March 02, 2011

Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — As a student at Georgia's Albany State College in 1961, Bernice Johnson Reagon co-organized a march against segregation after two black students were jailed for buying bus tickets at a white station. || Login in to myBucknell for video

The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was supposed to meet at a tree on campus, defying college administrators, Reagon recalled. But only she and co-organizer Annette Jones White showed up. They marched anyway, and when they reached the Flint River Bridge, White told Reagon to look back.

"I was terrified," Reagon told an audience at Bucknell University Tuesday night. "Bravery is never as brave as it looks. ... But I turned around, and as far as I could see, it was Albany State students. There were over 200 of us. I had not heard them join us. We actually had a march."

Now an acclaimed singer, teacher, author and founder of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Reagon recalled the story during a talk, "Standing on New Ground," at Trout Auditorium. Her talk was part of the ongoing Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," a national speakers series featuring individuals from a wide range of fields who provide thoughtful and insightful commentary or interactive experiences on new ways of being creative.

Born in Dougherty County near Albany, Ga., the third child of the Rev. Jesse and Beatrice Johnson, Reagon was deeply moved and challenged by the growing struggle against racism in the South and became a student leader of the Albany Movement. She and many others were jailed and expelled from the college after the Albany protest. Reagon went on went on to champion the cause of civil rights for more than four decades, using the power of song to spread her message.

She coined the term "songtalker" to describe the art of "balancing song and talk in the creation of live performance conversation," and in 1978, she formed the music company Songtalk Publishing Co., which features performances incorporating song, poetry and talk. On Tuesday, she delivered her presentation through stories and songs.

Reagon completed graduate work at Spelman College in Atlanta and received a Ph.D. from Howard University. In 1973, she founded the Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock and led the internationally renowned a cappella African-American women's ensemble for 30 years, composing many of its songs and producing several of its recordings.
Prose and song
Alternating from poetic prose to song to humor throughout her presentation at Bucknell, Reagon encouraged students in particular to learn about their history and to stand up for what they believe, even if they think no one is listening.

She spoke and sang about her own family's history with slavery, survival and spirituality, inspiring the audience to join in a harmonious rendition of "Wade in the Water," along with several other songs about freedom and survival.

"You see, you have to take up more space than you occupy in your body," Reagon said after breaking into song for the first time during her talk. "You have to make a racket with yourself. You have to operate in your life so that when you are walking on the sidewalk, people move sideways."

Reagon also recounted the story of Harry T. Moore, who organized numerous chapters of the NAACP in Florida during the 1930s and later worked for African-American voting rights and equal pay for black teachers in public schools before he and his wife were murdered on Christmas night in 1951.

"When you have change, it is not even, it is not smooth and you don't always win," Reagon said. "But if you are not dead, you should do what you can to get up and take another step."

Scholar and producer
Curator emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and professor emeritus of history at American University, Reagon's work as a scholar and teacher has had a profound impact on the field of public history. Among her major achievements, she was principal scholar, conceptual producer and host for the Peabody Award-winning, "Wade in the Water," a 26-show series produced by National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. 

Reagon also was the score composer for the Peabody Award-winning film series produced by WGBH-TV, "Africans in America," broadcast in a PBS documentary film series in 1998, and music consultant, composer and performer for several other film and video projects, including the award-winning "Eyes on the Prize," the Emmy-winning "We Shall Overcome" and the feature film "Beloved."

Her awards include the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities in 2003, the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts in 2000, the Presidential Medal for Contribution to Public Understanding of the Humanities in 1995, and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.

The Bucknell Forum
Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speaker series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints.
The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.

Contact: Division of Communications


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