Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon
FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

>(Blackside Incorporated, Washington, D.C., Eyes On the Prize, Sound Roll 1539, Camera Roll 589, interview with Bernice Reagon. Interviewer is Chris Lee (reference tone.) …WHAT IT WAS LIKE.

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I have to ask you a question.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

I'M SORRY?

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I have to ask you a question.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

NO, NO, I JUST WANT YOU TO ANSWER. (No, she has to ask you something.) HAVE TO ASK ME A QUESTION, OH, OKAY, YES.

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I have to ask you a question. Um… . You ready?

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UM HUM.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

REAGON, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Um, in 1961, I was a college student in Albany and um, I lived outside of Albany in uh, what would really have to be a family enclave with my grandmother, my uncles and aunts in houses around me. I had to uh, ride into town to get to school. I'd graduated from a black high school uh, we didn't call it a high school, we called it Negro, we were Negroes then, with a capital N. Um, and uh, between my house and the college was a white settlement, when the soldiers had apartments, and then there were these rich white houses, and then you had Albany State College. Uh, we would go downtown on Saturday and we would be on Broad Street. We had about two blocks that we stayed around on Broad Street. And uh, the rest of downtown, we would go to stores around the corner but always where we sort of gathered, where black people gathered was Broad Street. Uh, there was a Harlem in Albany. Guess the strongest, my strongest sense is not even describing that but - Albany in 1961 was really me and my family and church, and my world was really black. I left it very rarely. I cleaned uh, at a beauty parlor at; I had to be there at 6 in the morning. And I, it was finish… I was finished in two hours to get to school.

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Reagon, SR 1539

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That beauty parlor was white. I ironed for a lady named Miss White, but her name was W- i- g- h- t. Um, I never rode the bus because living outside of Albany there was no transportation, and in fact we'd been so recent uh, we had so recently had buses to get to school uh, but the city bus that was segregated, I never rode in Albany uh, that was other people's experiences, but there were city buses that were segregated. All of the policemen were white and if a policeman stopped you, you were in trouble. Uh, a policeman was never your friend. It was a…amazing experience for me to learn that occasionally you could ask a policeman something and they actually would be of some help to you.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

PLEASE STOP A MINUTE, CHRIS. (Camera Roll has 300 feet at this moment.) (Roll on.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Um, I grew up in a, I grew up in a family in Albany but I grew up in uh, I keep saying compound - that's not a word I was aware of in 1961 but I'm aware of the, the feeling of cluster and being raised by a whole community of people. I went to school and I went to church and I really felt many times that those things were organized against me.

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

It's like there was a conspiracy among these people to control what you would do in your life. So like no matter where I was when I was growing up in Albany, Georgia, (Reagon, SR 1539) there were major forces, I mean these, these grown people who had a right to like just correct me, redirect me, and tell me what I was supposed to be doing. And uh that's talked about a lot but it was very, very conscious uh, uh, as I grew up. Church was uh, my father's a minister and so I grew up in a church and we didn't get a piano in that church until I was eleven, so my early music was acapella and so my first music is vocal music and it is the sound of people singing, and the first instruments are hands and feet, and to this day, that's the only way I can deal comfortably with creating music. Uh, but church was not the only place that music occurred because the same thing happened on the playground. And my school and my teacher had a seven grade, one room, and red school house. And at noon time, my teacher was outside in the rain teaching us the games. All of those games are also feet and hand singing. Then in the morning we would sing, at noon day we would sing. We were always rehearsing for programs - and they, all of those, those a like song repertoires, they are all different. Uh, Maimie Daniels was my teacher, taught me Steal Away and Steal Awayand Steal Awayfor Easter. And I went to the church and I learned Steal Away and old Steal Away which is different from Steal Away, which I learned from Maimie Daniels, which is different from Steal Away which I learned on the playground. And then there were competitions between these little red school houses, it was May Day… May Day, and Blue Spring, I went to Blue Spring School. Blue Spring would always get the first prize. And uh, I was an orator at, at uh, seven years old. I was in the fourth grade when I was seven because Maimie Daniels asked me to come to school when I was three, and I passed that first year. And she was teaching the uh, the Langston Hughes poem, "I've Known Rivers" was the poem. She was teaching it to my older sister who was in the seventh day and one day she said -Bernice, say the poem. Well, she knew I knew the poem because I learned everything that was happening in the school. I got up and I said the poem. Well…

