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Bernice Johnson Reagon, Veteran of Hope

The founder of the well-known acappella group, "Sweet Honey in the Rock" tells of finding her voice, in this Veterans of Hope interview.

At Albany State College we began to protest things. They had arrested students for trying to buy bus tickets from the “white” window at the Trailways bus station, and we had marched from the campus in sympathy with them.

By this time the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) people were there, and we had decided we were going to do this march. There were no people at the meeting point, maybe six or seven of us. It was decided that was too few, so we went to classrooms and told people to come to the march.

Then we left the campus and headed out. Maybe there were 10 people, so I just kept my face ahead. I knew if I turned around, I would just run back to the campus.
When we got to the bridge, we had to turn to walk across the Flint River Bridge. Annette, who was walking with me, said, “Bernice, look back.” I looked back and as far as I could see, all the way back to the campus, there were people. I tell you I never knew where they came from. I never heard them coming. Those students left their classes and joined that line. It was like, “good-goodness-it-can-happen!” The power of finding that you can step out and sometimes you'll have company before you get there!

We circled the jail twice and went back to Union Baptist Church, and Charlie Jones said, “Bernice, sing a song.” I started “Over My Head” and the spiritual goes, “Over my head/I see trouble in the air.” So I flipped “trouble” into “freedom.” It was the first time I had ever done that, especially with a sacred song, a spiritual that came from slavery. I realized that there was something about the march that had moved me to a position where I could use the songs I had been taught.
... The singing in jail went on endlessly. Hours and hours. There were times we talked, but we sang more than we did anything else. And so the way in which we created community was through singing. That was when we felt the union. When we talked, then we could feel the diversity and the complexity of the union. And then sometimes when we would talk, the talk would go on for awhile and just because of the intensity of the diversity, we'd have to start singing again.”
... The changing of my voice came after jail. In the first mass meeting, they asked me to sing, I sang the same song, Over My Head/I hear Freedom in the Air, but my voice was totally different. It was bigger than I'd ever heard it before. It had this ringing in it. It filled all the space of the church. I thought that was because I had been to jail; it was because I had stepped outside the safety zone.


Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding, themselves veterans of the southern Freedom Movement, are co-founders and co-chairs of the Veterans of Hope Project. Contact the Project at 2201South University Blvd., Denver, Colorado, 80210, tel: 303/765-3194.

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