RUTHA MAE HARRIS/FREEDOM SINGERS
The Civil Rights Movement's Music
Interview by Jason Gross
The excellent recent PBS documentary The Black Church wasn't really about African-American history per se-it was about American history itself. The program covered not only the obvious racial and religious aspects of the church but also its vital political and musical aspects, with the latter two coming together in the Civil Rights Movement. In the early '60s, as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) looked to gather members and momentum, one of the crucial ways to spread the word was through song, and one of their chief messengers was a vocal group called the Freedom Singers. After forming in 1962, the Freedom Singers appeared at the Newport Folk Festival (alongside Joan Baez and Bob Dylan), Carnegie Hall, and the historic 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King spoke so passionately of his dream.
One member of the Singers was Georgia native Rutha Mae Harris. Hailing from the city of Albany (not to be confused with its New York State namesake), Harris carried the word of SNCC with the Singers before finishing her education later in the '60s and becoming a teacher, which she remained for decades while still maintaining her singing career, continuing to do shows with the Singers, and organizing her own singing groups in her area. Her music career also included a 2004 CD Baby release and a more recent appearance as a "special guest" on 2018's Holler, by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Fittingly, Harris appears in the PBS doc, briefly telling her story, but why not read that story in detail here?
This interview comes from a phone conversation in mid-February 2021, shortly after the series aired.
PSF: What were some of the songs that you grew up on?
RMH: Well, the songs I grew up on were gospel, rhythm and blues, hymns. I loved Mahalia Jackson. When I was young, I liked [Otis Redding's] "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," Ray Charles. Later, I liked Whitney Houston, and I liked Dionne Warwick.
PSF: That's good stuff.
RMH: Oh yeah, it's still good stuff!
PSF: How did you first become involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
RMH: I became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the summer of 1961. I had done one year at college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. I came home for the summer, and the movement had begun when I got here, and they had mass meetings, and I started going to them as SNCC was in Albany at the time. They were political meetings, talking about the desegregation of all the segregated areas in Albany. We didn't just try to desegregate one thing-we tried to desegregate everything, including the bus station, the hotels, and anything that was off limits to the Blacks. We desegregated that. And we had workshops during the day and then the mass meetings at night. And the workshops were telling us where we should go. Say, for instance, if we were to go to a lunch counter, we were told what to expect. And we had workshops on how to protect ourselves, and how sometimes you couldn't protect yourself-sometimes, the males would protect the females as much as they could.
PSF: How did the Freedom Singers first form?
RMH: There were three of us singing at mass meetings, and Pete Seeger came in to town, and he approached Cordell Reagon, who was one of the original Freedom Singers. SNCC needed money, so he [Seeger] asked him [Reagon] what he thought about having the group travel the country to raise funds for SNCC. So Cordell carried it to the executive director of SNCC at the time, who was James Forman. He said, "Sure." So Pete Seeger got his wife, Toshi, to organize our first tour for 1962. There were four of us: Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Charles Neblett, and me. This group of singers were organized for the purpose for raising funds for the Students' Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We traveled over 50,000 miles in nine months, covering 46 states-at that time, there were only 48 states. And the reason that we didn't get to the 48 states [was that] my body got tired. And I told them that "I'm tired and I had promised my mom that if she let me go on this tour that I would come back and complete my education." So, that's what I did.
PSF: How did you choose songs for your repertoire?
RMH: The songs were taken from spirituals, gospels, rhythm and blues. The only thing we had to do was to change the lyrics to fit whatever the occasion was. There was "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom," which was taken from the gospel song "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus." And the reason we chose that song was because it was familiar with the audience-the only thing you had to teach was the words. You didn't have to teach the tune because you didn't have time to do a lot of teaching, so you did familiar songs. And that's how freedom songs came about.
PSF: Do you remember other songs you sang then?
