Bernice Johnson Reagon: Singing in Harmony against the Disorder

By Madronna Holden

“What is it you want to do with the time you have left on this planet?”

— Bernice Johnson Reagon

As we celebrate Martin Luther King this January of 2015, we will do well to remember the elders who have dedicated their lives to ensuring justice and democracy– such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, a self-defined “songtalker”– whose life models hope and vision.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, professor emeritus at American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and founder of the acclaimed a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was an original member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in 1962. She sang in jail and she sang in marches where she and her friends traded off leadership to share the risk of the violence levied against them.

When Civil Rights protesters were faced with such violence, the Freedom Singers continued to sing, affirming their purpose as expressed in Sweet Honey’s, “Stand”, with its refrain: “We will not bow down (to racism, to exploitation)”.

Today, as an elder who sees it as her responsibility to encourage visionary leaders of the next generation, Reagon travels the country speaking as she did at the University of Oregon last year. She begins her talks with a song, inviting her audience to sing along in their own harmonies.

In her words, “We always sing in harmony.  We may not know the tune, but we always join in”. Of course, there are conditions to that:  one must sing softly enough at first to hear what others are singing.  Listening is key:  ceding space to one another, as Ella Barker did for decades in her NAACP leadership, working behind the scenes to locate future leaders.  Her vision was strong enough that the leaders she mentored were in place ten and twenty years down the line.

Barker is the heroine of Sweet Honey’s “Ella’s Song”, whose chorus insists “We who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes”.

For Reagon singing is an expression of personal power, a gathering of courage—and a “grounding in place”. “It’s something about cleansing or preparing the air. I was born amidst singing. I don’t know of breathing or eating without singing. Like walking and talking, like the air you breathe, it was woven inside you, the house you grew up in, the yard you played in, the school you went to, the church you went to.”

Each of us has our individual voice, but we do not have to begin all over again as we sing our songs, Reagon tell us, listing the influences that stood behind her. We have history to inspire us, an inherited song to carry on. This is how the long term strategy for change works, as it did in her community.  At the turn of the century black leaders who protested against lynching located other leaders who emerged in the 1940s—and they in turned located the leaders who emerged in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

Even so, public action was often difficult to learn for those who had been told for generations, do not stand out, and especially do not call attention to yourself with respect to the police. But for change to take place, Reagon says, you must be willing to become “outlaws” with respect to the disorder of an unjust system so as to enact an alternative vision– such as the vision Reagon and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement outlined this fall (2012) in the face of what they saw as the “hijacking” of the US government by greed through the “citizens united” Supreme Court Decision.

They re-gathered at the historical site of lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. There they drew up the Greensboro Declaration, stating their vision of the current disorder and the alternatives they vowed to struggle for in support of the generations to follow. They invite each of us to sign on to the Declaration—as we enact and re-vision it in our own terms, according to the rules of community harmony that Reagon learned with song.

Reagon cautions that those around you “will not always love you for…speaking out against the disorder”. Even those who are part of your community, for whom you act on behalf of justice, may speak against you. Some of those who spoke against her came back to offer their friendship twenty years later.  But there was a lonely time in between.

Still, “if you are true to yourself, you will always have yourself as company.”

As a student, nonviolence was a hard lesson for Reagon to learn, given the violence levied against herself and other civil rights workers. But non-violence was a “long-term survival strategy”, fully in line with the long term strategy of locating inter-generational leadership. It took her years to really learn that lesson. “It’s not l-o-v-e. It’s saying ‘Good morning’ to somebody. It’s you saying, ‘I don’t know what they’re going through, but I’m going to say a little prayer for them.’ ”

There was fear for their lives felt by those involved in the Civil Rights protests, but there was exhilaration too, wonder at what a community could do, working together. A dramatic moment that stays with Reagon today is the effectiveness of the bus strike in protest of segregation. She remembers her awe at seeing the buses going by one after another, emptied of their riders. It was a profound statement of how powerful community action could be.

Whatever we choose to do to take our stand against the “disorder”, Reagon also warns us, we can be sure we will do many things wrong.  The important part is not to look for perfection, but to begin—to take that step affirming our personal vision in seeing the world clearly.

And we should be aware of the long term vision. Though we may not be here when the changes our actions prepared for finally come, we will have started the necessary process that made something better possible.

