Music from the Civil Rights Movement

By: Grace Moon | February 26, 2010

To honor black history month, the White House put on a series of concerts in “Celebra

To honor black history month, the White House put on a series of concerts in “Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.” The roster of musicians included Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. Reagon was one of the original Freedom Singers, a group of musicians that formed in the early 1960s who, through their music, organized young people and helped lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Reagon is also one of the founding members of the all-women’s group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Toshi Reagon is the daughter of Bernice and, like her mother, she has pursued a meaningful music career. Toshi performs across the country and has recorded at least 10 CDs. If you can remember the last episode of S4 of TLW, Toshi sang on the beach with Kit and crew (while Jenny set sail with her dog in a life boat). Velvetpark put Toshi on the cover of our second issue way back in the day, so when I was scrolling through the website last week and saw Toshi singing with her mom in front of POTUS, I emailed her immediately to ask how she got there.

Our chat was a totally enlightening discussion for me, as Toshi put into perspective the meaning of the music of the Civil Rights era:

Moon: Toshi! how did you get to play for the President and the First Family at the White House?

Toshi: They have been doing a series of concerts at the White House that reflect music that has built America. I think this is the fifth one.

This concert was a celebration of music from the Civil Rights Movement. They asked my mom, and she asked me, and she told them that there were still three singers alive from the SNCC Freedom Singers.
Moon: Did they all go too?

Toshi: Yes, my father [Cordell Hull Reagon] was the fourth member, but he is dead. My mom brought the other two remaining members Charles Neblett and Rutha Harris.
Moon: What song did you perform?

Toshi: We sang “(Ain’t Gonna let Nobody) Turn Me Around.”

Moon: Wow… What did it mean to you — to get invited to the White House and to play for the first family and to spotlight this era of American History?

Toshi: It was incredible. I have never liked the White House… I mean it is called the “white” fucking house.
Moon:  …and you grew up in DC right?

Toshi: Yes, I grew up in DC. I just thought it was so disrespectful, and there was no president — not even the ones I have voted for, that I have wanted to go see in the White House. But Obama is different… This First Family is different.

I was overjoyed to be in there with them. I took in every moment.
Moon: What makes them different for you other than color, of course?

They are smart, warm people. When I went into the White House, the only people of color I saw on the walls where the Obamas. All of the art [Presidential portraits] reflects past administrations and there are no other POCs there…

Also, it’s the kind of man Obama is. It’s not just that he is Black. If Clarence Thomas were president, that would suck.

Moon: Right…
Toshi: They have created a very warm atmosphere there.
Moon:  Did you get to interact with them?
Toshi: I had a few moments during the picture taking time. I was smilling, and saying thank you, and how happy we are that you are here… it was amazing.
Moon: How was it for your mom? I’m sure this was something major for her given her place in the Civil Rights Movement.

Toshi: You will have to ask her, but for me it was the best way to go. Mom, Chuck, and Rutha were the first group to take the music from the Civil Rights Movement from the streets, churches, and jails to concert halls and festivals.

It was done as a way to rid the world of the injustices and hypocrisy of this country.

They were trying to get Black people to vote. To vote! Can you dig it? It was a life-long mission.

Moon: That’s deep… my head is spinning a little.
Toshi: Most people do not understand how they used that music. It was used always in a group, and always in action. Nonviolent action.

The music made it possible for people to work together in horrible and violent conditions.
So to go with her, and be with her, and have her realize that her work really changed this country was gigantic for me.

Moon: I never really understood the importance and role of that music for the movement…

Toshi: Well, my mom says, Black people were kidnapped and brought here to work as slaves. The slave masters would say “oooohhh they love to sing.” But when you have been taken from your home, your language, your family, and given another name, and made less than… The sound you make in your body is home.

The music was the place that you held yourself.

Eventually we documented our journey and taught each other, and used these songs to communicate our escape from slavery. We are an incredible people.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have never let that leave me, and if I have nothing else, I have my voice, and I use it all the time.
Moon:  I get it. The music holds everything — the history and the path for the future. It’s like that lineage of music paved the way for the Obamas to the White House.
Toshi: Ha! Well, you know that ain’t a bad way to get there. I think the grassroots movement to get Obama elected was very similar to the kind of work folks did during the Civil Rights Movement.
Moon: So even though he’s had a tough year and a lot of opposition, based on what you got out of meeting him in person, do you think he’s an effective President?

Toshi: I think his year has been great, and people are crazy.

When you are in the White House, you realize that what they are saying is going on minute-by-minute in the press can not possibly happen in real time. I think he needs eight years.
We can not let the media be our clock — they are desperate. I do not agree with everything that Obama says, but I think he is doing some amazing work.

I also think we are seeing how our government works, and how selfish some of these people are.
Moon: Do you think that a lot of the opposition is because he is black?

Toshi: I think folks are in shock that a Black person is president. This elected body has kept women and people of color out of the Presidency for hundreds of years. So, yes, there is shock.

Moon: and anger…

Yes, and look at how many little games are being played — there is no level of crisis that would make some of these people come off it, and work together. Not Haiti, not Katrina, not the fall of our finacial system, not global warming, not health care. The corruption is overwhelming.
Moon: The corruption and irrationality does feel very obvious since Obama’s been in office.

Toshi: Yes, but we’ve had this government during the time of slavery. You have to understand that it is the people who change things.

The people can not let up because Obama is in office — he needs us.

Moon: Do you feel your music continues to address the things that will mobilize the people?

Toshi: I hope my music moves folks to feel good and be good to themselves and their community.

I feel like when we work together and take care of each other and our world we make balance. We the people can be the standard of righteousness.
Moon: What are you working on now? Do you have a new CD or anything coming out?
Toshi: Mixing the live CD and doing shows. Working on another studio record. And being a good mom.
Moon: How can we make sure we keep up, Facebook? You gonna let me know when the CD is out?
Toshi: Yep, Facebook fan page.
Moon: Thanks so much for chatting.

Thank you, take care.

(counter clockwise) Rutha Harris, Charels Nesblett, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Toshi Reagon — White House performance

Grace Moon

Founder and Editor for Velvetpark Media