Media Credit

Rutha and Emory Harris of the SNCC Freedom Singers sing “We’ll Never Turn Back” from their front porch in Albany, Georgia, 2014, The Music Voyager

A Story from Here

Nowhere was singing more important than in the Albany Movement. Freedom songs were forever present, ringing off the walls of churches during mass meetings, or jail cells after demonstrations. No place could escape the sounds of Black folks expressing the desire for freedom through song.

Bernice Johnson (Reagon) was a student leader at Albany State, the area’s local Black college, and a Movement leader. She, like many other Black people from Albany, had sung all her life: “we sang at home, we sang at games on the playground, we sang at school, and we sang at church.” To Johnson, “music and singing were very much a part of who [she] was and who [she] understood Black people to be.” During the Movement, Johnson frequently served as a “song leader” at mass meetings and rallies.  At these meetings, “singing was the ‘bed’ and the ‘air’ of everything.” There was often more singing that there was talking, as Black folks lifted their voices against racial discrimination, against Jim Crow, and against the people keeping them down.

Freedom songs nurtured and empowered movement participants – in jail, in protest, at voter registration meetings, and in times of danger. With the music, a transformation took place inside of the people, strengthened them. According to Johnson, “It was bigger and more powerful singing, because [the people] were bigger and more powerful.” They lost their fear of people like Police Chief Laurie Pritchett, and instead, used Freedom Songs to call them out by name. Nor could the police chief and his cronies stop the singing because Black folks “knew they were being heard” and “would just sing louder and louder.” For Johnson, as well as others, singing allowed her to put her heart and soul, to become fully committed to “this Movement for FREEDOM.”

Local Landscape

Long time Albany resident Annette Jones (White) described her hometown as a “quiet, racially segregated city,” where “every now and then a few prominent Negro men tried, to no avail, to persuade the city commission to desegregate public facilities, but mostly Negroes in Albany stayed in the place to which they were regulated.” In the early sixties, Albany was a city of 60,000 and served as the major commercial center for Southwest Georgia. W.E.B. Du Bois described the area surrounding Albany as “a great fertile land, luxuriant with forests of pine, oak, ash, hickory, and poplar, hot with the sun and damp with the rich black swampland; and here the cornerstone of the Cotton Kingdom was laid.”  However, by the 1930s, cotton was replaced by peanuts, pecans, and livestock. Black Albany residents, who made up 40% of the city’s population, worked mostly as day laborers and maids, and in other menial jobs, though some were able to work at the all-Black Albany State College and in the segregated public education system. Segregation was the law of the land, and both Blacks and whites formed “an uneasy but benign collaboration” to maintain the city’s moderate racial climate. Yet there were some who actively pushed for change. High school and college youths formed an NAACP youth group in 1959 and tried to get Blacks hired at a white-owned drugstore located in Harlem – a Black neighborhood in Albany.  While the group was unsuccessful in its first endeavor, it remained alive and collaborated closely with SNCC, when Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon came to Albany in 1961.

References

James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries
“Since I Laid my Burden Down,” Bernice Johnson Reagon, Hands on the Freedom Plow
“Finding Form for the Expression of My Discontent,” Annette Jones White, Hands on the Freedom Plow