Sweet Honey in the Rock, six black women clad in billowing, brightly colored caftans, stand on the stage, five singing, one signing along. A cappella except for some traditional percussion instruments, they are hurling out thick quilts of sound, urgent harmonies spun from the church and the street, from ancient Mother Africa and tomorrow's dreams. There is power and majesty here, particularly in the commanding presence of Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose insistent contralto rings so clearly in this community of cascading voices:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons

Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother's sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

As the night wears on, Sweet Honey weaves a mesmerizing musical spell out of spirituals and rhythm-and-blues tunes, African tribal melodies and children's songs, field hollers and rap tunes, exuberant flights of jazz and complex tone poems. It is less eclectic than electric, a blend of pain and joy and affirmation; Reagon, 45, stout and radiant in her semicircle of sisters, is herself a meld of conscience and concern:

If you see me stumble

Don't stand back and look on

Reach out now, baby

Give your hands to struggle

If you feel my heart break

Don't just count the sound waves

Hold me close now, baby

Give your arms to struggle

On Sunday, the thanks that have been directed at Bernice Reagon for more than two decades of struggle will be formalized at the Sisterfire Festival in Upper Marlboro, where she'll be honored for her eminence as scholar and historian, civil rights activist, singer, composer and producer. That's a lot on anyone's plate, but for Reagon it's just a first course. Since the early '60s, she has been both passionate witness and persistent presence, a resplendent reservoir for black American culture.

Together with Sweet Honey, the astounding, world-renowned ensemble she founded 14 years ago, Reagon is both innovator and carrier of black vocal traditions. Sweet Honey's repertoire is filled with what Reagon, the group's chief writer and music director, once called "songs that take care of business that needs to be taken care of" -- addressing racial, sexual and political oppression; celebrating black heroes and heroines; yet thriving on cultural connections, not distinctions. (The group will close the two-day Sisterfire Festival with a performance at 6 p.m. Sunday.)

"Bernice Reagon is a living treasure in an institution used to dealing with static treasures," says Ralph Rinzler, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for public service, under whom Reagon heads the Program in Black American Culture. Rinzler first encountered Reagon in 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival, when she was with the SNCC Freedom Singers. "When you meet her," he says, "you know there's something there -- a vision, a focus, a drive, an intensity -- and that's never changed."

PulitzerPrize-winning author Alice Walker, who will read from her works at Sisterfire on Sunday afternoon, also remembers Reagon from the '60s, when both were at Spelman College in Atlanta. "She struck me as being so vibrant. She had such an open, honest face and such a wonderful voice. Integrity? She just has it," Walker says. "And Sweet Honey in the Rock deals more effectively with the state of the world than anyone I've ever encountered."

"Watching her when I was younger," says Reagon's daughter Toshi, who will perform with her own band on Sunday, "I sometimes felt she was doing too many things, because I didn't want her to be too tired ... But everything that she did, it seemed like it was really necessary for her to do."

"There's still a job to do," says longtime friend and admirer Pete Seeger, "and I think the world's lucky to have her working on it."

After all, no one -- especially not Bernice Reagon -- is singing "We Have Overcome."

Sound Track for Civil Rights

She's been called a song shaper and song preserver, but it's equally true that Reagon herself was shaped by the musical culture of her youth in Albany, Ga., where her father was a Baptist minister.

Reagon once described her family as "concerned and conscious people who pushed ahead"; indeed, her father had been involved in voter registration drives as far back as 1945. But it was her mother, she says, who was "the centering strength in the family, who kept us moving to a higher level. She could always see that we could operate in a different world with more opportunities. She mortgaged her life to make sure we had a chance to do that. More than anybody, I take my sense of what a black woman is from her."

Though much of the music Reagon grew up with was religious, this began to change after the 1954 Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of schools and public facilities. "A crisis always brings out a new group of songs," says Seeger, "and the civil rights struggle led to a wonderful lot of new songs, which were not that different from the old songs, though they emphasized a more militant position."

At the all-black Albany State College, Reagon took a militant position herself: Drawn to a struggle that had already started, she was expelled by an administration afraid of campus protests. It simply freed her for full-time activism.

As the civil rights movement coalesced from hundreds of actions throughout the South, music became an important element in the struggle. It was the songs of the civil rights movement (many collected in "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966," an astonishing three-record set Reagon put together for the Smithsonian in 1980) that unified and gave strength to black demonstrators and underscored the news reports of the time. And the Albany Movement of the early '60s, a youth-oriented protest in which Reagon was a key participant, was a center for the emergence of freedom songs.

"I never saw a gathering of black people that didn't open with song until I left Albany," Reagon recalls. "In church or school, you came together and you started singing, and then sometimes you did a prayer, and if people were a little more religious, you might read Scripture. And you generally closed with a song. The songs were always there and then you could get to why you had come together."

The freedom songs that came out of the Albany Movement, she points out, reflected the particular black culture of southwest Georgia. "You had to go to Birmingham to get the freedom songs that come straight out of the Gospel," she says. "Out of Albany you tended to get a lot of songs that didn't have piano with them. They seemed to pull from the older congregational-style singing, which is an unrehearsed {and unaccompanied} tradition."

What's more, "there were so many young people in Albany -- SNCC organizers like Cordell Reagon {to whom Bernice would be briefly married}, Charles Sherrod, Charlie Jones -- that the repertoire of rhythm and blues freedom songs also moved into the young people there, a street repertoire that was never done in the mass meetings {in churches}, but was in the jails, in the streets, and on marches." There's never been a protest movement so rich in song.

In 1961, the teen-age Reagon was still "very Albany-focused." But others -- the media in particular -- were beginning to notice the new sound track of civil rights. James Forman, then head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, thought it might be important to put together a musical group to help raise both consciousness and funds.

And so Reagon and Rutha Mae Harris joined with Cordell Reagon and Charles Nebbett to form the SNCC Freedom Singers. Touring the country in a Buick station wagon, they appeared at hundreds of actions and mass meetings and were frequently arrested, becoming both symbols of and powerful advocates for the civil rights movement.

Their audiences, Reagon says, "were people who absolutely needed to in some way participate in the movement. They were seeing the demonstrations, the marches, the arrests, the sit-ins, and they might have already been organizing food and clothing campaigns. The concerts more than anything else probably opened up to them the range of our song culture.

"This singing was unaccompanied, and Cordell would always make people sing, and that was new for a lot of our audiences. He would always talk about what the songs meant, what would happen. We used to call it 'singing newspapers.' "

In some ways, she says, this freedom-song tradition remains at the heart of Sweet Honey. "Freedom songs come out of black American culture -- a strong, participatory congregational style -- so even though you come to a concert and you're looking at somebody on the stage, you are immediately pushed to make the evening with them. We sang songs for 10 or 15 minutes, but there would be these big repetitive choruses so you'd sort of rock with it until the song ended up moving you in a strong rhythmic way ..."

After leaving the Freedom Singers in 1963, Reagon involved herself in collecting and performing materials from black cultures and organizing events such as the Southern Folk Festival and the Appalachian Festival. Then she tried to get the Atlanta school board to approve a social studies program incorporating oral traditions, but couldn't get her proposal taken seriously. This failure sent her back to college -- at Spelman, in Atlanta -- where she finally got her BA (in history, in 1970).

"I realized I could sing, I could produce festivals, I could work real well with audiences," Reagon says, "but the minute I met the establishment structure, I would be turned around ... So I went back to school, because I felt that wherever black people are, this material {oral history} should be, and that the oral process should be allowed right along with the written process."

At Spelman, the music curriculum included only European classical music, and it was the history department that encouraged Reagon to study black music as an integrated part of cultural history -- confirming the duality of research and performance that has been at the heart of her work ever since.

Revolution on the Mall

While in Atlanta getting her degree, Reagon founded the Harambee Singers, a four-woman group that is still operating. She left them behind, however, when she came to Washington to work at the Smithsonian and take on a doctoral program in oral history at Howard University.

When she first came to the Smithsonian, to work on a black culture program for the Festival of American Folklife, Reagon joined an organization that was, in Rinzler's word, "troglodytic." Its collections contained only a handful of items reflecting black American culture, Rinzler says, and "Native Americans were represented by a woodcut of a savage in a loincloth with his tomahawk poised over a pilgrim's head. That's what you were dealing with in this institution in 1968."

Still, Reagon says, there were already people at the Smithsonian "who were beginning to think differently about what this institution would be" -- foremost among them Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. When Ripley took over the Smithsonian, says Rinzler, "he was very tuned in to changing it ... and in his own savvy, gentle, aristocratic fashion, he did." That meant not only putting popcorn vendors and a carousel on the Mall, but also establishing the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.

