Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 17

A
lbany's Rutha Mae Harris knew from age 6 that music
would shape her life, but she never imagined the
places it would take her.
By her early 20s, she was active in the civil rights movement
and had been jailed three times for her activism. She'd traveled
to 46 states in nine months, stood side-by-side with the movement's
icons and used her voice to help spread the message of
nonviolence across the country.
The daughter of the Rev. Isaiah Harris, the pastor at
Albany's Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and Katie Harris, a
longtime schoolteacher, Harris was familiar with the challenges
faced by African Americans in the South.
" The movement came to Albany in the early 1960s, but my
father and his congregation started long before then, teaching
literacy classes at the church and encouraging voter registration, "
Harris says. " He always set the example for us to know
that we were as good as anyone else and [should] never be
fearful. "
After her first year at Florida A&M University in
Tallahassee, Fla., Harris returned home in 1961 to an unsettled
Albany, filled with demonstrations and conflict. She and other
young people joined in the nonviolent protests, serving as
field secretaries for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC).
During that time, she was arrested three times and sent to
Albany-area jails.
" We didn't resist; we knew we were staying true to ourselves
and our principles, " she says. " We weren't afraid; each
time we were released.
" I remember when singer/activist Pete Seeger came to
Albany to take part in our work, and he suggested to the SNCC's
Cordell Reagon that music would add a powerful element to the
movement. Once several of us heard this, we wanted to be part
of it, and that's how the Freedom Singers came to be. "
In late 1962, Harris and fellow Albany natives Bernice
Johnson and Charles Neblett joined with Reagon, who was from
Nashville, Tenn., to form the Freedom Singers. Sometimes
others sang with the four experienced musicians, including
Bertha Gober and Janie Culbreth of Albany.
For most of 1963, the Freedom Singers traversed the nation,
performing at colleges, outdoor events, high schools and
auditoriums to increase awareness and raise funds for the
SNCC.
Their repertoire included gospel music, spirituals and
hymns, and familiar tunes with adapted lyrics. Among their
songs were " This Little Light of Mine, " " We Shall Not Be Moved "
and " Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round. "
" One of our songs-'We Shall Overcome'-became the
anthem of the movement, " Harris says. " It was originally
adapted by Seeger from an old spiritual called 'I'll Overcome
Someday' that had been used in the late 1940s by striking textile
workers in South Carolina. "
The Freedom Singers sang when emotions ran high on the
The Freedom Singers performed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1996. From left are Charles Neblett,
Rutha Mae Harris, Bettie Mae Fikes and Cordell Reagon.
picket lines, at sit-ins and at demonstrations, with protesters
and supporters joining in. They performed onstage with
famous artists-such as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson,
singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the folk-music
trio Peter, Paul and Mary-and at music festivals and rallies.
" Other times, we'd just be in the crowd during a
demonstration or an event and start a song as a way to settle
an agitated situation, " Harris says. " When emotions and
tensions ran high, we'd begin singing. The crowd would join
in, and a kind of peace would settle over everyone. The music
gave us all strength, calmed people's fears and brought people
together. "
The highlight for her that year came when the Freedom
Singers were selected to perform at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on
Washington. The group performed " We Shall Not Be Moved "
from the podium.
" We were there when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his
famous 'I Have a Dream' speech on the Washington Mall before
thousands of people. I still can close my eyes and picture that
day and feel the emotions down to my bones. It was an iconic
moment, " Harris recalls.
MORE
www.georgiamagazine.org 17
'When emotions and tensions
ran high, we'd begin singing.
The crowd would join in, and
a kind of peace would settle
over everyone.'
-Rutha Mae Harris
ELVERT BARNES
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Georgia Magazine - February 2024

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Georgia Magazine - February 2024

Contents
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Intro
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Cover1
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Cover2
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Contents
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 4
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 5
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 6
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 7
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 8
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 9
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 10
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 11
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 12
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 13
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 14
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 15
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 16
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 17
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 18
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 19
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 20
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 21
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 22
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 23
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 24
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 25
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 26
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 27
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 28
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 29
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 30
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 31
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 32
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 33
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - 34
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Cover3
Georgia Magazine - February 2024 - Cover4
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