Singing the Message of Civil Rights

By Meg Rowley

The annual Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King Lecture Series on Race and Nonviolent Social Change was held on January 24th. Siena College has hosted this event since 1988, in honor of black history month and the mission and vision of nonviolent social change that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and practiced in a time when this country was in desperate need of change. This lecture series is sponsored by Siena College and explores how problems such as racism, sexism, classism, militarism and prejudice in our nation and throughout the world can be confronted effectively through dynamic efforts informed by social justice and nonviolent action.
mlk-speaker.jpgThe event had several components. An art contest consisting of local artwork produced by elementary aged students was put on display; the pictures illustrated the core values that were represented at the event (peace, equality, and freedom.) The event honored local children by awarding middle and high school children the Student Courage Award. The award was given to children who demonstrated “positive action against racism, prejudice, and bias-related violence in their community.” The winners received a plaque, an invitation to have dinner with the speaker of the event, recognition during the lecture, as well as a cash prize.
The main event of the night was the speech given by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Regon has been an influential voice in the cause for freedom and justice for more then 30 years. As a college student at Albany State College in Albany, Georgia she became involved in the civil right
movement. She was expelled from the college
after being jailed for a nonviolent demonstration that she and other students took part in. She was one of the original members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers. She also was a founding member of the Harambee Singers.
Reagon projects her mission and vision through a wide variety of mediums, including singing, teaching and speeches. The most powerful way she proclaims her message is through the internationally acclaimed African American acappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group that she formed in 1973.
Reagon sang one of the groups songs, the lyrics encapsulating the message of the entire event.

“I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down. I don’t know how my father stood his ground. I don’t know how my people survive slavery. I do remember, that’s why I believe”

It was a moving moment, one in which Reagon sang alone in her gravelly, raw voice. As she spoke, it was clear this was a woman who embodied Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. In a compassionate, gentle way, she called for students and people to not simply conform to socially excepted norms. The message clearly taken away, and perhaps the most dangerous, is that the moderate individual does nothing to stand up to injustice.

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