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Reagon, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

…when the contest occurred, I was doing "I've Known Rivers" and there was this, these other group of people who were twice my height who were in seventh grade doing "I've Known Rivers" and of course, Miss Daniels had me to swing my arms on "my soul, have grown deep like the rivers. This is the Negro speaks of rivers. I won the first prize. Now I was teaching first, second and third grade when I was in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade, because there was one teacher. Now I thought I was teaching them. I was really taking them over their reading lessons, I know today. But she would say, – "Bernice do the reading for the first grade". Now when she said that to me the first time I was in the fourth grade, so I was a teacher. I guess I'm trying to describe being in an environment where, where there were these people who thought they knew who you were and who you were supposed to be, and the late…Miss Daniels did the Easter program for the local church. So like the teachers and the, the, the ministers and the usher board and all of that stuff was so tight uh, that it was very difficult to get away from. You could try to grow up outside of that environment in Albany but you would have trouble…

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Reagon, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

…going against that kind of force. And um, I think the singing is just an echo of the community society that black people was and I'm, you know, echo is like something that bounces off something, and so everybody talks about Albany singing, but the singing is just the echo of what concretely was really there. And there is this blend of all of these different songs, when you think about Albany. But these black people also were clear about education. My father went to the fourth grade but my father and my uncle went to Mr. Kordell who was the superintendent of schools to ask for the first bus to get black people to be able to go to high school or transportation - that's during the 5Os. So that there was, there was this uh, real understanding, I don't know how conscious it was, but there was a real understanding that you had to have something of yourself if you were going to make it in the world and that was so thick nothing else could get in, and that's all the way you, who you were, and who you be…could become. You had all of these women, a little girl; you had all of these women you could become. But in addition to that, there was an under-standing that that black community existed in another…

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Reagon, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

…place, and if this black person was going to exist in this other place, you had to negotiate on the skills and agenda set by that place. So if they decided you could make it to high school you went. And there was such a heavy pressure, and the pressure wasn't just from your family, you got named very early in your…by everybody, they decided, I mean to this day Maimie Daniels will tell me - well Bernice, you made it, you just didn't do what I thought you were going to do, cause they thought. They knew I was going to be a doctor but they didn't know I was going to be….

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(sound rolling, cut, speed).

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Black people in Albany were uh, people, people uh, which means - we're not Albany black people, we're black people- people, so that in 60 the agenda was set by what black people were doing in the country, that the Supreme Court decision of 54, Little Rock, Arkansas, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the sit-ins, the only question was - when, how, what are the issues? And the, the, the lynchings are also important. The lynchings of uh, Matt Parker and Emmett Hill occurred to everybody in Albany. And that's not a localized uh, situation. And we didn't belong to Albany, Georgia as a people, we belonged to black people.

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Reagon, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

And so nationally black people were doing something and we would just say - when is it going to happen? Now in terms of the specific things, the list is so long - when I went to town on Saturday, if I asked for a drink of water my mamma got mad with me, because there was Silvers and there was Belts - those were the only two places a black person could get water because they, they both had two water fountains -one was color, one was white. Belts had the best one. If my mamma wanted to buy clothes in Albany there was only one store she could try on clothes and it was the expensive store so she never went to it. So you always bought your clothes and took them home. I was shocked and felt very, very strange the first time I went into a store and they said would you like to try on uh, try this on? It was a bra. I thought I was going to die. Because I had never been allowed to try on what I bought because I was black. Uh, there was uh, the whole issue of Albany State College being right near this white district, and white people going through that campus, picking on girls, throwing eggs - in fact, they would catch white men in the girls' dormitories. And if the football guys caught them the, the guards from Albany