When it came to raising consciousness, Reagon says, the Washington riots of 1968 didn't hurt. "And it helped that the Poor People's campaign occurred on the same Smithsonian Mall where the Park Service gets nervous when too many people walk on it and ruin the elm tree roots." She recalls the muddy huddle of Resurrection City "right between these buildings, and Ripley's insisting that the buildings stay open so that people could come in and use the bathrooms."

The Smithsonian's first program in black American culture took place in the middle of Resurrection City. A year later, Reagon began working with Rinzler and the Festival of American Folklife and Jim Morris at the Division of Performing Arts.

In the early '70s, Reagon began planning for the Smithsonian's celebration of the Bicentennial. In 1972 she chaired the African Diaspora Advisory Group, made up of leading black and white scholars; this led to important segments in subsequent festivals, including the African Diaspora at the 1975 festival. Reagon's efforts were then institutionalized as the Program in Black American Culture, first at the performing arts division and, after that section folded, at the Museum of American History. The programs she developed at the Smithsonian have become models for similar programs in black American culture at museums around the country.

The essence of her Smithsonian work, she says, has been finding ways "to have this institution participate in the validation of one of the greatest cultures within this society -- and to have black peoples, and all peoples who come to this institution, witness that."

Not that this is enough. "We still operate as a people like we're knocking on the door trying to get in," Reagon says. "But we don't have working with us that understanding of how central we are to the fabric of this country. Most of the sympathetic scholars for black Americans continue to treat us as an appendage. They act as if the heart {of America} is made of something else, though black Americans are central to what this country is."

One particular struggle is to keep the civil rights movement from being overlooked when people talk about movements of the '60s. "The civil rights movement is the foundation of the whole period that followed and continues to provide basic models for organizing and change," Reagon says. "I notice that if the people talking about {the '60s} are white, they start after the civil rights movement, or list the antiwar movement first, which I attribute to racism."

Says Smithsonian scholar James Early, a longtime Reagon colleague: "She sees blacks as the crucible for Americans to, in a broader sense, understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. It's blacks who have strived to make {the Bill of Rights} a reality -- they've had to because of the dispossession that they found themselves in."

Other struggles have become central to Bernice Reagon, among them women's rights, though she rejects the observation that the civil rights movement was controlled by men and thus sexist. In that movement, she says, black men and women "addressed the issue that seemed to be at a crisis point for us, and that was black people and the status of black people and the issue of racism. That was the thing that could get you killed. That's the basis upon which I'm politicized and that's the thing that feels life and death to me -- being black in this country."

'Song After Song'

Fourteen years ago, Bernice Reagon, as vocal director for the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre, called for a singing workshop. Eight people, four of each sex, showed up and "the singing was all right." After a couple of months, it stopped, but then one woman asked Reagon to revive it. "At that time if somebody suggested I do something it became an obligation," she says, admitting "it's still a problem I'm trying to work through right now."

So Reagon called a rehearsal, for which only three women showed up. "I was disappointed but I was fairly dictatorial, so I started singing and it just fell in place and it was tight. And we got through the first song and we looked at each other and went 'Yeah!' We went song after song after song and everything was right."

And thus was born Sweet Honey in the Rock, taking its name from the biblical image of a land so rich and fertile that when one cracked a rock open, honey would flow from it. This seemed an apt metaphor for the duality of strength and sweetness of black women.

"When I started Sweet Honey in the Rock I said, 'You can have it if you can rip off time for it,'" Reagon recalls. "That was the biggest problem, maintaining your family's support, because a woman has a hard time staying in something if the family does not want her to be in it. We would talk about how to keep the group so that the husbands, children, boyfriends, would like that we were in the group."

It took three years for Sweet Honey to jell, and though there have been more than 20 singers over the group's life span -- the current lineup includes 13-year member Evelyn Maria Harris, Ysaye Barnwell, Aisha Kahlil and the newest member, Nitanju Bolade, plus Shirley Childress Johnson, a signer for the hearing impaired -- the basic sound hasn't changed. It simply continues to expand as new voices bring new edges to its persistent communality.

Yasmeen Betty Graham was with Sweet Honey for 10 years, leaving two years ago to concentrate on her family. Still an occasional substitute, she remembers her first impression of Reagon: "She knew what she wanted, knew where she wanted to go, knew what she wanted out of what she was doing. There's a softness that a lot of people don't see, or that Bernice doesn't allow people to see because she has a lot of work to do and you can't do it being soft. What she demands is the best out of you, and she makes you work up to that point in yourself."

