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She’s Still “Stayed on Freedom”: An Interview With Civil Rights Activist and Freedom Singer, Rutha Harris

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Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Rutha Harris, a woman who used the power of her voice to fight for freedom, justice and civil rights for Black people as a Freedom Singer during the southern movement for civil rights of the 1960s.  Rutha was a college student home on summer break when the Civil Rights movement rocked her world and led her to become a part of history.  Her voice has been described as “goosebump-inducing” and “so inspiring even the southern police chiefs would ask her to sing from jail.” Rutha believes that her voice is a gift from God. Thank goodness God gave her that gift, or we might not be where we are today. Meet Rutha!

Angela:  Rutha, thank you for agreeing to talk with BlackHer today.  We are looking forward to learning more about you and your work in the Southern Movement for Civil Rights! Let’s jump right into it. You are a Civil Rights activist and one of the Freedom Singers. Can you tell us what a Freedom Singer is and how you became one?

Rutha:  A Freedom Singer is one who tells the story of the Civil Rights movement through song and oral storytelling.  I became a Freedom Singer during the Albany, Georgia phase of the civil rights movement in 1962 where I was a song leader.

My skills as a singer were discovered by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”) member, Cordell Reagon. Cordell heard me sing during a mass meeting and thought I was very good. Cordell was a field secretary for SNCC, and also a very gifted singer.  He was trying to form a singing group to raise money for SNCC.

In fact, Cordell was approached by the folk singer, Pete Seeger, at a SNCC rally. Seeger thought Cordell’s beautiful tenor voice was so good that he suggested that Cordell organize a singing group to raise money for SNCC. This great idea took off during the Albany Movement in 1962.

We were called The Freedom Singers.  We sang acapella. The original group consisted of Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson (later Bernice Johnson Reagon), Charles Neblett and yours truly – me!

From 1962 – 1965, we traveled 50,000 miles or so, and covered 46 states out of what were then only 48 states.

Angela:  People know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and the Birmingham Movement where Bull Conner turned the dogs on school children and Dr. King went to jail. Can you tell us about the Albany Movement?     

Rutha: The Albany Movement was a desegregation and voting rights movement that started in the summer of 1961.  The leaders, Cordell Reagon, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones came to Albany, Georgia on behalf of SNCC to organize local Black people around desegregation and voter registration.  At that time, Albany, Georgia was 40% Black, but only 28 Black people in town were registered to vote.

The Albany organizers were having some success getting local people interested in the movement.  They gained more ground in November of 1961 when local Black leaders and the NAACP joined SNCC in Albany. In December 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined them.  The movement had begun.

Angela:  Did you get involved in the Albany Movement itself?

Rutha: Yes, I got very involved. I joined the Albany Movement through SNCC. I was 21 and I was home in Albany for the summer. SNCC was organizing people to register to vote. I went to a meeting to learn about what they were doing.

Cordell met me while I was walking down the street and asked me if I wanted to be free.  I said “What do you mean, do I want to be free? I am free.”  I said this because my father, Reverend I. A. Harris, sheltered us from segregation. He built the house that I am living in now in 1932.  He was a strong man and a respected member of the Black community.  He was also respected by white people in town.  As we said back then, “he didn’t take no wooden nickels.”

Angela: Interesting!  How did your father shelter you from segregation and discrimination?

Rutha:  Well, he controlled what we were exposed to. He was a minister, so he told us that we could not go to the movies at all because he did not like the content.  That meant we never went to a segregated movie theatre. If we wanted to go out to eat, he said, “No, we have a refrigerator, stove, kitchen table and good food right here. I am not spending money on eating out when you can eat right here.”  That meant that we didn’t see any segregated restaurants.

If we couldn’t use the bathroom at a gas station, he took off and refused to buy gas there.  I really thought I was free until I learned about the voter registration numbers in Albany. I thought, “I know there are more than 28 Black people who want to vote in this town.” That motivated me to start working with SNCC.

Angela:  When did you decide that you were not free?

Rutha: When I learned from the SNCC workers that people in Albany were afraid to register to vote, for fear of death, violence or losing their jobs, I realized that things were not as I thought they were in my life in Albany either.  As I got more involved in the movement I came to understand that I could not go to the white areas of places that we marched to, like segregated waiting rooms in bus stations, bathrooms, and segregated restaurants. It brought it all home and I knew I wasn’t free either.

I got more and more deeply involved in the movement.  Eventually, Cordell recruited me to be a Freedom Singer.

My mother agreed to let me travel with the Freedom Singers after I promised that I’d finish college once I was done working with SNCC.  I left Florida A&M for the movement.  I fulfilled my promise to my mother in 1970, when I graduated from Albany College.

Angela:  Was your life ever in danger as a civil rights worker?

Rutha: My life was endangered as a Freedom Singer.  When we drove through Alabama we were shot at.  We were ducking, praying and singing in the car.  The driver had to sit upright and drive as fast as he could. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Also, I have been on marches where the police approached us with clubs and cattle prods. They never used them on me because the men who were marching did their best to protect women. They put their bodies in the line of fire.

Angela:  Let’s talk about your work as a singer for the movement. What were some of your most notable singing engagements?

Rutha: There were a lot of notable engagements.  One was definitely The March on Washington.  We heard Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech live that day.

