"The Freedom Singers -- they traveled through the South in those days as a sort of a newspaper. When the newspapers weren't telling the story."
Cordell Reagon was one of those singers, and a Freedom Rider too, and the words that come after his name on the program are a map of the civil rights movement to the '60s; sit-ins; SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee); Nashville; Selma; Cairo; Southwest Georgia Project; Mississippi Summer Project; Danville.
They had the newspaper going again yesterday, as the Smithsonian and Howard University opened a five-day working conference on the civil rights movement culture.
All the day at Carmichael auditorium, the people came up and intorduced themselves with a song, and you heard the names you remembered from 20 years ago and there was a lot of hugging.
Willie Peacock told about how his familys got word to him when he was with SNCC in Albany, Ga., that he shouldn't come home because The Man was looking for him, watching all the roads into Charleston, Miss., where he lived. His kid brother had just been put in jail.
"We need a lot of help," he said, and then he sang that wonderful lilting prayer, "Come By Here," but he couldn't finish. So the audience took it up for him, a hundred voices, and you remembered how it was, even if you hadn't been in the South but had marched against mapalm in California: the angry yells and hate-faces on the sidelines, the cops whose eyes you could never catch, and the great swell of "We Shall Overcome" all around you, binding you together, making you feel as strong as a hundred armies.
"It doesn't look much like a church in Burmingham," said Bernice Johnson Reagon, the editor of this warm and breathing newspaper, "but you look at the space and see what's around you and you take the things you need to make it in your own space . . .
The civil rights struggle didn't begin in 1960, it began when we were captured in Africa."
From the motley audience in the Smithsonian's History and Technology building came church sounds: "Mmmm-Hmmm!" "All Right!" "Go Ahead!"
The word came out from Americus, Ga., in the '60s that "there's this little girl with a voice as big as anything," and it turned out to be Amanda Bowens Perdew of the American Trio.She was there yesterday too.
"I first knew there was something wrong when the black kids were pulled out of school to work in the fields," said Amanda Perdew. She had to sneak out of the house to join her first Freedom Rider rally.
"When you were scared, you sang loud. We went to the jail to protest some arrest, and they kept us there two months."
It was the first of many times she went to jail for her rights. She sang, "Ain't Scared of Your Jail Cause I Want My Freedom."
On came Hollis Watkins, "from McComb, Mississippi, one of the early places," who said he wasn't really from McComb but from "the country of Summit, three miles north," and the reason he got involved in the struggle to register blacks to vote was "this is a war going on, yet at the same time they're talking about love, and some of this stuff just don't go together."
When gospel singer Cleo Kennedy, a veteran of the Birmingham Movement, hit a high E singing Carlton Reese's "Can't You See Your Freedom Is Comin'" people stood up and waved their arms. She sang every night at the mass meetings in Birmingham during the trouble.
Charles Neblett got into the movement in Cairo, Ill., because he noticed his father said "sir" to white men half his age.
"I saw the law wasn't there to protect me," said the SNCC warrior. "I always remember the sound of the door when they shut you in jail. You know the sound? BLANG!" And people laughed quietly, remembering too.
He sang "Which Side Are You On?" and they yelled it behind him.
Charles Sherrod: "Li fell good! I felt good last night! I felt good all year just thinkin' about feeling good. We got enough soul here to raise this inanimate building, out it to life. They oughta employ us to do just that -- put some life in this city!"
He is a preacher now. The titles after his name are SNCC; sit-in movement: Rock Hill, Southwest Georgia Project. He saw some faces he knew in the audience. Bob Moses Dorothy Cotton . . . he wondered if they were the same people he used to know, the same inside anyway.
"Let's live on," he said. "Let's be strong."
Jocelyn McKittrick, who's "been in the movement since I was a little-bitty girl," works in prisons these days and wishes the brothers weren't inside but were free, "building a world. It makes me mad." She sang "Precious Lord," and Chico Neblett, in a huge purple cap, sang "Brother, You're Right."
There were many more names to come, including CORE founder James Farmer and Jimmy Collier of the Poor People's March and SNCC's Julian Bond, now a Georgia state senator. But the last one to say hello at this first session was the Rev. James Bevel of Memphis, whose campaign ribbons include the sit-ins, Freedom Riders, SNCC, SCLC, Nashville, Birmingham, Mississippi. He was one of the first.
"It's not a black movement," he raged. "It's a movement about truth!"
In his holy anger, he talked so fast thay by the time you had pieced together one sentence he was halfway through the next.
"You got to tell the truth about what you do know. If you destroy the truth about the past, you can't understand the present and you can't move into the future. You can't lose the battle if you're nonviolent . . ."
And to be nonviolent, you had to have humility, "the ability to accept the truth in spite of its pain to you, and the strength to suffer the consequences," and humility and sincerity were all you needed.
"The sixties movement was just a shakedown cruise . . . to teach us to overcome error. Now we're ready to get started!"
In the new battle, said Rev. Bevel, "you gotta be straighter and cleaner than Martin King and Jesus, or you'll get busted." And it isn't simply a matter of going to church:
"They can't enslave the man who knows God. That's not something to make old ladies shout! That's a LAW!"
Winding up: "We have become freedom pimps, raising enough money to send our children to private schools . . ." He asked them to stop killing animals and smoking and drinking and lusting -- "so we can love."
His song went, "Lord forgive me, Lord please forgive me, for not being strong," and through the first two verses no one joined in, no one coughed, no one moved a muscle, but on the third verse they began to sing along with him, softly at first and then louder, and at the end there was even some harmony.
The singing workshops continue all day today with groups like the Nashville Quartet and the Selma Freedom Choir and words from James Farmer and the Rev. Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick and others. Friday and Saturday various colloquia will cover The Black Church, Activist Communittees, Reconstructing History and such subjects, and on Sunday a series of concerts will wind up the program. An exhibit of movement photography opens Friday.