CAROL ALDERMAN: [in the background] Jonathan, how unprepared am I?
JONATHAN CAPEHART: [in the background] … You’re just not.
[Music and singing]
CAPEHART: Hi, I’m Jonathan Capehart and this is “Voices of the Movement,” a series from my podcast “Cape Up” sharing the stories and lessons of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement and using them to figure out where we go from here.
On the Faith and Politics Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama every year, there are a few things that remain the same: The group always walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis; you always visit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Montgomery.
And you always — always — hear music. Music from church choirs. Songs like “This Little Light of Mine.” And, of course, “We Shall Overcome.”
All of that music is for a reason. Music was the psychic fuel used to propel the movement and its demonstrators in their seemingly impossible quest for equality and justice.
Take Chuck Neblett, for instance. He was a founding member of a group called “The Freedom Singers,” a group that traveled the country starting in the 1960’s performing freedom songs in coffeehouses, on college campuses and in churches.
I spoke with Neblett on a panel about music of the movement at the historic Brown Chapel in Selma.
CAPEHART: [To Neblett] Is there a song for you that is your rock, a bedrock song for you that speaks to you that says everything that you need to say or feel?
CHUCK NEBLETT: I’d say “Hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.” And it goes like …
CAPEHART: That other person you heard singing with Chuck Neblett, that’s Bettie Mae Fikes.
BETTIE MAE FIKES: I’ve been singing ever since I was 4. My mother was a gospel singer. So I stood beside her in church when she was singing, “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.” She would do the verse and I would do the chorus.
CAPEHART: Bettie Mae is known as the voice of Selma. And to many, she’s the voice of the entire movement.
CAPEHART: [To Fikes] The interesting thing among many interesting things about you Bettie Mae is that you were arrested . . . for singing. Please explain. Was it your voice? Was it the words you were singing? Was it a particular song?
FIKES: “This Little Light of Mine.” Where I was put our oppressors in: “Tell George Wallace. Tell [inaudible] I’m gonna let it shine.” I will put all of our oppressors in, so that made this little light of mine completely different than the old Baptist way.
CAPEHART: I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time imagining that, Bettie Mae. What does that sound like?
FIKES: In jail, that’s all I had was the music. So crowded that we couldn’t lay down. So we just crumbled together. Singing, singing, singing, singing, all day, all night. All day, all night. And all of a sudden you will hear somebody say, all day, all night, “The angels keep watching over us.”
And the jailers used to tell us, “If you don’t shut up, we’re gonna rape you all and take tar paper and put it all around the windows.” But we kept singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Then we would go from gospel songs back to freedom songs. All night, all day and, really, the angels kept watch over us.
CAPEHART: Let me ask you what might seem like a too basic a question, but you just said you would alternate between gospel songs and freedom songs. What’s the difference between the two? Are freedom songs just gospel songs with George Wallace and other other oppressors thrown in?
FIKES: Well, our freedom songs really came from gospel. All the new one was written by new artists. But . . . I woke up this morning with my mind, instead of saying, “Stand on Jesus,” “Stand on freedom.” So we just really rearranged the gospel songs into freedom songs. But you know gospel songs are just freedom songs. It frees your mind and your spirit.
RUBY SALES: As a little black child in the South, I could sing 50 songs and that was the way in which I was connected with my elders, with my ancestors.
CAPEHART: Ruby Sales is a longtime civil rights activist, going as far back as the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965.
During the pilgrimage, Sales spoke eloquently of the history and the place of music, not only during the movement, but also in the lives of African Americans starting in slavery.
SALES: During enslavement, it was a capital punishment for African Americans to read. We could be put to death for reading. It was against the law to write. It was against the law to engage in the public discourse. And the only thing that we had left was culture and, out of that culture, we created songs. And so songs became a way in which black people express ourselves in a society that tried to reduce us to property and said that we were not significant enough to speak.
It was our inner selves. It was the essence of who we are as a people. It was a repository of our hopes, the repository of our dreams, the repository of our victories, and the repository of our defeats. It was the essence of a people who were not meant to survive.
It told the world how we had survived enslavement. It told the world how important it was to love everybody. It told the world that we’ve got a right to the tree of democracy. It told the world that everybody — I’ve got shoes you got shoes. All God’s children got shoes.
When you start off singing a song something changes inside of you and you're not who you were when you first started singing. So I think songs are very important. Without songs, we couldn't have had a movement, Jonathan. We could not have had a movement because the songs represented. . . . It was where we embodied our courage.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: So when we were in jail we said, what is it Bettie? Buses are coming?