In her own life, there was a time when the “vicarious sense of life” she got from her college education, inspiring as it was, urged her to something more.  Instead of just telling that story, she began to live it.

When it is time to live our story, in turn, Reagon advised, “don’t copy, but learn from history”. And then become a force of nature.  Then bombs cannot stop you, just as they did not stop the Civil Rights movement and they did not Sweet Honey’s unity performance in Washington, D. C. in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.

Reagon leaves us with perhaps the most important question each of us can answer with our lives, “What is it you want to do with the time you have left on this planet?”

The Greensboro Declaration

Excerpts (with a bit of my own wording) from the Greensboro Declaration:

• Click here to see the whole declaration and add your personal endorsement

September 12, 2012

We are the National Council of Elders. We are veterans of the Civil Rights, Women’s, Peace, Environmental, LGBTQ , Immigrant Justice, Labor Rights and other movements of the last 60 years. We have come together in Greensboro, the birthplace of the Sit-in Movement in 1960, to birth a movement that can share the torch of freedom, justice, peace, and non-violent action with those who have risen anew in the 21st century.

We are moved by a shared sense of national and global crisis and the resultant suffering being inflicted on millions of people in our nation and around the world. As this declaration will attest, our country is gripped by an interlocking, multi-layered economic, educational, social, political and moral crisis. This is part of a worldwide crisis that reflects the end of the industrial era.

The lack of certainty about what the future holds, the dysfunctionality of many of our structures and systems, combined with narrow-minded, manipulative leadership breeds confusion fear, and destructive reactions. As a new era dawns, we are challenged, therefore, to not only hold political and social leaders accountable, but we, the people, must strive, with love at the forefront, to forge more democratic, just and creative structures and ways of living that are consistent with the emerging era that affirms the dignity, worth and unrealized potential of all the people of our country.

We speak, in this time of crisis, out of our commitment to justice and non-violence and to add our collective voices to the unfolding conversation of this historic moment. We speak out of thousands of years of combined experiences of working for the betterment of this nation and our world. It is with compassion, the scars of yesterday’s struggles, and a deep commitment to advancing the well being of our nation and all humanity that we call upon the people of our nation, including our national leaders to live out the highest ideals of our humanity and national calling by struggling to make the radical revolution of values not only against racism but against materialism and militarism that Dr. King advocated in his historic BREAK THE SILENCE speech.

We affirm our deeply held conviction that the Creator has granted every resident of our country a place on this earth as part of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” that place ought to be respected by our nation. In our experience it is the people who must move forward, developing 21st century leaders in the process of making this non-violent revolution of values. For that reason, we are grateful for the newly emerging movements of young people. We applaud, support, and join them in our mutual struggle for justice and human rights.

Voting is an important tool of democracy, which must be more fully utilized and further developed. We strongly urge all citizens to vote in the coming elections and to intervene where necessary to ensure As we move towards the November election, we see that the deepest needs and aspirations of the great majority of our 300 million U.S. citizens are largely ignored in the Presidential and Congressional campaigns. Therefore, we call the following critical concerns to the attention of both our fellow citizens and all of our nation’s leaders who we hope will search for just and viable solutions:

  • The well-being and potential achievements of our children are being jeopardized by the destruction of our public schools system and the essential health and welfare services necessary for their development.
  • The hundreds of thousands of our young adults who must try to establish their lives with limited employment prospects and a staggering weight of debt from student loans. This burden must be eliminated or greatly reduced.
  • The “Citizens United” Supreme Court Decision, to which we profoundly object, that administers the final blow to our already faltering electoral campaign system by making corporate money practically the ultimate determinate of who wins and loses and, thereby, puts money and greed in charge of critical life or death decisions for many people.
  • The scandalously lawless practices of bankers and other lending agencies have led to home foreclosures and homelessness, impacting African Americans and other people of color inordinately.  Such practices grow out of greed but also a deeply flawed financial/monetary system. We call on the U.S. government to monitor and ensure the implementation of programs to rectify this economic disaster and to bring restitution to citizens who have been victimized. We call for a moratorium on foreclosures where unfair lending practices are involved.
  • We call for full employment of the U.S. workforce. It is not true, as some politicians claim, that Americans do not wish to earn a living. History affirms a strong legacy of productivity and industriousness among American workers.
  • We support ending the marginalization of the poor, ensuring greater work opportunities and a higher standard of living for them, as well as for the middle class.
  • We celebrate the recent legislation of the current administration which extends medical care to greater numbers of citizens, but continue to urge the implementation of a health care system that will ensure equal access and adequate health and medical care for all our citizens.
  • We affirm the value of our Social Security and Medicare systems. Over several generations, these programs have been absolutely essential lifelines for millions. We oppose all efforts to restrict or diminish them in any way.
  • We speak out against the virulent racism that continues to fracture our society. This bigotry is manifest in many arenas of our national life. One telling example of this is the manner in which President Obama has been disrespected and demonized, without public outcry at this unprecedented disregard for the Office of the Presidency.
  • We lift our voices against all of the attacks against the full humanity of women, including physical and mental abuse, economic inequality, and the freedom of conscience and choice.
  • Although, there are legitimate criticisms of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, we are stunned by the publicly professed determination of the Republicans in Congress to create a congressional “gridlock,” blocking legislation that would provide for the people’s needs, fueled by the singular, deliberate intention of sabotaging the Obama Presidency.
  • We are outraged by the continuation of U.S. “justice” system’s policies that have led to the incarceration of 2.5 million U.S. citizens, two-thirds of whom are African American or Hispanic, constituting what writer Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”

Without exception, we supported the full elimination of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and abuse. Many of us were on the front lines of that struggle. Today, we are appalled by the extent to which systemic racism taints the interactions of Americans in mundane and unacknowledged ways – in our workplaces, schools, and courts, even in our places of worship. We call on our fellow citizens to bring their moral principles and spiritual insights into our engagement with each other, trusting that through the consistent practice of being mindful of every human being’s dignity, we can begin to rid our society of the poison of racism.

We raise our voices against violence and the ways in which it pervades our national life. The acceptance and propagation of violence has been an essential part of the national culture, from the dispossession of the Native Indians and Mexicans of their land, to the enslavement and exploitation of Africans, Chinese and others, to contemporary wide scale police brutality and massive incarceration. Our deeply rooted culture of violence is increasingly taking the form of targeted as well as random murders; it is entrenched in all our institutions and systems. It characterizes our international engagements, including interventions in Third World countries to seize control of resources and the support of dictators who support US interest and oppress their own people. The United States Government instigates wars of aggression where there has been no threat to our country, and now uses drones, an even more insidious form of war and the culture of death.

Those in power have abused and exploited the environment, rather than co-existing with it or practicing mindful stewardship. This will to exploit, which does not take into account the ways the Earth may be destabilized, has brought us to the environmental crises that we face today, including massive pollution of our air and water resources, global warming resulting in climate chaos, and other threats to the ecosystem of our planet.

Too many citizens have supported these forms of environmental abuses, domestic and international violence and oppression by not speaking out against them. We call on our leaders and our fellow citizens to break with the preference for violence, and to insist that national resources be put to the healing of the natural environment, and to the creation of programs that will bring a higher quality of life for all people, to further insist that funds previously allocated to the buildup of nuclear weaponry and other military programs be diverted to the repair and building up of the national infrastructure, educational system, health and welfare services, all of which will provide much-needed employment for the millions of jobless among us.

We acknowledge that the reality picture we have painted is challenging and reflects a period of danger; it can be a cause for despair by many. We urge you, however, to believe with us that inherent in great danger is also great opportunity. Let us seize on the opportunity and in the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “to hew out of the mountain of despair” stones of hope. History has given all of us – but especially the young generation of the 21st century, the opportunity to forge non-violent hearts, non-violent lives that will result in a caring, nonviolent society.

We urge you to help make this Declaration a living, growing reality by discussing it among diverse organizations and individuals, including family members, young people, workers, teachers, professors, scholars, community groups, and faith communities. Further we invite you to sign onto this Declaration or to produce your own declaration. For as we declare and live into our “revolution of values,” we will also be creating a lively national alternative to the multi-million dollar super PACs that increasingly endanger the entire democratic process.

Finally, as elders, we pledge to our nation and especially to our younger brothers and sisters, that we will be faithful to our own history as human rights workers. We will undertake with you the work we have called for in this statement as fully as our lives allow, doing everything in our power to bring a greater measure of justice, equality, and peace to our country and to the world.

Endorse the declaration: