Music has always been identified with the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (whose birthday is Tuesday) and fellow movement leaders knew the value of "We Shall Overcome" and other songs in spurring people to action. This was especially so in the South, where the church and its music were an integral part of the lives of the black people they were organizing to register and vote.
When King went to Birmingham in the summer of 1963, he found a movement that was already seven years old. It was led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement, which had formed the Alabama Christian Movement Choir. Birmingham was perhaps the most rigidly segregated city in the country -- it was even illegal for whites and blacks to play checkers together -- but it was also a center of gospel music, and that music became an organizing tool.
Gospel music composer Carlton Reese was a student then at Miles College in his home town of Birmingham, but when he was asked to put his talents to work for the Alabama Christian Movement and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he jumped at the chance. "I was looking at it as being a way to work in the movement to bring about a new day for my people," he said from Birmingham. "King and Shuttlesworth knew that music was . . . important . . . to help channel people to make a sacrifice for the cause of freedom." Reese led the Alabama Christian Movement Choir in performing freedom songs at the mass meetings that were held every night for six months at the height of the Birmingham campaign. He not only played the organ and piano and led the 80-person choir -- the largest freedom choir in the country -- but also composed songs that became Birmingham mainstays.
"Many of the things King and Shuttlesworth were talking about, I could put to music," he says. "I saw this as a ministry to the freedom movement." A lot of the songs featuring lyrics written by Reese were set to familiar gospel tunes, making them easier to learn. "God Sent Shuttlesworth," for example, was set to the tune of "When They Ring Those Golden Bells for You and Me." Reese also wrote original songs such as "Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do" and "We've Got a Job," which were known only in the Birmingham area.
The music in Birmingham was rooted in a gospel culture, reflecting urban influences, while the movement music in rural areas was usually performed in the more traditional a capella style. But the message was the same. "I think the Birmingham music served the same purpose as all the other music," said Reese. "It helped people understand that they needed to make a commitment."
Reese's commitment affected his life even after the intense Birmingham campaign ended. He finished college, but the local board of education wouldn't hire him because of his reputation as a movement worker. He moved to Mississippi and taught for two years before being hired during the early days of integration by a school system on the outskirts of Birmingham, where he wasn't known.
Although Reese doesn't teach music, he says that he is "still on call for commitments in the movement." He is the manager and director of the Carlton Reese Singers of Birmingham, which includes some of the old movement singers. He is minister of music at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in Birmingham. And he is the song leader and music coordinator for this year's Southern Christian Leadership Conference activities in Birmingham commemorating King's birthday.
This Saturday Reese will lead a workshop of Birmingham freedom songs at the National Museum of American History in honor of King's birthday. He will be backed by a choir of local singers, including Rev. Shuttlesworth's daughter, Carolyn Davidson. The song workshop is part of the "Of Songs, Peace and Struggle" program, which opens with a testimony by James Orange, a former SCLC organizer. It begins at 1 p.m., and is free.