Freedom Singer: 'Without Music, There Would Be No Movement'
"Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe that there wouldn't have been a movement," says Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.
Fifty years ago, the Freedom Singers performed along with artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington.
The group came together in Albany, Georgia in 1962. Their mission was to raise money and awareness for the civil rights movement. It's a journey that took them more than 50,000 miles, across over 40 states in less than a year.
Harris tells NPR's Michel Martin that the Freedom Singers were in California when they got a call to board a plane that Harry Belafonte had chartered.
"That's how we got to the March on Washington. We were on the plane with all these movie stars. And the five of us had our own room on the plane," she says. "We thought we were in high heaven."
On her memories of the day
"We pushed our way through the crowd because we had to get on stage. But all you could see was people, reflections from the water. They looked like little maggots. There were so many people."
On music and the civil rights music
"There's no separation. Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe there wouldn't have been a movement ... We needed those songs to help us not to be fearful when we were doing marches, or doing picket lines. And you needed a calming agent, and that's what those songs were for us."
On whether she used to fear marches
"You know, I've never been afraid. My Dad who was a Minister, his name was Reverend R.A. Harris. He taught us never to fear any man. And to always think that you are as good as anybody else, but you're no better than anybody else. And on marches, I wasn't afraid, because I knew who was by my side. 'Walk with me Lord.'"
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A look back at the civil rights movement would not be complete without spending some time on the music of the period. Fifty years ago, artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and the Freedom Singers all performed at the March on Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED")
MARTIN: And that was the Freedom Singers performing "We Shall Not Be Moved" at the Lincoln Memorial. The group's mission was to raise money and awareness for the civil rights movement. It's a journey that took them over 50,000 miles, across more than 40 states and found them at the March on Washington. Rutha Mae Harris is one of the original Freedom Singers, and she is with us now to tell us more. Thank you so much for joining us.
RUTHA MAE HARRIS: Oh, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: When you heard that song, I saw a little smile on your face.
HARRIS: Of course...
HARRIS: ...It brought back memories...
MARTIN: What was one of them?
HARRIS: ...And I'm the one that's leading.
MARTIN: That's right. You were leading.
HARRIS: Of course.
MARTIN: Of course.
HARRIS: Yes. That's why. What do you want to know?
MARTIN: Well, first of all, do you know how you came to be there that day? Do you know why your group was selected?
HARRIS: We were out in Los Angeles, California, and we were performing at the Ash Grove there in California. And the night before, I believe, Cordell Reagon received a phone call telling us that we need to board this plane that Harry Belafonte had chartered. So that's how we got to the March on Washington. We were on the plane with all these movie stars and the five of us had our own room on the plane.
HARRIS: We thought we were in high heaven.
MARTIN: And when you're talking about stars, you're talking Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando...
HARRIS: ...Charlton Heston...
MARTIN: ...Sammy Davis Jr...
HARRIS: ...Sammy Davis Jr., Rita Marino. Yes. It's been quite a while now. I can't remember all the names.
MARTIN: Did you think at the time it was going to be what it was, what it became? It's become one of the signature events of the movement that people remember. Did you think at the time it was a big deal?
HARRIS: No. I just thought we were there just to march for jobs and freedom.
MARTIN: Had you been participating in other marches?
MARTIN: So you thought this was just another one?
HARRIS: Just another march, trying to get people's attention.
MARTIN: And when you got there, do you remember what you saw?
HARRIS: Well, the bus put us off on Constitution Avenue, and we pushed our way through the crowd because we had to get on stage. But all you could see was people, reflections from the water. They looked like little maggots. It was so many people.
MARTIN: The song that you all chose to sing that day, "We Shall Not Be Moved," in which you were leading, why did you choose that song?
HARRIS: There was a statement made that we need a song and we need a strong voice to lead this song. I thought that we did "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Bernice Johnson Reagon thought we did "This Little Light of Mine." I'm the one that was chosen to sing "We Shall Not Be Moved" because of the strongness of my voice.
MARTIN: Another song, though, that you mentioned is "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." You want to play a short clip of that? Shall we hear a little bit of that, too?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GONNA LET NOBODY TURN ME AROUND")
MARTIN: Again, you mentioned your old group member Bernice Johnson Reagon, also Sweet Honey in the Rock later on. She was on our sister program, "Talk of The Nation," a couple of years ago, talking about the civil rights movement, and one of the things she said then was that she didn't have any sense of the civil rights movement existing without the singing that we did in marches and mass meetings and in jails. There is no separation.
HARRIS: There is no separation, and without the songs of the movement, personally, I believe there wouldn't have been a movement.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is? I wanted to ask you about that.
HARRIS: Well, we needed those songs to help us not to be fearful when we were doing marches or doing picket lines. And you needed a calming agent, and that's what those songs were for us.
MARTIN: The march itself that we are commemorating today, that was not fearful, was it? What was your feeling being there? That wasn't a fearful time. What was that feeling?
HARRIS: You know, I've never been afraid. My dad, who was a minister - his name was Reverend I.A. Harris - he taught us never to fear any man and to always think that you are as good as anybody else, but you're no better than anybody else. And on marches, I wasn't afraid because I knew who was by my side. Walk with me Lord.
MARTIN: Do you feel now that music has the same power to inspire?
HARRIS: Music will always be a calming agent, always.
MARTIN: Is there a song that you turn to for inspiration when you need it?
HARRIS: (Singing) Walk with me Lord. Walk with me. Walk with me Lord. Walk with me. While I'm on this freedom journey, I want Jesus to walk with me. And that's all I needed.
MARTIN: Well, no more need be said. Rutha Mae Harris is one of the four original Freedom Singers - four or five?
HARRIS: Well, there are really four, but Bertha Gober was in California with us and that's how she was at the March on Washington. But the original group is only four.
MARTIN: Was one of the four original Freedom Singers. They performed at the March on Washington 50 years ago and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. You're singing in the interfaith service that's being held to mark the anniversary this week. What are you going to sing?
HARRIS: I'm going to lead one verse of "We Shall Overcome."
MARTIN: Shall we go out on that?
HARRIS: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday.
MARTIN: No more need be said.
HARRIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Rutha Mae Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HARRIS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.