“Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe that there wouldn’t have been a movement,” says Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.
Fifty years ago, the Freedom Singers performed along with artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington.
The group came together in Albany, Georgia in 1962. Their mission was to raise money and awareness for the civil rights movement. It’s a journey that took them more than 50,000 miles, across over 40 states in less than a year.
Harris tells NPR’s Michel Martin that the Freedom Singers were in California when they got a call to board a plane that Harry Belafonte had chartered.
“That’s how we got to the March on Washington. We were on the plane with all these movie stars. And the five of us had our own room on the plane,” she says. “We thought we were in high heaven.”
On her memories of the day
“We pushed our way through the crowd because we had to get on stage. But all you could see was people, reflections from the water. They looked like little maggots. There were so many people.”
On music and the civil rights music
“There’s no separation. Without the songs of the movement, personally I believe there wouldn’t have been a movement … We needed those songs to help us not to be fearful when we were doing marches, or doing picket lines. And you needed a calming agent, and that’s what those songs were for us.”
On whether she used to fear marches
“You know, I’ve never been afraid. My Dad who was a Minister, his name was Reverend R.A. Harris. He taught us never to fear any man. And to always think that you are as good as anybody else, but you’re no better than anybody else. And on marches, I wasn’t afraid, because I knew who was by my side. ‘Walk with me Lord.’”