Graham recalls not only the singing around the country and eventually the world, but the twice weekly sessions at Reagon's home where songs and ideas were developed. "Issues, ideas, points of view, opinions were always discussed," says Graham -- "at meetings, on the buses, in the planes, from concert to concert, on the way to the sound check, on the way to the concert ..."

In Sweet Honey, James Early says, "there's a lot of latitude for folk to be who they are and what they are by virtue of their talent, not just to be a follower of Bernice Reagon. In the same way that a quilting community of women come together, they really do meet as a community of women, not solely as a community of performers who have a repertoire to rehearse and refine, or business matters to discuss."

Because of an astonishing power built on pure and stunningly spun vocals, hand claps and African percussive instruments, and because of the spiritual depth of a repertoire that mixes condemnations of racism, sexism, militarism and other negative "isms" with celebrations of black history, love and friendship, Sweet Honey has become a favorite around the world. There have been recent performances in Europe, Central American, Africa and, a few months back, Cuba (though the women generally work only on weekends, because of their regular jobs). Forever evolving, drawing on the strength of five distinct voices, Sweet Honey's music is a cathartic experience -- so much so that the group's structural explorations are sometimes overlooked.

"What Bernice has done with Sweet Honey is more innovative than what anyone has done to synthesize root and evolved forms into a new form," says Rinzler. "She's done it with vocal music, but in a sense she's done it with instrumental music, too, because she's taken the voice and used it as another kind of instrument. She has drawn on the richest wellspring of black, and in some cases non-black, vocal tradition and created a brilliant new genre. It's the most important thing being done with traditional vocal styles and repertoire that anybody's done in this country."

Sweet Honey offers both the historical and the new, social commentary and documentation through song. But Reagon is also concerned about appearing too didactic, which explains a range of song much broader than that of either the Freedom Singers or the Harambee Singers.

Those groups took shape at a time of "Pan Africanism and Black Nationalism," she notes, "and people were not doing love poems. But with Sweet Honey ... one of the things we say is that for all the issues we sing about, the only thing we're singing about is love. That's all you get. As complex as it sounds, that's how complex it is ... If you're a black woman and you care, you can't miss all the connections you have with all the other people in the universe."

Go to a Sweet Honey concert and you can see the connections Reagon is talking about. There, says James Early, the group's fans "can look around and see people like themselves, whatever that may mean -- but they will also see people quite unlike themselves, and people they would not normally associate with. But they're all there, and they may try to figure it out: 'Well I know what brought me to Sweet Honey, but what am I doing sitting next to an X or Y kind of person?' Black, white, woman, gay, dreadlock, pin-stripe suit, different class and perspectives, old women who clearly come out of the black Baptist church sitting around a room of younger folk ... the answer is that Sweet Honey is bringing messages for all of them, and ultimately it's all one message."

"What most appeals to me," says Alice Walker, who calls Sweet Honey her favorite singing group, is that "there is no separation between the spiritual and the political ... they are one and the same in the same way that in the South they have always been together."

"Some singers go in for singing songs about the whole world," says Pete Seeger, "but then you don't know where their home is. Are they dilettantes, tourists who just travel and sing other people's songs? Do they have songs of their own? Sweet Honey has been able to be very much themselves and at the same time let the audience know that they consider themselves sisters of people in faraway places. They are truly great artists, and the songs they write are going to last many, many years."

Small Doors Opening

This has been an unusually productive year for Bernice Reagon. Besides her work at the Smithsonian and with Sweet Honey in the Rock, she released "River of Life," a solo album in which she used studio multitracking to recreate the rich, vibrant chorales of the black American Baptist tradition that originally inspired her. And she published "Compositions One," an attempt to translate the complex oral traditions Sweet Honey embodies into a book of musical notation.

This summer, she'll help her daughter Toshi finish her first album. Somewhere down the line are: Smithsonian albums of the gospel songs of Roberta Martin and Charles Albert Tindley, and the eventual release of an already completed six-record historic gospel anthology temporarily shelved when the Performing Arts Division folded. She is also working on a book about the songs of the civil rights movement.

One senses that some day, Reagon would like to shift into more of a curatorial position at the Smithsonian and not be as involved in organizing public programs. Yet even after all the work she's done, and is still doing, she still keeps her eyes on the prize, knowing that her work is really not for herself, but for those who come after.

"I think most of us will not witness in our lives the great breaking of the doors," Bernice Reagon says quietly. "I think we will have small doors opening."

"She sometimes gets tired during her mission," says Toshi Reagon, "but I don't think she ever gets tired of her mission."