The Freedom Singers were organized in 1962 in Albany, Georgia to educate people about the civil rights movement and inspire action for justice and freedom. The original four members of the Freedom Singers were all African-American activists under 21 years of age: Cordell Reagon (tenor), Bernice Johnson Reagon (alto), Charles Neblett (bass), and Rutha Mae Harris (soprano). The group added a young, white guitarist named Bill Perlman who has continued with the Freedom Singers. Over the years different singers have come and gone—Bernice Johnson Reagon going on to found Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Cordell Reagon was just 16 when he emerged as a leader of the civil rights movement in Albany. He was arrested more than 30 times for his protest actions. Often the Freedom Singers would be arrested together for refusing to leave where they were preforming, and their audiences at times risk brutality from the police.
The Freedom Singers were part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee one of the leading organizations in the civil rights movement. SNCC grew out of the lunch counter sit-in campaigns and played a key role in the Freedom Rides and voter registration campaigns. The Freedom Singers used their performances to educate people about voting rights and to mobilize people for action. As the group moved from community to community they would often stay in the homes of black families and help with chores.
The Freedom Singers would often take familiar spirituals and hymns in the African-American church and make slight changes to apply them to the freedom struggle context. For example, the old spiritual line “over my head I see trouble in the air” was amended to “over my head I see FREEDOM in the air.” They also sang songs like “This Little Light of Mine” which were given a new meaning in their new context.
In 1963 the Freedom Singers performed during the historic March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. They also performed at the Newport Folk Festival and were recorded on the live album of that event. They also produced their only studio album. By the end of the year the original group disbanded, but Jim Forman of SNCC reorganized and reconstituted the group to continue their education and inspiration as the New Freedom Singers.
Charles Neblett, the only member in both incarnations of the Freedom Singers, said, “All the jailings and the beatings and everything we took, we could see the results of that work. All that work was not in vain.” Neblett and the Freedom Singers performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama and other national leaders.
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody”:
“Mind Stayed on Freedom”: