‘They Couldn’t Arrest Us All’: Civil Rights Veteran Rutha Mae Harris on MLK, Protest, Prison and Song
Mae Harris has never been afraid to sing in front of a crowd. Even as a 22-year-old facing the 250,000 people who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 for the historic march on Washington, she felt excited rather than scared. After all, at earlier protests, she had faced police pointing batons, fire hoses and even guns, and each time, when she sang, her terror faded away.
That day, when she began to sing, her voice flew out across the march as she belted out the opening words: “We shall not …” Immediately, the other Freedom Singers, as her group were known, joined in for their rendition of We Shall Not Be Moved. Footage of the day shows Harris in her element, looking ahead, determined, as the crowd clap along and burst into applause at the end.
“I shall never, ever, forget that,” the 79-year-old civil rights veteran tells me over the phone from her home in Albany, Georgia. “It was a wonderful experience. It was me leading and singing in front of all those people that looked like ants.”
More than half a century later, many people may not realise how integral music was to the civil rights movement. Nor have they heard of the Freedom Singers, the group the New York Times critic Wesley Morris has called “the voices of the civil rights movement”. The group crisscrossed the US raising awareness and funds, singing at marches in the face of hostility. For Harris, the link was always clear. “Without those songs, I don’t believe there would have been a movement,” she says simply. “It took away a lot of fear.”
Born on 27 November 1940, in Albany, Harris spent much of her early childhood sheltered from the brutal reality of segregation. To protect his children, her father, a minister, had not allowed them to go to restaurants, hotels or the cinema – anywhere where they might have found their entry barred because of the colour of their skin. Instead, he told his children he had built their beloved family home for them so that they did not need to go out for entertainment. Harris remembers a time when he stopped at a petrol station and asked if the children could use the toilet. When the owner refused, her father left without buying any fuel.
In 1960, Harris enrolled at Florida A&M University, majoring in music. When she came home at the end of the school year, in the summer of 1961, the Albany civil rights movement had begun. She put her education on hold and became involved. While she was aware that racism existed, she did not realise the extent of the apartheid-like system in operation. “It was when I started working in a movement that I realised that I was not free,” she says. When she finally understood the scale of the oppression that black Americans faced at the time, she was devastated, but determined to fight. “I was involved in the civil rights movement to get my freedom for myself,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone else getting it for me.”
Amid the protests and organising across the country, there was singing. The folk artist and activist Pete Seeger saw how gospel-style freedom songs brought people together and realised they could be used to draw support for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Seeger spoke to Cordell Reagon, the founder of the student singing quartet the Freedom Singers, and the group went on to travel across the country, raising money for the SNCC and inspiring others to join the movement.
In no time, Harris went from being a singer in the junior choir of her father’s church to being one of the most important voices of the US civil rights movement in the 60s. “Our group travelled 50,000-plus miles in nine months. We covered 46 states,” Harris says.
Originally made up of Harris, Reagon, Reagon’s wife, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Charles Neblett, the quartet was often called the singing newspapers. Through songs such as This Little Light of Mine and Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed on Freedom), they told the story of the civil rights movement. It was Harris’s story, too; she was arrested three times for demonstrating, and organised with Martin Luther King. “I felt powerful and honoured to be a part of such a prestigious group of young people, who cut short their education to fight for others so that they could be free and become equal,” she says. “We are not quite there yet, but we’re going to get there.”
Harris describes King as a humble, down-to-earth man with “soft hands”. “He didn’t think he was better than anybody else. He was just a common man.”
By 1961, a coalition of civil rights organisations, led by SNCC members, had formed the Albany movement to desegregate the city and challenge discrimination; the group delivered training on non-violent resistance.
“You were taught how to protect yourself during demonstrations or whatever you participated in,” says Harris. “Most of the males in the movement would also learn to cover the women.”
As well as protests, there were sit-ins in segregated areas such as bus terminals, sit-ins in jails, boycotts and litigation. The key was always non-violence. “Our marches were peaceful. If any violence occurred, it was on the part of the other race. We had to be non-violent in order to accomplish our goals,” says Harris. Her voice is steady, strong and full of emotion. “Violence does not accomplish anything, it increases death.” She remembers a police officer pointing his gun at her at one protest. “We never knew what to expect; we didn’t know whether we would get shot or whether we would get beat up. That’s when the songs came into play, they kept me from being afraid.”
The police responded to the demonstrations with mass arrests. Harris spent a total of 14 days behind bars. When she was arrested, she went limp – as her training had taught her to do. “I was dragged up the steps,” she says, explaining that, if they were going to insist on arresting her, she was not going to make it easy for them. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just fighting for my freedom.”
