Bernice Johnson Reagon Shares The Music That Shaped The Civil Rights Movement Neal Conan talks with one of the original Freedom Singers, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and her daughter, Toshi Reagon, about the creation, impact and influence of music during the civil rights movement.

A Freedom Singer Shares The Music Of The Movement

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Back in 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee set up a group called the Freedom Singers to carry the message of civil rights nationwide and raise the spirits of protest marchers and organizers. Here's a rare recording from the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Collection of what happened at one SNCC meeting.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Person: What do you want?

Unidentified People: Freedom.

Unidentified Person: What do you want?

Unidentified People: Freedom.

Unidentified Person: What do you want?

Unidentified People: Freedom.

Unidentified Person: When do you want it?

Unidentified People: Now.

Unidentified Person: When do you want it?

Unidentified People: Now.

Unidentified Person: When do you want it?

Unidentified People: Now.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Oh freedom, oh, freedom, (unintelligible) this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine...

CONAN: One of the voices you're hearing belongs to Bernice Johnson Reagon, who is with us today here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms.�BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON (Former Member, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

CONAN: And do you remember that moment, by any chance?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Yes, and I also did the collection for the Smithsonian, which is "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement," and it is a two-CD collection, and all of the cuts are from field recordings of live mass meetings or organizational meetings during that period.

CONAN: And was that as spontaneous as it sounded?


CONAN: That's remarkable. You know, I can imagine even being able to pick out your voice in particular there.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Probably not. I think you're hearing Rutha Harris.

CONAN: Rutha Harris, maybe? That really high voice?


CONAN: Could you have and you have probably answered this question 100 times in the past week, but could you have imagined back in those days, in those meetings, that you would be, this week, in the White House with President Obama celebrating the music of the civil rights movement?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: No, we were really trying to change the structure of the local and state governments in the South that were organized by race. That was our target, and we really weren't thinking 50, 60 years into the future.

CONAN: You were thinking two months, three months, two years down the road.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: That's right, and getting masses of African-Americans registered to vote to actually change the political structure in the South.

CONAN: And how important was music to that effort?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: I don't have any sense of the civil rights movement existing without the singing we did in marches and mass meetings and in jails. There is no separation, and for me, if I hear a program about the civil rights movement, if you're not listening to some of these recordings, I feel you've missed an opportunity to understand the energy and the voice, the articulate voice of the masses of people who stepped out of the old ways of being and just got in the way to change and give us a new situation.

CONAN: I wonder, were the acoustics good in jail?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: We actually didn't test acoustics for anything we did anywhere. If we were there, then we sang, and it's not a thing like you go (humming) - it was not that. You sang.

CONAN: No, I just wonder if those concrete walls and all those very live surfaces, everything might have reverberated pretty good.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: If someone locked you up in jail, there isn't a pretty good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I suspect you're right about that.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: So part of holding on to why you're there, and partially if you're there with masses of people, you are able to have a proactive, positive experience, and the major carrier of that interpretation is the singing.

CONAN: As we mentioned earlier this week, the White House held the latest of a series of evenings to celebrate the music that tells the story of America in honor of Black History Month. The event in performance at the White House, a celebration of music from the civil rights movement, featured readings and songs from some awfully well-known names: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Smokey Robinson, Yolanda Adams and Bernice Johnson Reagon's daughter, Toshi Reagon. She's a singer-songwriter and a musician from Brooklyn, New York, also with us here with her mom in Studio 3A. And thank you very much for coming in.

Ms. TOSHI REAGON (Singer, Songwriter): Oh, thank you, and it's good to be here.

CONAN: And we want to hear stories from listeners as well, about which civil rights song and which moment made a difference to you. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Toshi Reagon, these songs must have come to you literally as mother's milk.

Ms. T. REAGON: I was definitely raised on with a lot of music around me, but also with the understanding that it was that music was a vehicle of not just expressing ideas and thoughts but a way to actually survive and sustain being a participant in a movement for change.

CONAN: That it was about the message and the heart, as well as the music itself.