CAPEHART: Bernard Lafayette was the program director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was occasionally in jail with Bettie Mae Fikes.
LAFAYETTE: So we were singing actually to the jailers to let them know that the buses were coming so they needed to get ready. And we would sing ...
FIKES and LAFAYETTE: [singing] Buses are a coming, oh yes. Buses are a coming, oh yes. Buses are a coming, buses are a coming. Buses are a coming, oh yeah.
LAFAYETTE: And the jailer would say, “Shut up all that hollering here. This ain’t no playhouse this is a jail house.”
So we said to ourselves, “What they gonna do? Arrest us?”
[laughter and applause]
LAFAYETTE: And we kept singing. So the next thing, they said, “all right, that done it.” We in Mississippi now. “I hear one more peep out you boogers, I’m gonna take that mattress.” And it was already filled up as it was, two on a mattress, as it was. End for end. You know what end for end means? Your head down there and your tail down there. And then there was a magic line down the middle. Invisible. You stayed right there. You didn’t move around yourself. So anyway, we didn’t want no mattress anyway. We sang.
[Sings] “You can take our mattress, oh yes. You can take our mattress, oh yes.”
LAFAYETTE: We got the mattresses and piled them up at the door. Go ahead and take the mattress, we didn’t care about no mattress. We weren’t gonna let anything turn us around.
So those are smart folks down in Mississippi. They noticed we had toothbrushes when we go to jail. Because you know overcrowded situation and they don’t have no toothbrush, you know what I’m talking about? Makes it kinda difficult to be close to somebody.
So somebody broke out, and he said, jailer said, “Well take those toothbrushes.”
So somebody broke out and sang, “You can take our toothbrush . . .”
And we said, “Now wait a minute.”
Singing in an overcrowded jail with no toothbrush. This is time for Quaker consensus. Well, we discussed it until we all had a consensus. And I came up with the idea that we had to make sure if we weren’t gonna have no toothbrushes, we had to learn how to sing without breathing on everybody.
So you can do it actually, and what we did was put the middle of your lip — now people got different sized lips —
CAPEHART: I got enough. Uh uh . . .
LAFAYETTE: Put the middle part together. Got it?
CAPEHART: [through closed lips] Uh huh. I got it.
LAFAYETTE: [sings through closed lips] You can take our toothbrush, oh yes.
CAPEHART: And I’m gonna take the mic.
CAPEHART: In jail, music was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from them. And during marches and protests, it was the one thing that could hold a rally together. Propel it.
And it was also used to tell a story or make a point or point out about hypocrisy — or in the case of the “Dog Song” — do all three.
FIKES: Jim Bevel had the experience but we all put the song together. It’s called the “Dog Song.” See he grew up in Mississippi, in Itta Bena. The dogs could play together his neighbor. You know when you say neighbors in the country it could be half a mile away. So they played together the dogs, you know from the black family and the white family. But the children couldn’t play together. So they made up a song called, “Dogs.”
[sings “Dog Song”]
CAPEHART: Perhaps you had to witness it with your own eyes and ears, but what you heard from Bettie Mae Fikes, Chuck Neblett and Bernard Lafayette at Brown Chapel was a moment. That kind of happening you just know is special in real time.
For me, that feeling always happens early in the pilgrimage — on the very first stop as soon as I hear the choir at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
CAPEHART: I’ve now been to 16th Street Baptist three times, and it’s always that choir. That choir always . . . it’s sort of . . . it’s a welcome. It’s an embrace. It’s just hearing those voices.
It takes me back to going to you know the black Baptist church with my paternal grandfather when he would take me to see my father’s side of the family. It was one of those knock-down, drag-out gospel Baptist churches with the gospel singing for two hours or something, and the church was jumpin'. This church is not exactly like that, but the voices are. And it just brings me home every time.
And the music is always . . . if you just hear the music, it's beautiful and inviting. But if you listen to the music, it’s when it starts to latch on and you understand that these, this beautiful music has a much deeper meaning and a much deeper history.
And that’s why I feel like when I walked in that church, even though I don’t know those ladies, I know them. And in these jobs that we have, particularly for me, the job that I have, there aren’t many opportunities where I feel seen or understood, and walking into the church and hearing those women sing, I feel seen and understood. And that’s the incredible thing I’ve been doing this for three years now, and I’m always just blown away by the stories, the people, the history.
And to be a part of this, like this, is just an honor that I can't even put into words.
CAPEHART: Coming up on “Voices of the Movement” . . .
. . . the next generation is continuing the tradition, in song . . .
. . . and in adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence.
[singing fades out]