Surprisingly, she says: “I had a wonderful time in jail. We sang songs, we prayed and we had church. There were so many of us in there, so we didn’t have any sleeping quarters.” When she was let out, she would go home, have a shower and join the next protest.“They couldn’t arrest all of us. There were too many of us, so we didn’t stop.”
The movement also held so-called “citizenship schools”, which helped the local black community register to vote. Harris remembers supporting a 90-year-old man who could not read or write. “I taught that man to write his name and carried him down to register to become a voter. He was so happy when he learned how to write his name. He was just signing Xs,” Harris says. “He voted in each election until he passed away.”
Harris sings to me over the phone and it is easy to see why she became the voice of a movement. Little has changed in the past five decades: her singing is still distinctive and arresting. But singing, like organising, is better when done with other people, so Harris insists on giving me a lesson. After I offer my poor rendition of This Little Light of Mine, Harris says there is hope for me yet. “You can sing, you’re not a monotone, you just need for me to give you a few pointers. If I was near you, you would be a singer.”
In 1963, Harris and the other Freedom Singers were performing in Los Angeles, when Reagon got a call telling them to head to Washington DC. The singer and actor Harry Belafonte had chartered a plane for them and a few other special guests – Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr and Rita Moreno. The group had their own suite on the plane. “It was amazing to be in the presence of them [the celebrities] and we all were going for the same purpose. We were all going to the march on Washington.”
Harris did not know what to expect from the march, but she was hopeful. When they arrived, they pushed through the crowd to the front. She was stunned by the number of people. While the group were waiting to go on, they were handed a copy of the programme; Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Bob Dylan were all on it. Harris was standing beside Mary Travers, from the American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who suddenly started to cry. “I asked her: ‘Why are you crying, Mary? She said: ‘I don’t think we’ll get a chance to sing.’ And I said: ‘Weren’t you invited to sing?’ And she said, yes. ‘Well, then, you’re going to sing, you just got to be patient.’” When Travers died, Harris was invited to sing at her memorial in New York City.
At the Washington march, by the time King electrified the crowd with his “I have a Dream” speech, Harris knew she was witnessing history being made. “I realised that I was part of that, thank the Lord. It was such a blessing to be a part of a movement like that and to be in the presence again with Dr King. It was so amazing,” she says. “That will always be etched in my mind.”
Today, Harris lives in the house she was born in. When she returned home after her tour with the Freedom Singers, she was ready to continue her education. She enrolled at Albany State University in 1967. In 1973, she got a permanent teaching position at a local school and taught for 30 years. She retired in 2003 and recorded her first CD. In 2004, she began travelling across the country again, to colleges and community halls.
While the place she called home has stayed the same, the world outside her door has changed dramatically. But Harris insists the work she started nearly 60 years ago is still not over. Issues of segregation – although more hidden – remain, and she is alarmed at the efforts by conservatives to curtail people’s right to vote. “There is a song we sang that says freedom is a constant struggle that I still sing till this day,” she says.
Nearly 50 years after that moment, Harris and the remaining Freedom Singers, Neblett and Bernice Johnson Reagon, performed in front of Barack Obama and the first family. “It was such an honour to be able to participate and sing for the president and first lady,” she says.
Harris says that King’s dream has not yet been realised. “We’re still struggling,” she says, pointing to the Black Lives Matter protests. “I am truly proud of them and I just want them to continue to do what they’re doing. They can’t stop now. They gotta keep going and make his dream become a reality.”
She adds: “I’ll be 80 years old in November and I’m still singing the songs of freedom and still travelling.” She organises two groups of singers in Albany; a continuation of what she was doing in the 60s. “Telling the story of the civil rights movement through song. I do not want this song to die out so I keep them afloat.”
She believes the next presidential election is one of the most important in her lifetime, calling the election of Donald Trump “truly painful”. “That man is devious. He is an evil man. But I got to love him because the Bible says I must love my enemies. But he is so evil, I have to pray hard to have love for him.” For Harris, marching and voting go hand in hand, and she urges people to do that today. “We need America back again. We have lost everything that we had and it’s all because of Donald Trump.” She believes the future of the country rests on the Black Lives Matter demonstrators. “I’m confident they are not going to stop and I pray that they don’t stop, because if they stop, we are doomed.”
Her only criticism? Today’s protests don’t have enough music. The songs tell the story, she says, and they must be nurtured and kept alive. You choose the lyrics based on whatever is happening in your city and teach the tune; that’s how freedom songs come about. “I tell young people today: you don’t have to sing the songs we sang. You make your own songs, this is your time.”
[Aamna Mohdin is a news reporter at the Guardian. Twitter: @aamnamohdin]