Charles Neblett, Fighting for Our Rights
By Jabari Asim
Monday, May 17, 2004; 10:31 AM
I had intended to contact Charles Neblett ever since I heard him speak at a program held in the nation's capital last year to recognize the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington. He was one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, a quartet formed in 1962 to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a legendary organization that took on Jim Crow in some of the most dangerous areas of the South. He also risked his life as a field secretary for SNCC from 1961-1966.
At a performance featuring the surviving members of the Freedom Singers, I was particularly moved by a Neblett composition called "Fighting for My Rights." I resolved then to talk with him someday.
Two recent events, the reopening of the Emmett Till murder case and the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, provided an opportunity to obtain some valuable perspective from Neblett. When I reached him at his home in Russellville, Ky., our wide-ranging conversation also touched on the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
I learned that Neblett composed "Fighting For My Rights" while he was an abused prisoner in Charleston, Mo. Along with fellow activist Charles Dunlap, he was locked up after he began to help the town's black residents organize. Some of what he endured may sound familiar.
"They'd beat us up and throw us in jail," he said. "They turned the heat on, shut the windows and wouldn't let us have any contact with the outside. The sheriff would come in there and knock us around the cell. We had no cold water and it was really hot in there. We had no mattresses and had to sleep on a steel bed with straps on it. They just kept us in a miserable state. We knew we had to go through it, that we had to be there awhile. So we would just sing."
During his first 10-day stint in the Charleston jail, Neblett improvised lyrics that, sung to the tune of Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue," became a standard among "freedom songs" associated with the civil rights movement. His voice sounded as strong and melodic as ever when he agreed to recite my favorite passage:
My father he told me
On his dying bed
If my son don't get his freedom
I'd rather see him dead
That's why I'm fighting for my rights.
Neblett was also jailed in Georgia and in Mississippi, where he was beaten and given only rotten food to eat. "You talk about being terrorized," he said. "In Mississippi, you'd get terrorized when you got picked up to the minute you got out. In Missouri, the sheriff would ride up and down the black neighborhood shooting dogs. You could hear dogs whining all along the block."
Neblett said the Brown case deeply affected him during his boyhood in Tennessee. He was in eighth grade when the decision was announced. "I was going to a one-room country school with a potbellied stove," he recalled. "I remember always walking by this fancy white school that was two stories tall and being sickened by that. I was also sickened by the fact that we only got buses after the white folks got new buses. We got books only after they got new books.
"When the Brown decision came about, I thought that immediately things were going to be OK," he added with a dry chuckle. But Neblett didn't attend an integrated school until his freshman year at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. "That's the first time I had ever sat down and interacted with white kids in my life," he said.
The murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott, both of which occurred in 1955, influenced Neblett most of all. "Because we were the same age, I saw Till as myself," he said. "I saw myself being killed like him, with none of the institutions of justice to protect me." Images of the boycott helped him transform that depressing thought into a willingness to work for change. "When I looked at the TV and saw those black men standing up, I got religion," he said. "It was like I got the holy ghost."
Neblett's life since SNCC has included political organizing and serving as the first black elected magistrate in Logan County, Ky. By all indications, he still has plenty of fighting spirit.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com