The 1994 anniversary of Freedom Summer was marked by a conference in Jackson Mississippi. Hundreds of former civil rights activists, from summer volunteers to early SNCC staff, their now grown children, politicians, historians and students of the civil rights movement all gathered together. Many of the participants in Freedom Summer had not seen each other for thirty years. In addition to my husband Chip, my daughter and my daughter's partner joined me for the event. Chip recorded different parts of the conference on the "high-eight" camera he had recently purchased. The first clip is from the initial plenary and features some of the movement's leaders, such as Chuck McDew, Lawrence Guyot and Michael Thelwell.
Powerful and courageous black women are front and center in any account of the Mississippi Freedom Movement. They arose from the community, came from college campuses and arrived from across the country. Many of their incredible stories can be found in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts from Women in SNCC. Three of these women appear in this clip. Dorie Ladner and her sister Joyce became involved in civil rights activities in the Hattiesburg NAACP Youth Council as teenagers. Dorie continued civil rights activities at Jackson State and with SNCC, serving as the Natchez County project director in 1964-65. Victoria Gray Adams was a business woman from Hattiesburg who provided support and refuge for SNCC workers and was a prominent figure in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as its elected congressional representative and later, as its chair.
Victoria Gray gave the final speech of this session, and following Gray's talk, Bernice Johnson Reagon, seated in the audience, offered a spontaneous musical tribute, singing the spiritual, "There is a Balm in Gilead," with the intensity and emotion that recalled the singing of freedom songs in the midst of the struggle. One of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, Bernice Reagon founded "Sweet Honey in the Rock," the travelling group of singers who kept the music of the freedom movement alive for successive generations. Dr. Bernice Reagan became an archivist and scholar of African American music, and founded and directed the program in Black American Culture at the National Museum of American History.
Much has been written about the critical role of music in the movement, uniting and inspiring. When civil rights veterans get together at events, we still sing, but there is no way to recreate the experience of singing freedom songs in the midst of the men and women who were ready to give their lives for the freedom struggle. Listening to Bernice Reagon recalls those moments of brothers and sisters, hands crossed, swaying side by side in slow rhythm, staring straight ahead or with eyes closed, singing "We Shall Overcome."