perform throughout the country.
“Sometimes I get so many that they overlap and I have to say no,” she said. “But I don’t mind at all. I love to travel. I love when people ask me to come and perform.”
The pay is much better than $10 every two weeks.
“This (singing) is my service, and I get paid for my service.” she said.
When not on the road, Harris says she volunteers part-time in the office of U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany.
A POWERFUL AFFIRMATION
Despite the political nature of her singing, Harris said she never considered running for elected office at any level.
“Politics is so dirty, I just don’t get that involved,” Harris said. “My main involvement is voting. I vote because that is what I fought for and I vote my choice. Nobody tells me how to vote.”
Harris says she is troubled by the lack of resolve and commitment by some young people who do not take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them.
“We have lost a lot, and we still have a lot that needs to be done as people — not black or white, but as one,” she said. “I don’t know what we can do to bring us together and stop all this nitpicking.”
Harris and I were near the end of our lunch and conversation when a young woman tentatively approached our table.
“Are you Miss Harris?” she asked. “I love your music and I just wanted to come and say hi.”
Harris responded with a huge smile and open arms, giving the server a hug and thanking her for the compliment.
It made me wonder why this young woman so far removed from those days of the the Civil Rights Movement would have felt a connection and been so drawn to Harris.
It was a pretty powerful affirmation of her celebrity status.