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Reagon, SR 1539

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State College would put the guns on a football guy, to let the white men go. Uh, the issues of employment in terms of where could you work - very defined. You worked in black schools, you worked in black businesses, you cleaned people's houses, you were not on the police department, you didn't have a secretarial job in City Hall, you didn't have a secretarial job on the marine base, the biggest marine supply depot in the world is in Albany, Georgia. You didn't have clerical working at Turner Air Force Base. Uh, it was really gross. But in Albany you had a very ‘very organized black community. You, you had all of those churches and you had a, the educated people. ..Black people in Albany were not just B.A., BS degree people - you had Masters and you had Doctors in Albany so you had a very, very strong black community.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

OKAY, CUT. (Camera Roll uh, 590, 250 feet left.)

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(Once more, I didn't quite catch that, okay.) (That was…lights.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I was Secretary of the NAACP junior chapter, our advisor was Thomas Chapman. And in the fall of 61,(Reagon, SR 1539) I was helping with registration at Albany State College and Charles Sherrod came up to me and said what do you think about Terrill County? And I say it's a little bitty, it's a little bitty county. Then he turned to Otis uh, um, I can't remember his last name now, Turner, and asked him. And Otis was from Terrill County and Otis started to run down what it was like to be black in Terrill County in terms of black people and white people. And I remember thinking - God, I wish that I'd not been so flip, and had taken the time to like take Sherrod, ser…I didn't know who he was. That was my first contact with uh, what became SNCC. The first problem I had with SNCC was the name uh; they said they were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Now I had problems with two words in there, I understood student and I understood committee, I had read coordinating, but I'd never said coordinating in my life, so that was not a functional word for me. Nonviolent I had never really read in my life on paper. Now my way to get outside of Albany was always through reading. So that half of their name, I just told them I thought it was a stupid name; half of their name was totally beyond me. I used (12 Reagon, SR 1539) to ask them, what was nonviolent? And Cordell Reagon would say - nonviolence is love, love for your fellow man and it just clicked a blank in my head, I had, there was nothing in my program that allowed me to understand what they were. But given the stupid name, and then when I said - well, what do you call it? And they would say SNCC, and I couldn't even say S- N- C- C I, I, it was very difficult. But given the stupid name, one thing was very clear, and that is - they were there full time and they were from the movement. And the way I knew that is because they talked about, Cordell talked about being on the freedom rides. Charles Sherrod talked about what he was doing. They had already been to Terrill County and had already decided they couldn't stay, and that if they were going to do anything about those counties that have more black people than white people, so should be logically organized to overthrow the white power structure, they had to start in Albany, Georgia. And uh, they started by coming to the NAACP meeting. And so my first response to this was not understanding intellectually some of their name, and not being able to handle the philosophy - but there was a very clear thing they were for, and they were for freedom.

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Reagon, SR 1539

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I understood that, and I had been waiting. And there was already some activism in Albany, so they just came in. The student government had already been suspended when they got there.

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(125 feet, going to 590.) (Rolling)

