Freedom Singer reflects on ‘63 march: ‘I was just happy to be in that number’

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Rutha Mae Harris’ mother used to shush her because she sang so much.

“She said, ‘Girl, you sing all the time,” Harris said. “You sing in your sleep.”

Harris, 72, never stopped singing, and it gained her a place on the stage of history.

Her rich soprano voice — that voice — became one of the sounds of the civil rights movement.

Woke up this morning with my mind

Stayed on freedom

Harris was one of the original four Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who traveled the country, performing mostly spiritually inspired songs at churches, rallies, college campuses and anywhere people in the movement were gathered. The others in the talented ensemble were Charles Neblett, Cordell Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who later founded the popular a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The Freedom Singers performed at the 1963 March on Washington. Harris and Neblett will sing later this month at George Washington University during a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the march. She will also perform at an interfaith celebration Aug. 28 in Washington.

Cordell Reagon died several years ago. Bernice Johnson Reagon has occasionally performed with the group.

In August 1963, the Freedom Singers were performing in California. Somehow — and Harris doesn’t remember the details — they ended up on a plane headed to Washington with celebrities including Charlton Heston, Rita Moreno and Sidney Poitier.

From the air, “people looked like gnats,” she said.

“All you could see was people. You couldn’t see no ground. Just people and the water in front of the (Lincoln Memorial). Just a sea of people. Different races. Different ages,” Harris said. “It just went all over me, and I was just happy to be in that number.”

Harris thinks of it now as “one of my greatest experiences, to be in front of all these people and to be in front of Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.) and all the other civil rights leaders.”

Looking back, “I didn’t know my voice would take me as far as it has,” Harris said. “It’s a gift from the Lord and I use it for His glory.”

The Freedom Singers at one point logged more than 50,000 miles in nine months, telling the story of the civil rights movement through rousing songs. Their main goal was to raise money and awareness for the movement. Some people say they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Harris doesn’t know.

“I never counted the money,” she said. “I just kept it and turned it in.”

But the music meant more than just money.

"The music was the movement," said Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and a veteran civil rights leader. "When we didn't have clear politics or the theology of social change and when there was no legal basis for social change, people sang 'And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in a my grave; And go home to my Lord and be free.' They sang 'Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.' It was people's means of expressing their hopes, their frustrations and their dreams simultaneously."

Some of the freedom songs were gospel songs or spirituals tweaked to reflect the movement. They also incorporated R&B and calypso.

In Albany, where she came home to teach school for three decades, Harris is a bit of a celebrity. She is “just one of the fiercest singers I’ve had the experience of singing with,” Johnson Reagon said.

Harris keeps of box of her “I Am on the Battlefield” CDs in the trunk of her silver 2003 Lincoln, and she is frequently on the road making appearances at churches and universities.

She still lives in the same single-story house where she was born, the one her Baptist minister father built for his ever-expanding family of eight children.

As a child, she was sheltered. She didn’t know she couldn’t eat in certain Albany restaurants or had to use the stairs to enter the movie theater.

“At the time, I thought I was free because my dad kept us from all of that stuff,” she said. “He said, ‘I built this house for you, so you don’t have to go to a hotel. I buy the food, so you don’t have to go to a restaurant.’ ”

So she was shocked when she was stopped on an Albany street by a volunteer registering people to vote who asked whether she wanted to be free.

“I told him I was already free,” Harris said. He convinced her otherwise, and soon she was registering people to vote.

She remembers teaching a 90-year-old African-American man to write his name, so when he registered to vote, he wouldn’t have to sign with an “X.” She calls that period her “awakening.”

Leaders in the civil rights movement soon recognized Harris’ voice was invaluable.

When folk singer Pete Seeger heard the Freedom Singers in Albany “he knew it was something special,” said Candie Carawan, a singer, author and activist. “The power of their voices, and the message in the songs really conveyed what was happening in the South.”

Harris had a few perilous moments while working in the movement. Once, in Alabama, someone shot at the car carrying the singers.

“You talk about some prayers being sent up,” Harris said. “But we got through that and no one was harmed.”

She also was arrested three times during marches in Albany, and she spent a total of 14 days in jail.

But Harris said nothing scared her.

“My dad taught us never to be afraid of anything or anyone,” she said. “I got my freedom myself, and no one did it for me.”