RMH: (laughs) There were a lot of songs! Remember now, we traveled thousands of miles in nine months singing these songs. And I'm still singing these songs today. So I remember a lot of songs. There was "This Little Light of Mine," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," "Dog, Dog," "I'm Gonna Do What the Spirit Says," "O Freedom," "Wade in the Water," "Come and Go with Me to That Land."
PSF: Since there was resistance to SNCC in some places, could you talk about any of the worst experiences you had while traveling with the Freedom Singers?
RMH: The only bad experience we had was when we were traveling through Alabama and we were shot at. None of us got hurt or hit or anything. That was our only worst time while traveling with the Freedom Singers.
PSF: On the other side of that, what were some of the highlights of that tour for you?
RMH: One of the experiences was the March on Washington. Another experience was the Newport Folk Festival. Another experience was when we got to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York. And we got to sing at the Civic Opera House in Chicago. And we stayed in people's homes while we were traveling-we never stayed in hotels or motels. We were housed by white families.
PSF: What were the audiences like for the shows, in terms of race, age, gender?
RMH: It was a mixture-I want to say that it was mostly white audiences at the time.
PSF: Could you talk about the Carnegie Hall and Newport shows in more detail? Those were definitely historic events.
RMH: Well, you know, you had to be kind of special to sing at Carnegie Hall. And of course at the Folk Festival, we were singing with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. And of course, when she [Mary Travers] passed away, I had the opportunity to sing at her memorial service in New York City [November 2009].
PSF: In the PBS series, some of the interview subjects talked about how the songs gave them courage to do the hard work that they did for Civil Rights. Could you discuss that?
RMH: Well, I did speak about that [on the series]. The songs gave you courage. They kept you from being afraid of the billy clubs. They kept you from being afraid of policemen. The songs just kept you from being afraid-they gave you strength. One particular song that gave me strength was "Walk with Me, Lord": "While I'm on this freedom journey, I want you to walk with me." And there was "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." So the songs played a very vital role during the Civil Rights Movement. Personally, I feel that without the songs of the Civil Rights Movement, there wouldn't have been a movement.
PSF: When you were singing those songs during the shows and the marches, what were you thinking about?
RMH: I didn't know what was going to happen. You never knew. You had to always be aware, and if something might happen... If it happens, it happens. And the songs gave you the energy and just kept you from being afraid.
PSF: Could you talk about your work as a SNCC field secretary?
RMH: That meant that we did voter registration drives and we did citizenship school. Voter registration drives means that you canvased people's homes. Have you participated in that?
PSF: I've done phone call banking.
RMH: Right. It's somewhat similar. You just go from door to door, knocking on doors and passing out leaflets. And citizenship school is where you taught people how to read and write. I had this man who was 90 years old, but he'd never written his name, never registered to vote. So I taught him how to write his name and after that, I carried him down and registered him to vote. And at the next election, he voted. That was a highlight for me in the voter registration drive.
PSF: During that time that you were working for SNCC, you were arrested for that. Could you talk about that?
RMH: I was arrested three times, and I had a total of 14 days that I spent in jail. I spent part of that in the surrounding county called Lee County, which was about 10 miles from here.
PSF: What were the actual charges that they made against you?
RMH: (laughs) "Demonstrating," as they say. "Disorderly conduct." That's what they called it. We weren't doing anything but walking and singing! And we did not stop walking.
PSF: When you were doing that, you had to expect that arrests might happen?
RMH: Any time that you're in a march or a picket, you're marching or picketing, you expect to be arrested.
PSF: What was it like for you to spend time in jail for that?
RMH: I had a wonderful time in jail. I enjoyed my time in jail! We didn't do anything wrong. All we did was singing and praying.
PSF: You mentioned about performing at the historic March on Washington-could you talk more about that experience?