Ms. T. REAGON: Yes, but it was also a way for individuals to actually not be alone, a way to really survive some, you know, horrible situations and some uncomfortable situations. You know, by bringing your voice and bringing your voice inside yourself and with others, it created a power and a way to exist in the world.

CONAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon, you must be awfully proud of your daughter.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: She's fierce. She's one of the fiercest people I know on the planet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I wonder. Was there a moment, when you were 15 or so, when you said, mom, this music, it's getting a little old, don't you think?

Ms. T. REAGON: Never.

CONAN: Never, not once?

Ms. T. REAGON: Not a single moment.

CONAN: Because she's pretty fierce, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. T. REAGON: She is a really courageous and innovative, forward-thinking person, to this day, and she was very she took me with her everywhere when I was young, and so any things that I then brought myself, musically, when I started to like Led Zeppelin or KISS or she actually looked at it. She bought me my first KISS concert tickets thanks, ma and she moved right along with me. So she music has never gotten old in our family. It's a very alive, giant, growing tree.

CONAN: We want to hear about which part of that tree, back in the days of the civil rights movement, affected you at the moment, and what difference it made in your life, 800-989-8255. Email us, Keelie(ph) is on the line with us, calling from Moscow, Idaho.

KEELIE (Caller): Hi. It's just so wonderful to hear you talking about this. I'm almost 50, and I remember back in, it had to have been the mid-'60s, my grandmother from Little Rock, Arkansas, who, as we say now, is a product of her generation, and no racism is ever benign, ever, but she was not at all a malicious person, just maybe ignorant.

She came to visit my parents, who were very involved in the NAACP in Tucson, and I will never forget - it still brings tears to my eyes - the image of we were at a rally, an NAACP rally, and here's my grandmother holding hands with people who she never thought she could talk to or should talk to, singing "We Shall Overcome."

And it was just an image that's burned in my mind forever. I'm just so grateful for the work that your guests have done. I'm grateful for the work that my parents and people like them did in fighting for civil rights, and I'm pretty sure it was an important moment for my grandmother, because she was raised in an area that had some of the cruelest, most pernicious, you know, racism in the United States, but here she was, on a visit with us, holding hands with people and singing "We Shall Overcome" and I think with all her heart meaning it.

CONAN: That transformative moment. I mean, there were other things that went into that, I suspect, Keelie, but the music sure helped.

KEELIE: The music absolutely helped, and again, I'm just so grateful to your guests. I'm glad to hear that Toshi is continuing the work of her mom, and I just bless you for the work that you did and for the work that we really have to keep we've got to keep doing.

CONAN: Thanks, Keelie, for the call, very much, appreciate it.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Thank you.

Ms. T. REAGON: Beautiful.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

KEELIE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: I wonder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, from the other side of the stage, you had to have seen moments like that. You had to have seen people, you know, transformed somehow.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: It's very important to know that the first time I was involved in this movement was in mass meetings and in jail, and then the music in Albany, Georgia struck people as being very, very powerful, and it's because of the congregational tradition, and out of that, Cordell Reagon, who I later married, formed the Freedom Singers.

CONAN: Uh-huh. You grew up in Albany, Georgia.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: That's right, and we did a national tour, and one of our jobs was to, in fact, find a way to go in front of audiences who were not on the line to talk about what was going on in the South, and we did it through song, and it not only gave people an opportunity to come closer but also to search themselves to see if there was some way they wanted to participate in the change we were trying to bring about, and we did hundreds of concerts, and they always ended with "We Shall Overcome," where everybody present stood and joined hands and sang what was then the anthem of the civil rights movement.

CONAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon is with us here in Studio 3A, along with her daughter, Toshi Reagon. They were both present at the White House earlier this week for the celebration of the music of the civil rights movement there in the White House. This is a recording, as we go into the break, of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" led by Fannie Lou Hamer, recorded in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the fall of 1963, from the CD "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement" at Smithsonian Folkways.

