Emory Report
January 24, 2005
Volume 59, Number 16


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January 24, 2005
Power of song drives Reagon keynote

BY eric rangus

We’ll stand the storm. Oh! Stand the storm! It won’t be long. We’ll anchor by and by.

Bernice Johnson Reagon quietly sang the words of spiritual, “We’ll Stand the Storm,”as soon as she stepped to the microphone Tuesday night, Jan. 18, in Cannon Chapel to deliver the keynote speech for Emory’s 21st annual King Week celebration.

When Reagon, a Grammy-winning vocalist in addition to a renowned historian, repeated the verse, many in the crowd joined in. “It does not say the storm is going to disappear,” she said, in between verses. “It says in fact that we will live in a storm.”

And that was the way Reagon’s 70-minute address went—references and stories about the civil rights movement she helped foster, mixed in among gospel and traditional African American songs, which encouraged a good deal more audience participation than the average King Week keynote.

“I like this holiday,” said Reagon, in one of her few references to Martin Luther King Jr. She framed her discussion around the wider civil rights movement King led rather than the man himself. “Instead of being in a political climate where violence can be seen as a way of changing things, through this holiday we can honor the civil rights movement, which has as a core principle nonviolent social change.”

But, Reagon said, nonviolence didn’t mean rolling over. “When you think of people saying ‘peace and love’ and singing soft harmonies, it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement.” Reagon, who was jailed in 1961 after participating in a civil rights demonstration at Albany State College, spoke from experience.
“In order to be oppressed successfully, you have to participate,” she continued. “You have to observe boundaries. Everything in your culture and your world—you have to stay inside those lines. It was not peaceful, this struggle for peace.”

While Reagon’s language was defiant at times, beauty was most prevalent. Specifically, the beauty of her voice. In 1973, three years after earning a history degree from Spelman College, Reagon founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group whose roots are in black church music but whose repertoire ranges from folk to blues to rap. In 1989 the group won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording as a part of the album Folkways: A Vision Shared—A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. She retired from performing last year.

Reagon sang portions of traditional hymns, gospel tunes or freedom songs—spirituals that inspired civil rights workers in the 1950s and 60s—then blended their themes into her address. Frequently, the crowd accompanied her.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every rung lifts us higher and higher. Soldiers of the cross, she sang.
“The idea is movement and change,” she said, switching back to spoken word. “In the civil rights movement, we did not migrate geographically, but we were determined to move from where we were. If you want to move from your position but not leave, you have to change the place.”

Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and chair of African American studies, called Reagon “a Renaissance woman” in her introduction, and the description was apt. In addition to her musical prowess, Reagon is an accomplished academic. She holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Howard University and worked at the Smithsonian Institute for 19 years. She has taught at American University and spent a year as the William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts at her alma mater, Spelman.

Reagon said life is about making a difference, and there is a fine line between life and death. “You’re not promised, if you go into the water, you’ll get out the other side,” she said. “But if you do, you’ll be changed.”