RMH: Well, we were out in California, and somehow Cordell received a call that we needed to come to Washington to sing. So Harry Belafonte had rented this plane, and we were asked to ride on the plane. And we were on the plane with all these actresses and actors, and we were just in hog heaven. (laughs) We had our own suite and everything-we thought we were something! But that's how we got from California to the March on Washington. And then we got to the March on Washington, and then when it was our time to sing, we sang. And there's a clip on YouTube where I'm singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." There were five of us then because [we also had] Bertha Gober, who was not one of the original Freedom Singers. Somehow, she came out to California where we were, and that's how she happened to be at the March on Washington.
We have no idea where she is [now]-we have no idea whether she's still alive or not. We haven't heard a thing from her since about... 1990. She came back for the 20th anniversary of the Albany Movement. She was a student at Albany State at the time. She and Blanton Hall were the two students who went to the white side of the Trailways bus station [they were arrested for refusing to leave the white-only area there]. Quite a few students were expelled from Albany State during that time. And Bernice Johnson was one of the students who was expelled [for protesting], she and Annette White. Bernice went on to Spellman and had a scholarship and graduated.
PSF: What was it like singing to that huge crowd at the March on Washington?
RMH: Standing on that podium, looking at all of these people, they looked like little ants. There were so many people there. And it was such a momentous occasion, and to hear Martin with his "I Have A Dream" speech, it was just awesome. I shall never, ever forget that time.
PSF: So even being there and seeing it yourself, you recognized that you were witnessing history right at that time?
RMH: Oh yeah, that was history. And I was part of it! And when Barack Obama became president, he was standing on my shoulders. That was special for me.
PSF: What happened to the Freedom Singers after that tour?
RMH: We came back together.... I finished Albany State in '70... so we did some work after that. We would do work... We even went to Turkey. We did community colleges after that.
PSF: Were you doing that on and off or regularly?
RMH: That was for a while. It was steady. Every year, even now, we go to Selma. But this year Selma will be virtual, but our voices will be there because we did recordings from our homes.
PSF: When you do these events, they're obviously wonderful musical presentations, but do you also see this as a political event?
RMH: Well, they are political. Almost everything is political now.
PSF: Do you see these subsequent shows then as a way to spread the word about Civil Rights?
RMH: Yeah, and also how I keep my songs alive. I organized a group here in Albany, Georgia, in 1998. Our group is adult females. I did have one [singer] that was male at the time, but he passed away and we didn't get another singer. And I also organized a group of young people from the age of 7 years old to high school, and I call them the Albany Civil Rights Institute Junior Freedom Singers, and that was founded maybe in 2010, or 2017. So we were singing up until the pandemic started. So when this pandemic lets up, I'll go back. There's an adult group that I supervise on Saturdays from 1 to 3 PM-the Albany Civil Rights Institute Freedom Singers. I founded that group, and I founded the youth group.
PSF: To go back a bit in your life...
RMH: I am 80 years old.
PSF: And still going strong. To go back a bit, what was your initial reaction when Dr. King was killed?
RMH: How would you have reacted?
PSF: I can't even imagine. I'm sure if I was an adult then, I would have been devastated.
RMH: Heartbreaking. I was heartbroken. Didn't have to be.
PSF: Did you see that Dr. King's death created a crisis for the Civil Rights Movement?
RMH: Oh no. We don't stop. We keep going. We had to fulfill the dream. It's what he said-"I might not get there with you." So we were going to keep going.
PSF: What would you say about the church's involvement in Civil Rights after the '60s?
RMH: Well, that's where we had to go-the churches. That's all we had was churches. There were certain church ministers that were afraid to have us there, so we went to the ones who wanted to fight. Those who were involved still are.
PSF: What are your thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement?
RMH: The Black Lives Matter movement was, and is, a wonderful movement. I didn't hear enough singing. And there were a lot of people, young and old, of different races. See, during the '60s, we just had black and white. And with Black Lives Matter, they had every ethnic group there. And it was such a wonderful sight to see. And they knew nothing about nonviolence because they weren't taught nonviolence. They had to use what they know. And of course they weren't violent, but violence was put upon them, and of course they reacted. They didn't know because they didn't have any direction. But that was a wonderful sight to see. If they would have had some songs, that would have helped them along too.