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. More on the civil rights movement and the music that made it happen. This is NPR News and TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Tell It On The Mountain")

Ms. FANNIE LOU HAMER (Singer): (Singing) There'll be shouting, there'll be shouting, there'll be shouting over me, and before I'll be afraid, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and before I'll be afraid, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and free...

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On Tuesday night, between the two snowstorms that hit the capital, a group of musicians gathered at the White House to perform a stirring tribute to the music of the civil rights movement. Stars such as Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Jennifer Hudson and the Freedom Singers, featuring Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter Toshi Reagon, sang anthems of that era. If you'd like to see this concert, it's going to be televised this evening. Check your local PBS listings.

Right now, we're talking with Bernice Johnson and Toshi Reagon, and yes, I know I made a mistake in announcing the music that ended the previous segment. That was both of them, as a matter of fact, singing "Oh Freedom."

But we want to know which civil rights song moved you the most and the moment when it happened. Give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go to Denise(ph), and Denise is with us from Fountain Hills in Arizona.

DENISE (Caller): Yes, hi Neal.


DENISE: Hi. I can remember this so clearly. It was 1964. I was at the University of Maryland, and George Wallace came to speak and to try to energize the anti-civil rights movement. The meeting was at Cole Field House, and there were hundreds and perhaps thousands of students there.

One part of the audience was waving confederate flags, and the other part of the audience was literally singing, shouting "We Shall Overcome." It was a very, very moving set of speeches, and it really energized me to support the civil rights movement.

CONAN: That would be...

DENISE: And I can remember that on the dais with Wallace, he introduced several people, and he introduced them this way: This is a Jewish-American, this is a Catholic-American, et cetera. And I really was so offended. I thought why aren't they just Americans?

CONAN: That was the unreconstructed George Wallace, before his he almost died in an assassination attempt and before he changed his way, but Bernice Johnson Reagon, you were smiling at that recollection. Were you there by any chance?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: No, this is my first account. I was smiling because what we're doing is having people come in with their memories, and so this listener has described a scene I can imagine and that I read about. But she makes it so much more alive to feel the dialogue that was going on and that song, the theme song of the movement, gave voice to a group of people in Cole Field House to express themselves. So...

DENISE: That's absolutely correct.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Thank you for calling in. That's one I've not felt so powerfully until you described it.

DENISE: Thank you, and it brings tears to my eyes even today.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, Denise. Of course, it was in Laurel, Maryland, later that George Wallace was shot, so a place that not too far away from that. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation, and this is Valerie(ph), Valerie calling us from Birmingham in Alabama.

VALERIE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

VALERIE: I'm glad to hear this segment here. I'm a 44-year-old black woman, and the first time I sang the National Black Anthem was when I was 39, and I was with a singing group, UAB Gospel Chorus, and we sang it in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And it just oh my God, even right now, it's bringing chills and tears to my eyes because I never listened to those words. But when I sang them, and I had to think oh my God, what is this saying to me as a black person, or as any American, coming together to try to bring this world together in a civil manner. And when I heard those words, and when I sang those words, it just took on a whole new meaning to me. And now I have the words, and I'm going to make sure that my grandchildren know those very words.

CONAN: I think I can hear some of your grandchildren right there.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Now, are you excuse me, are you talking about "Lift Every Voice and Sing"?



VALERIE: I mean, the words, the words alone are just moving. If people would stop and listen to words instead of beats, listen to what you're saying, what you're putting in your head, what you're putting out with your mouth, what people are listening to. I think a lot of times, people say words don't hurt, but they do.


VALERIE: They can also hurt, they can help, they can hinder, they can harm, and they can lift you no matter what.

CONAN: It's interesting, we got an email on this point from Shannon(ph) in Minneapolis. I was so moved by the reference to the Black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice And Sing," at the Obama inauguration. I'm not black, but I still find the words to be at least as evocative of the spirit of America as the "Star-Spangled Banner." We'd love to hear it used more, as "America the Beautiful" has been.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Yes. And I learned that in elementary school. So one of the aspects of growing up in the South in these schools is we got a repertoire that really had something for us in terms of sustaining us in what was a segregated society. So that song has been a part of my repertoire since I was about seven years old.