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

The NAACP junior chapter, youth chapter, had been meeting for quite a while and the SNCC people were coming to that meeting. Uh, there were some problems with that because the NAACP didn't want the SNCC chapter, SNCC to be robbing their chapter. So SNCC started to have separate meetings and we used to have nonviolent workshops in Bethel A.M.E Church in Albany, Georgia. Uh, the ICC ruling was tested by the NAACP youth chapter and by SNCC, and the NAACP decided they would get two people, get them arrested, get out of jail so they could have a test case. SNCC decided they would do two people and they would stay in jail. And that was the initial major act coming on the heels of a number of other things that had happened over a year-and-a-half that launched what I feel was uh, the Albany movement. The first major thing was the first march to protest Bertha Gober and Blantan Hall, who were in jail, and it came from Albany State College. Uh, that was my (Reagon, SR 1539) first major demonstration. We had had rallies at Albany State College, we had made the president come to uh, support the sit-ins. I mean there had been all of these other things we had done, but walking from Albany State College down to City Hall and circling City Hall twice and then going back to the college, that was the first march in Albany and it was amazing because when we left Albany State College there were so few people - we had walked through the classes, we had tried to get people out of classes, Bobby Bircher picked up Mr. Ford uh, Troy J. Lattimer had tried to run her, her people out of her people classes - you need to go work on your freedom. And uh, there was nobody. And so I started walking for the bridge and I refused to look back cause I couldn't contend with the fact that this was a failure. And Annette was next to me, Annette Jones, and we got to the corner and Annette said Bernice, look back, and I looked back, and there were people stretched all the way back to the campus. I thought I would die, you know, it was just wonderful. And there was this discussion about, once we got to City Hall, what will we do? You know, what we sang, or…and so finally, Cordell said - two by two, hand in hand, (Reagon, SR 1539) silently with dignity. The…that concept, you know, getting that instruction, was totally new in my mind so like we tried to make up what two by two, silently di…with dignity was, we did that twice. And then, of course they hadn't expected all of these people, they were scared, they had more people than, they didn't know what was going to happen. And where did we go? We couldn't go back to the campus. We went to Union Baptist Church, and when we got into the Union Baptist Church, Charlie Jones said – Bernice, lead a song. Now there had been a rally in the gym and we were protesting, the white people running through the campus, white men on the campus, we threw in the bad food in the dining hall, I mean that's the best way we could do a rally at those times. And so I said, Bernice leads a song, me and Marion Blunt…

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(OKAY, THAT WAS A ROLL OUT ON 590, BE GOING TO 591.) AFTER YOU DID THE… . .

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

I had done, we had had mass rallies on the campus and uh, Marion Blunt…

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[interference] (CUT) (OKAY, ONCE MORE, SECOND.)

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

…Uh, well Marion Blunt and I sang at the first rally, we did, Steal Away. (Reagon, SR 1539) I remember being surprised that everybody in Albany State College gym at that time didn't know the Negro National Anthem, which in Albany you learned from the time you were born. That was one of my first awareness's that all black people didn't grow up like we did in Albany. After this first march, we're at Union Baptist Church, Charlie Jones looks at me and said - Bernice, sing a song. And I started, Steal Away. By the time I got to, troubled - where 'trouble' was supposed to bell I didn't see any trouble, so I put 'freedom' in there. And I guess that was the first time I really understood sort of using what I'd been given in terms of songs. I'd always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing, that was the first time I had the sort of awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to. And uh, this sort of thing was important because I ended up being arrested in the second ways of arrest in Albany, Georgia. And I was in jail. And when we got to jail, Slater King was already in jail, and he said - Bernice, is that you? And I said - yea. And he said - sing a song. Uh, or if there was a discussion or an argument (Reagon, SR 1539) somebody would say - sing a song. So songs were used to uh, pull people to a common place. Uh, and, and it's, it, there's an important thing – it never settled the issue, it never, in, in my jail cell there were women from high school all the way to like 70 years old. And there were church women and street women, and there were like women with degrees, and college women. I remember this high school person, who had just fallen in love with Sherrod in jail, and she was swooning and carrying on, and the la…church ladies just thought - God did not like that particular kind of thing, and she just didn't like…then there was somebody who cursed all the time. So that, these black people were not together and from a together place in terms of what their culture was, or what their class was, but there was a together experience that all of us had. One had to do with the movement, the other had to do with who we were, and the naming of who we were always took place through song, always.

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[unintelligible] (camera roll 591, 275 feet left)

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song. To (Reagon, SR 1539) this day, I don't understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song, however, I do know that people try to do that, poorly, I think. Now the, the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders. And a song leader gives out a song, uh, so like if, if Slater came and said - Bernice, sing a song, or, we want somebody to give us a song. Now you're not asking for a solo, you're asking somebody, the other one is, we want somebody to raise a song. You're asking somebody to plant a seed. The minute you start the song, then the song is created by everybody there. Nobody else will say - come on and sing. There is really uh, almost like a musical explosion that takes place. Now that song, all of my life, but the singing in the movement was different from the singing in church. And all of this is relative because the singing in church, most people have never heard that we, the way we sang in church all the time. The singing is the kind of singing where you disappear. When I work with singers, I say - would you get off the stage and let the song be there. You go away; you turn yourself totally over to the song. And it's almost like there is this (Reagon, SR 1539) Song in this room now, if I can get up to it. Am I up to it? Most of the time, in Albany, Georgia, in the Albany Movement, we were up to it. But the song singing I heard in Albany I'd never heard before in my life in, in spite of the fact that I was from that congregational singing culture. And the only difference was that in Albany, Georgia, black people were sort of doing some stuff around being black people. And I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they're talking about buses and jobs and all of the list – po…black policemen and they're talking about the ICC ruling, and the Trailway bus station and those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. It's almost like - where we had been working before we had a chance to do that stuff, was in a certain kind of space, and when we did those marches and went to jail, we expanded the space we could operate in, and that was echoed in the singing, and it was a bigger, more powerful singing. The voice I have now, I ha…I got, the first time I sang in a movement meeting, after I got out of jail. Now I'm describing to you, I'm past that first meeting in Union Baptist, I've done Steal Away, (Reagon, SR 1539) I am a song leader, I lead every song in jail, I, and it's not the voice I have, I did not lead the songs in jail in the voice I have now. And the voice I have now I got that night and I'd never heard it before in my life, and they did what they usually do, they said, Bernice…

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SIDE 2, 1540, CR 591, 592

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

…and I'd never heard it before in my life. And they did what they usually do, they said - Bernice, would you lead us in a song? And I did the same first song, Steal Away, but I'd never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go, and I guess what I like people to, to know when they deal with the movement is that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people acting, that uh, need to also be quantified in the picture, because that's the only thing I remember. And the singing is just the echo of that. And if you have a people who are transformed and they create the sound that lets you know they are new people, then certainly (Reagon, SR 1540) you've nev… never heard it before. They have also never heard it before, because they've never been that before.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

[unintelligible] (590, 100 feet left, we're changing to Sound Roll 1540) (Blackside Incorporated, Washington, D.C., Team C, Eyes on the Prize, Sound Roll 1540, Camera Roll 591, about 100 feet remaining, interview continuing with Bernice Reagon, reference tone.) WHEN YOU GIVE ME, WHEN YOU TALK TO ME AND GIVE ME THIS ANSWER, COULD YOU BE A LITTLE BIT MORE SPECIFIC?

Bernice Johnson Reagon:

When I was in uh [overlap]…when I was in the mass meetings, I would be part of a group. There would be Ruther Harris, Andrew Reed, uh, Charlie Jones, Cordell Reagon, Charles Sherrod. We would be young people. We would be up at the front leading the songs, the meetings always started with these freedom songs and the freedom songs were in-between all of the activities of the mass meetings. Most of the mass meeting was singing, in Albany - there was more singing than there was talking. And uh, so most of the work that was done in terms of taking care of movement (Reagon, SR 1540) business, had to do with nurturing the people who had come, and there would be two or three people who would talk but basically songs were the bed of everything** and I'd never seen or felt songs do that uh, I'd had songs in college and high school and church, but in the movement - all the words sounded differently. Steal Awaywhich I'd sung all my life, said something very different – "all in the street, I'm going to let it shine", I'd never even heard that before cause I mean who would go into the street, that was not where you were supposed to be if you were an upstanding Christian person. "All in the jailhouse I'm going to let it shine"… – all of these new concepts of where, if you said it, this is where you could be. It's also interesting it's the first time I heard some of the old prayers - 'Lord you know me, you know my condition, I'm asking you to come by here and see about me.' And this prayer was prayed every second Sunday in Mount Olive Church, number two, by the mother of the church, but when she did it in a mass meeting just before a march, I heard the words for the first time, and I think it's because uh, it's almost like a coming of age of, in some ways.