“Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect, so people can walk into you way before they can get close to your body. And certainly the communal singing that people do together is a way of announcing that we’re here, that this is real. And so anybody who comes into that space, as long as you’re singing, they cannot change the air in that space. The song will maintain the air as your territory.”
—Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon is a singer, song leader, civil rights activist and scholar. In the 1960’s, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers that took the music of the Civil Rights movement to audiences across the country. In 1973, she founded Sweet Honey in The Rock. She is a Distinguished Professor of History at The American University
The Power of Song.
“After a song, the differences between us were not so great….”
—Bernice Johnson Reagon
In this excerpt from a 1991 interview with Bill Moyers, Bernice Johnson Reagon explains how singing in community was used throughout Black history to empower and show solidarity, and how one particular song — “This Little Light of Mine” — united and ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
Watch Clip: Bernice Johnson Reagon on “This Little Light of Mine”
For full transcript of the interview with Bill Moyers and Bernice Johnson Reagon, visit:
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The power of communal singing in Afro-American history is an experience that Reagon has introduced to the Smithsonian. She organized this reunion there with the Freedom Singers and Civil Rights activists for the 1988 anniversary celebration for Martin Luther King. In almost two decades at the Smithsonian, Reagon has created a medley of harmony and history. Her program notes and articles are like field guides to a living culture and she has encouraged exhibits like this one. Called “From Field to Factory,” it documents the 20th Century migration of blacks from the rural south to the urban north. Over the years, as a composer and performer, as a soloist or with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon’s music has taken her audiences through a journey of discovery and celebration. In addition to the sacred and protest traditions of Afro-American music, she has honored the heroines of black history by writing songs for them.