CONAN: And Valerie, I wonder, you heard it for the first time at the age of at what age?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: She sang it.

VALERIE: Well, no, I didn't hear it for the first time...

CONAN: Ah, you sang it for the first time.

VALERIE: At 39 years old, I sang the song, and I really just never paid any attention, none whatsoever, even though I heard it on every February for Black History Month.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Wonderful.

VALERIE: I never got it until I sang it myself.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: That's right, that's right.

CONAN: And at that particular venue, on Dexter Avenue there.

VALERIE: And being there in that setting, it was like oh my God, and then going to the Capitol and being at the area where they had that water fountain with Martin Luther King's words on it - and even when I went to the Lorraine Hotel for the first time, blew my mind. I mean, it was just awe - awe-inspiring.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Valerie, thank you so much for the call, appreciate it.

VALERIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, Toshi, as you listen to memories like this, you obviously come from another generation, closer to our caller's generation than to your mom's, obviously. What meaning do these songs have today, do you think?

Ms. T. REAGON: They have a lot of meaning today. I mean, they are still alive, they are still in service, people still use them. I think of those songs as workhorses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. T. REAGON: They're continuous, you know, and many of the songs that were sung during the civil rights movement were, you know, were created way before the civil rights movement, and...

CONAN: Sure, a lot of them were gospel songs.

Ms. T. REAGON: Yeah, they're it's a great example of, you know, how people can pick up something and carry it around with them and make themselves known in any situation. So they're you know, when we sang the song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" last light, I felt very alive. I didn't feel like I was singing a piece from a museum. I felt like I was singing a contemporary song, very much needed right now in the world.

CONAN: And Bernice Johnson Reagon, as you a lot of the songs were adapted to the cause, were sort of brought into the movement. They weren't originally written for it.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: The songs we had you grow up in a culture that is threaded through not with songs as much as with singing. You are singing, and in singing, you collect songs. So when you need you don't need songs, you need to sing. When you need to sing, the songs that fit why you need to sing, come to your mind.

And I still remember the first time I changed the words of a spiritual. It was because we were in a situation. It was the first march, and we were in a situation where we needed to be singing. And I started the song, and it was a 19th-century text, and I flipped what would be trouble in the air to freedom in the air.

And so the songs were not adapted as consciously as I hear it when people talk about using it is like the song that you know must name where you are. And so you get gospel songs that are being sung by gospel choirs right then, and when you are in the middle of a movement action, the songs have to textually support that action and the stance you're making. And it's a very simple shifting to make songs like this fit the contemporary situation.

CONAN: Here's an email we got from Chris(ph) in Minneapolis: Your singing, dear Ms.�Reagon he sends it to you your singing of "Been in the Storm So Long" on the Smithsonian collection got me through my grandma's death a few years ago. Thank you for sharing your powerful, beautiful voice with the world. It's such wonderful music for the civil rights movement, but also for getting us through in daily life. And let's take a listen to that.

(Soundbite of song, "Been In The Storm So Long")

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: (Singing) So long, I've been in the storm so long, children. I've been in the storm so long. Oh, give me a little time...

CONAN: Can you tell us about the origin of that song and how is that came to be part of your repertoire?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: I really can't tell you when I heard the song and when I started to sing the song. That particular time I sang the song, it was a poignant feeling and that's an I song, that's not a we song.

CONAN: We song. Yeah.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: And I was singing it. I was singing it solo for - and I -during that time, I did very few solos. I was usually in a group, for instance with a White House event. Toshi and I were there but we were joined by Rutha Harris and Charles Neblett, also original Freedom Singers. So that "I've Been in the Storm So Long" is a song that says this life is a turbulent, fierce one. And it's one where you are naming that you're in a heavy, heavy period. But it's a moving song. So when he says I played it to get through the death of someone close to me, he is actually putting into his space a sonic, musical energy that's going to move him, so he's not paralyzed. It will move him through the time.

CONAN: Through that storm.


CONAN: Yeah. Another caller. Let's go to Denise(ph). Denise with us from Sacramento.

DENISE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

DENISE: I called because Martin Luther King, he really heightened our awareness to the struggles of the civil rights. And the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is very prominent to me. And I grew up in Paso Robles, California, one of my brothers went and marched with Martin Luther King, and he came back and he taught us some of the songs. And on Sunday afternoon, after church service, we were linked arm and arm, walk down the street and sing a few of the songs. And we were never really harassed because Paso Robles was so small, and officers would let us do it because we were orderly and we never did disturb, you know, the peace. We were just singing and we learned of that.

And another thing that was prominent for me in my life is that my foster mother sang a song for Ronald Reagan when he was on his campaign tour. And when he became president, he had told her that if he made the presidency he would call her to come and sing in Washington, you know, the national anthem. So that's what he did. Her name was Juanita Brooker and he called her, and her and pop were able to go to Washington for the week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DENISE: And that is because of the struggles of our ancestors.


DENISE: And the struggle is not over. We got a long way to go.

CONAN: Well, that's another thing we're going to be talking about as we go -continue in this program. Denise, thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

DENISE: And thank you for having me.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

DENISE: God bless.

CONAN: We're talking with Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter Toshi Reagon about the music of the civil rights movement, celebrated this week at the White House. And, again, you can watch the concert on your local PBS station tonight. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go now to Maxine(ph). Maxine with us from Philadelphia.

MAXINE: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Good afternoon.

MAXINE: I just wanted to say my greetings to Bernice. I've worked with her many years ago in Mother Dust(ph).

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Ah, you. Oh, this is a singing sister.

(Soundbite of laughter)


MAXINE: I just want to say I did not march with Bernice. I did not - I wasn't really active with Bernice until I met her in the late '70s. And what I admired about Bernice was the way she taught a song. She not only - you know, you didn't only just learn the lyric, but you learn the history, the historical aspect of a song. I remember her doing a song called "Fannie Lou Hamer" that we had to do. And I just was absolutely enthralled with the way this woman taught. I have such high respect for her, such high regards for Bernice. My voice has changed a lot over the years, Bernice Reagon, but I just wanted to let you know that I learned so much from you over the years.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit, Maxine, about What Mother Does was.

MAXINE: Well, Mother Dust was a 12-member a cappella group that Bernice formed, and we were just 12 women - 12 black women that came from seemingly out of nowhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAXINE: But that was just the power that the sisters had, that this woman had on getting people together and to be proactive, you know, be active and be proactive. And we did - many of the songs that we did was songs that - songs of struggle, but she taught us - the one thing I remember was that she taught us that our voice was our first instrument, and there was a way that you could use that voice. And that's the one thing I - out of many things that I learned from her over the years and I've kept them in my heart all this time. And I just wanted to let her know that, that I love and appreciate her for the teacher that she was.

CONAN: Are you still singing, Maxine?

MAXINE: Yes, I'm still singing a little bit, but I'm doing a lot of writing, and I've worked with a couple of groups. And some of the things that she - when I met Bernice's name - she was my teacher, that's how I see her, as my teacher. And people are usually - people have great regard for her. And when I mentioned that I worked with her, they're just, you know, well, there's such enthusiasm, you know? It must have been great, work with us. And Bernice was a hard line teacher...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAXINE: know, but...

CONAN: I'll bet she was.

MAXINE: ...I just have such respect for her and I'm so happy to have worked with her. I wish there was a time when I marched with her, but just doing the music with her was enough in my life and knowing her.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: It's wonderful hearing your voice today, Maxine. Thank you for calling.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MAXINE: Well, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Tell It on the Mountain")

CONAN: And this time I think we do have "Go Tell It on the Mountain," led by Fannie Lou Hamer, recorded in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the fall of 1963, from "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement" on Smithsonian Folkways.