We flew to the March on a plane that was chartered by Harry Belafonte.  Others on the plane included Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., and Rita Moreno.  We had our own suite on the plane, so we could practice on the way there.

I led the singing of We Shall Not Be Moved at the March.

We also sang at the Newport Jazz Festival with Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.

Angela:  You guys were gifted singers, and maybe you were even stars.  Was it important that you were also part of SNCC’s fieldwork?

Rutha:  Yes. All the Freedom Singers were SNCC field secretaries. Field secretaries were on-the-ground workers. We went into different counties to canvas, sign people up for voter registrations and hold mass meetings. Doing that work was as important to us as singing. SNCC was all about everyone doing fieldwork. We weren’t too famous to be in the field, and we wanted to be there.

Angela:  What stands out in your mind from your SNCC field experience?

Rutha: SNCC’s citizenship schools. I met a 91-year-old Black man who did not know how to write his name.  I taught him to write his name and I helped him register to vote.  When it came time to vote, he cast his ballot for the first time.  For me, that was wonderful.  This story was mentioned in the play about my life, The Rutha Harris Story.  Change didn’t come overnight in Albany, but it came just the same.

Angela:  I’ve heard you sing Freedom Songs and it raises a lot of emotions.  Do you think that songs truly inspired people to risk their lives for freedom?

Rutha:  Of course!  Without the songs of the Civil Rights movement, there would not have been a movement in my opinion.

Yes, we were afraid.  There was fear. If you are marching for voter registration and the police say halt, and you don’t, you know you will be arrested.  After you were arrested, who knew what would happen? The police might kill you or harm you. We were afraid, but we kept going and sang freedom songs.

Angela:  How did the songs help?

Rutha: The songs directly addressed the situation we were facing and helped us move forward. The police said halt. These songs kept us moving:

The Freedom Songs were easy to sing and understand because most of them were Gospel or R&B songs with different lyrics.  Everybody knew the tunes.

I saw how the songs gave people strength in many situations.  They played a vital role in making us free and I am still singing them today.

Angela: Did you ever meet Dr. King?  Did you ever sing with him?

Rutha: Yes. I met Dr. King.  I was in his presence several times.  We sang This Little Light of Mine, which was one of his favorites, at a rally. Then Ralph Abernathy encouraged us to sing, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around and I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom. The songs stirred the people at church and got them ready to march.

Angela:  Who else of note did you know? 

Rutha: I came to know our mutual friend the late Julian Bond, through SNCC, when he was in Albany. We became very close.  We were great friends.  Years later, I was part of the Civil Rights tours that he held through the University of Virginia.

I also met Marion Barry and the whole SNCC crew.  The late James FormanJohn Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette. I met Diane Nash who was in Nashville, but I was not on the Freedom Rides with her.

Angela: SNCC seemed like a young, hip group, full of energetic people who were working together to push for change in America. I know there was danger, but was it also fun? 

Rutha:  Being part of SNCC was very fun!  It was a wonderful experience, one I will never forget.

Most of the people were high school or college-aged students.  You were old if you were 25.  All the young people in SNCC were similar in that way – ready to face death tomorrow, and wanting to live, live, live tonight.

Angela:  You said that you are still singing the Freedom Songs today.  Can you tell us why?

Rutha:  Because I don’t want them to die!  The original Freedom Singers broke up in the 1960s after the movement ended. Cordell and Bernice got married and later divorced.  (From Angela: Bernice started Sweet Honey and the Rock in 1973).  Charles stayed in Albany.  He still sings at different events now.  His favorite is “Oh Freedom.”

My brother Emory, who also joined the movement, SNCC and the Freedom Singers was arrested 17 times as we fought for civil rights.  He still sings and sometimes the two of us sing together.

Today there are new members of the Freedom Singers and we perform regularly. We often sing at the Albany Civil Rights Institute in Georgia.  Recently, we organized a group of young Georgia kids to learn and sing the Freedom Songs.

Angela:  What do you think of this period we are in? We’ve had Obama and have the #MeToo movement and gay marriage.  Are we in a new civil rights period?

Rutha: There’s some new energy to fight for our rights.  A lot of people are fighting against discrimination. People are tired of being treated unequally.  We are all tired of 45.  I know the #MeToo woman, Tarana Burke, personally. She used to live in Selma. That’s where I met her.  She has a daughter.  She was tired of being messed with. She’s a strong woman with her head on straight.

Through Civil Rights and other movements, the Lord has given us the tools – on a platter – to be free.  Today, He is once again showing us that the tools are there. He put 45 in office for a reason.  He’s shown us what to do to free ourselves. All we have to do is do it.

We’ve got to come together to vote and elect these folks who are on our side. We want Stacey Abrams as the Governor of Georgia, Ben Jealous in Maryland and Andrew Gillum in Florida!

We have to get people registered to vote, and hopefully, they will vote.  Don’t let it rain on election day!

Angela:  Let me ask you the Miracle Question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning and it’s October 2019. The miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Rutha:  Black women have come to the forefront.

We have been hidden in the back for so long.  We have been keeping things hidden inside for so long. We are letting it all come out.  We are rising and we are not taking it anymore!

 

 

 

P.S. Need inspiration?  Buy “I am on the Battlefield” a CD by Rutha Harris!

 

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