PSF: What other lessons do you think that BLM could learn from the Civil Rights Movement that you were a part of?
RMH: (pauses) If you have to stand and if you have to stand by yourself, stand. Don't let nobody turn you around. Whatever you believe in, you believe in that. And you don't let anybody turn you around. And in the end, you'll be all right. You go with God. You got to keep on pushing. And we got to have laws. Laws must be made in order to accomplish some of these protests that we've been doing like the Voter's Rights Bill. There has to be a law in order for it to stand. And I think it will be with this [Biden] administration that we have now.
PSF: There's been a rise of white power and supremacy groups in the last few years. Those groups have been around for a long time before this, but now they're much more vocal and in the public eye. What do you think is going on with that?
RMH: Because of Trump. They were just waiting for somebody to come along so they could go back to what they used to do, and he was the one. So now, we got to keep praying that they go back. (laughs) They're so bold now that they don't have the [KKK] hoods on now. He created a monster. He really did.
PSF: But don't you think that those elements of hatred and racism were already there and he brought it out more publicly?
RMH: He brought them back out. They used to be out. During our time, they were out. He brought them back. He was an evil man, and he still is evil.
PSF: What's the best way to battle this racism now?
RMH: Legislation. You got to have laws on the books that will stand in order to accomplish your goal. And that's the only way it's going to be. And get these people out of poverty. And get this pandemic over. It could have been much better if he [Trump] had done all that he was supposed to do. I don't know. It's just one of those things. It's a constant struggle.
PSF: It would be great to get rid of this racist ignorance, but realistically it's always going to be around in some form. Maybe the best we can do is to make it socially unacceptable again.
RMH: Yeah. That's exactly what they're trying to do. But right always wins.
PSF: Fingers crossed.
RMH: Right always wins. And it might not be when we want it, but it'll be right on time. The Lord said he might not come when we want him to come but he will come. And he's on this now! (laughs) I believe this. Yeah, he's in this mix.
PSF: Other than the singing groups, what other work have you been doing otherwise?
RMH: That's all I've been doing. I retired as a teacher in 2003. And I've been doing this since then. In 2004, I recorded my first CD [ I Am On The Battlefield]. But after that, I've just been doing this, doing the colleges and universities, talking about the songs of the Civil Rights Movement. You ever heard of Rothko Chapel?
PSF: Sounds familiar. That's in Texas?
RMH: Yeah, it's in Houston. They're having a 50th anniversary celebration on the 28th of February. You can go online and register for the event, and you'll be able to see me. I'm a part of that. I did a presentation there in 2015, on Martin Luther King Day.
Songs of Freedom with Rutha Mae Harris - Annual MLK Birthday Celebration 1.15.2015 from Rothko Chapel on Vimeo.
PSF: What do you think is the best way for people to observe Black History Month each year?
RMH: We should observe black history every month. I never liked that one month thing myself. We built this country. We created a lot of stuff. We just didn't have the money to patent it, so the white man patented all our stuff. Even the traffic light, you know? I just sit back and look at all this stuff we invented, but the white man took it from us because we didn't have the money to patent it. But that's all right-we're in the books now.
PSF: What years did you teach?
RMH: I started teaching in January 1973, and I retired in 2003. I taught what we call "exceptional children" now, but when I started they called it "mental retardation." I taught for 30 years at Monroe High School, and it became Monroe Comprehensive High School. I graduated from there in 1958, and my first job was at Monroe High School. (laughs)
PSF: That's pretty cool.
RMH: Yeah, real cool. And the year before last, they honored me by naming the auditorium as the Rutha Mae Harris Performing Arts Theater.
PSF: You must have been pretty proud.
RMH: I've been a pretty good girl! (laughs)
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