More with Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon when we get back from a short break. And tell us your stories of the songs that you heard that made a difference: 800-989-8255. Email us: Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Tell It on the Mountain")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain, let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain, let my people go.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: We've been talking this hour about the music of the Civil Rights Movement after a concert at the White House on Tuesday that celebrated the songs and anthems of that era.

Earlier that day, about 120 high school students from around the country participated in a workshop about the role of music in social change. And Sierra Reaux-McNeil attended that music that inspired the movement workshop. She's a junior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. She's also with us here in Studio 3A today. Lovely to have you on the program with us.

Ms. SIERRA REAUX-McNEIL (Student, Duke Ellington School of the Arts): Thank you so much.

CONAN: Must have been an amazing day at the White House.

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: It was. It was.

CONAN: And then you go to school here in D.C. So...

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: Yes, I do.

CONAN: see that building a fair amount of time. But going inside, it's something different.

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: Yes, it was.

CONAN: What did you learn?

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: I learned so much, especially about the music. The things that a lot of the celebrity said, especially Ms. Bernice, I wrote down so many inspirational quotes. Like she talked about wrapping yourself in sound, how when you don't have anything else - when you wrap yourself in sound, and that was one of the quotes I really appreciated.

CONAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon is still with us, one of the original freedom singers, of course, well known also from Sweet Honey in the Rock, and works now as a - the professor emeritus at the American University in Washington, D.C. and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Her daughter, Toshi Reagon, is with us as well, a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn and founder of the band, BIGLovely. And nice to have you with us today.

And I wanted all three of you to react to this email that we got. This - from Rose(ph) in Salt Lake City. And she writes, my mother has told me several times that anybody who didn't grow up during the '50s and '60s can't understand the feeling that people had that music could really change the world.

And, Bernice, I wonder what you think.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: I'm a historian, so I know that when people come out of a certain period, they really have a sense that they understand that period and it's not accessible beyond that experience.

So I spent a lot of time talking to people who were not there and telling them there are lessons they can't access from that period. You do not have to have been born in segregation or slavery. You do not have to have traveled at the bottom of a slave ship to get to it sufficiently, so that it is valuable input in who you can be in your time.

And that's the lesson of learning cultural history, which means you deal with more than the written record. You try to access what human beings generated to get them through situations. And when you get that kind of thing, I encourage young people that they can know enough to make use and apply to the situations they have to address in their own time.

CONAN: Toshi Reagon, did you have to be there?

Ms. T. REAGON: No, you didn't have to be there. I mean, you didn't have to be there, and I do think mom has - mom said it so perfectly. I think there's this idea that when it comes from other generations that struggle and especially with the civil rights era, you know, it made so many changes but it could be this perception that you say, oh, your time is better than ours. You have it better than we do, and I don't think that's right. I think every era, every generation, has its unique battle, its unique struggle. As human beings, we are constantly in the fight for righteousness. If we didn't consistently, in every era, fight for righteousness, the world would be a dark and horrible place.

And so Sierra's generation has a lot on its hands and they can use, just like what my mom said, you know, as sustenance, as information to deal with what they have to deal with. Which I think, is as intense as the civil rights movement, is as intense as the slave trade, as - is as intense of any struggle that we've ever had in the world in the time of human beings, so.

CONAN: And, Sierra Reaux-McNeil, let me turn to you. When I was your age, I kept thinking, oh, I'll never understand because I was never there. Of course, that is the period we're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Do you need to be there to understand?

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: I think yesterday was so important going to the White House and hearing them sing and speak because they are living history, and a lot of us aren't going to get a chance to be in the room with them and hear them, and that was so important just to feel the genuineness of the songs that your were singing. It came from your heart, you know, it wasn't rehearsed. We were feeling what you were feeling. And...


Ms. REAUX-MCNEIL: ...I learned so much just in just within the word, the soul and the heart, you can tell. It was within the words and that was a lesson in itself.


Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: I think too there is a there is so much music in the contemporary situation. And you really feel you are accessing, you know, music for all over the place, but if you fit in the singing of the Freedom Singers, you actually are introduced to another kind of musical sonic power. And in this case it was unaccompanied in terms of not having a lot of electrical instruments, but there was no question that it actually filled all of the air in the room.

And we are blessed that we can have access to sing from other periods. But the one thing I think is very important is not to suggest to young people that because we did get some achievements and we don't have as much overt racism, they have an easier time, because I find that every period has its challenges. And I hope that all young people search for the contribution they can make in their time to change things for the better, and that's a generational work that has to be identified by every young generation.

CONAN: And I want to get to calls. And I know there's people waiting who are impatient, and I apologize. But I did want to ask our young visitor, Sierra, do you think that's true, that the kids your age think that there's still that work to be done, that this time is as challenging as these times that we're talking about now?

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: I wouldn't say it's as challenging. I would say it was challenging in a different way. My teacher at school, Mr. Mark Williams(ph), he asks me all the time, what are you about? You know, this our generation, we have to look for what our civil rights issue is. There are so many different issues around us and we really have to look for it.

CONAN: I think she just got a better grade in that teacher's course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go on to hear from Scott. Scott's with us from Oxford in Mississippi.

SCOTT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Scott. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SCOTT: Okay. It's Oxford, by the way. But Ms. Reagon, my name is Scott, I'm a music student in Detroit, Michigan. And recently I decided that I'm going to write my thesis on Dr. King's speech, the "I Have a Dream" speech. It struck me that the speech communicates so much through, like you're saying, through a sonic impression that I wanted to analyze that it has a piece of music. And I've been in my preliminary research finding lots of links to freedom songs of the civil rights movement. And I was wondering if you could elaborate on any relationship between that and Dr. King's speech.

CONAN: And remember you're going to end up as a footnote here, so go ahead.


Ms. T. REAGON: What's very important for you is that there is a cadence that African-American preachers use. Dr. King was not as cadence-driven as, say, my father who was a preacher, who would be called a hooper(ph), but in folklore and ethnomusicology, people have taken sermons by African-American preachers and they use them as to get to the musical range, so that you're dealing with more than conversational speech. You are empowering in a kind of rhythm and rising voice. So I think you're on to a very important thing, but be sure to look at those disciplines, they're going to help you analyze that speech.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you hear the same rhythms in the speeches of Barack Obama?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: It is so wonderful to have a president who is articulate and just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: ...courageous and rises communication talk communication to such a high level. I just am thrilled. He's not a preacher.

CONAN: No, he's not.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: But he's rolling. We were just waiting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much and...

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Good luck to you.

CONAN: ...she'll set a copy of your thesis.

SCOTT: Okay, thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: Here's an email, this from Pamela. Hi on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release for prison. I remember Sweet Honey's "A Child Crying in South Africa," what a power, what education. Thank you very much. Of course, that was your song too.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Yes. That was a poem by Otis Williams, who worked at the University of Maryland that I set to music, and we sang it through that whole period, where we started it against apartheid and tried to corral people in this country to understand our role in helping to end it and not support apartheid in South Africa. Thank you.

CONAN: And Sierra Reaux-McNeil, that's another struggle again that you think of as history. All of us have lived it through that moment and remembered seeing Nelson Mandela walk out of that...


CONAN: ...prison 20 years ago today. I wonder, when you were in that room, with all of those people who had done all of those things, what did you and your friends, the 120 other kids that were there, talk about after you finished?

Ms. REAUX-MCNEIL: We just talked about the history that was made, us being in the White House.

CONAN: The history you made.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: And just being able to meet and hear from all these people. Like I said, they're living history. And our kids are may not get the chance to experience what we experience, and its really, really special.

CONAN: And do you hope to get back to the White House someday? What do you...

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: Definitely.

CONAN: ...planning to do with your life?

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: Well, Im very interested in journalism and international business, because I believe that the future is international.

CONAN: Right. Well, just stay out of the radio business. Anyway I dont want anymore competition. Were talking with Sierra Reaux-McNeil, Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon about the music of the civil rights movement.

Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And lets go to Diane. Dianes calling us from Iowa City.

DIANE (Caller): Hi. Actually, speaking of international is perfect. The one thing I wanted to comment on first, though, is I think its striking - I listen to the program all the time.

CONAN: Well, thanks for that.

DIANE: And often the callers are predominantly male, and I find it striking how many of the callers have been women today. I last saw Dr. Reagon at we were on a transport bus at Dulles Airport together this summer and we talked about a time we had been together when I introduced her. But I wanted to bring up the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway. I was in Oslo for the ceremony; Wangari Maathai was the recipient.

And not the day of the ceremony, but the next day, when they have all of the children perform these performances, after the end of that about three-hour series of performances, we all stood and we turned over the programs and we were all to stand and sing. And it was We Shall Overcome, and it was in that moment I mean, it was just a transformational moment, because we realized several things. One, it was so clear that this was the international, that this little Negro spiritual had become the international and global articulation of freedom, of hope, of justice.

And it was also that all of us realized at that moment that it was exactly the 48th anniversary of when Martin Luther King had received the same Nobel Peace Prize. And so I just wanted to bring an international flavor to how the movement from the United States has grown and impacted the rest of the world.

CONAN: And Diane, weve gotten so many calls about We Shall Overcome. Were going to go out with that before we finish the program today. But I know I, and maybe some other people in this room, want to remember on what occasion did you introduce Dr. Reagon?

DIANE: Oh, it was the (unintelligible) of the USA national convention. And I...

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: In Pittsburgh.

DIANE: In Pittsburgh. And she complemented me on the way in which I rendered the poem and then introduced Maya Angelou. And she they were also there performing with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

CONAN: Okay. Well, now we got that straight. I think everybody remembers now. Thank you so much for the call. We appreciate it.

DIANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Heres an email from David: In 1967, I was an impressionably young white student at San Francisco State. I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver give several speeches, always ending with the chant - power to the people. I, along with many others, was energized and imbued with a sense of our power and ability to make change in the face of overwhelming institutional entrenchment. Could your guest comment on this powerful phrase, chant, war song, for the movement - power to the people.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Power to the people comes out of the black consciousness, black power, black nationalist movement that was after that followed as an activist period after the civil rights movement. And what you have there is a movement against racism, which is a civil rights movement. And then as we move forward, we begin to look at what were we in the culture. And there was a period where we actually begin to study and re-understand who we were as a people. And so the whole black consciousness, black power, black studies movement would have had on the most activist edge people in the street going power to the people. And this is where you get your black mayors in cities.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: You get urban areas. You also get what we call urban rebellions, so thats that power to the people it's a very activist protracted movement.

CONAN: And there was a spectrum from the Black Panthers to black mayors.

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: To black studies and African-American studies departments in colleges. And the colleges were not just the white colleges. We had to struggle with the black colleges to teach African-American culture and history. So the struggle was throughout the system. And power to the people is one of the aggressive edges, expressions of that period.

I had then a group called the Harambee Singers. Harambee is Swahili, meaning lets pull together. So I was right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Bernice Johnson Reagon with us here in Studio 3A. We thank her for her time today, along with her daughter, Toshi Reagon, who was kind enough to be with us as well. Thanks as well to Sierra Reaux-McNeil, a senior at Duke Ellington's High School of the Arts here in Washington, D.C., who attended the workshop Music that Inspired the Movement at the White House. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. REAUX-McNEIL: Thank you.

CONAN: We want to end with this email that we got from Carol: I'd like to contribute my memory about listening to the civil rights freedom movement song affected me. I was visiting the capital of the Soviet Union, Moscow, in 1975. We visited a high school and students stood in a large circle with us, took hands and sang "We Shall Overcome," with which we joined. I was so moved that this group of Russian high school students knew our American history and songs of freedom. This, "We Shall Overcome," recorded in a mass meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1964.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "We Shall Overcome")

Unidentified People: (Singing) ...we shall overcome some day, oh, deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome some day...

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