Founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock reflects on Civil Rights Movement

Madeline Diamond, Assistant News Editor

Singer, cultural historian, and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 19 where she uniquely combined song and speech in her lecture. Reagon’s lecture was part of the Spring 2014 Griot Institute for Africana Studies series, “The Civil Rights Movement: Fifty Years Later.”

English professor and Arts Coordinator Carmen Gillespie introduced Reagon as a “luminary” who had influenced her own life. Assistant professor of music Barry Long also welcomed Reagon with an introduction. The lobby of the Weis Center provided an intimate atmosphere for the lecture, along with candlelit tables and light refreshments.

“Her sound resonates in our souls,” Long said.

Reagon is perhaps best known for her a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, which is comprised entirely of African American women. The ensemble mainly performs gospel music with messages of spirituality and civil rights. In fact, Reagon noted that throughout her work in the civil rights movement, she and other activists would change the lyrics from slavery spirituals to relate to modern racial struggles. Activists altered the lyrics of historical spirituals to sing about their bus journey from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.

“In jail, the songs belonged to us,” Reagon said, referring to how she used song to survive her stay in jail as a result of her participation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Reagon’s lecture was marked by interjections of songs pertaining to sections of her talk. While discussing her involvement in the civil rights movement as a member of the Freedom Singers, she included songs to give the audience a clearer idea of her experience. Reagon also spoke about later issues, including the AIDS epidemic and the AIDS memorial quilt on the White House lawn.

“You didn’t have to be a singer to fight for civil rights, you just had to be alive,” Reagon said.

Throughout her lecture, Reagon stressed how she has drawn great inspiration from her fellow activists during the civil rights movement.

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