Williams College, Williamstown, MA, Berkshire Institute for Student Activism
November 11, 2006 closing presentation to a conference of students, faculty and Community activists exploring ways to have student led organizing linked with issues in the community hosting the campuses.
Following this introduction, Dr. Reagon led the Williams Gospel choir in two freedom songs: Coalition Building and The Power of Song.
SO. If Howard Thurman was right that “community is the native environment of the human spirit” – then tonight we are in the presence of one of this generation’s greatest – environmentalists. In the four decades of her public life, she has been a tireless advocate for the ecology of justice. In her scholarship as a social historian, she has dug into the foundations of our society and helped us find new reserves of our most infinitely renewable resources – compassion and solidarity. In her solidarity with struggles of all kinds against every power that pollutes the environment of community, she has insisted that we conserve – hope. In her soaring musicianship, she has been a model of sustainable – joy. She’s here with us this weekend because, when we were imagining a bolt of electricity to send through all the intricate wiring of activism that we’ve all been creating today – regional activism, environmental activism, multi-cultural and educational activism – we could think of no power more likely to set off the blaze of light we’ve all been hoping for than the power contained in this human vessel, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Dr. Reagon has been connecting people and change, hope and justice, struggle and songs since her own youth. She grew up in Albany, Georgia, the daughter of a preacher. She came to a turning point in her life in the early 1960’s when, as a student, she was arrested at a civil rights protest and expelled from Albany State College. (Students: this is a role-model!) She became a field secretary in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – and she worked with Fannie Lou Hamer – and she started singing the gospel of civil rights all over the map. In 1973 she founded the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock – and she and her colleagues began to sing freedom into our imaginations, and rage into our pulse, and truth onto our lips. In the years since then she has published dozens of essays and reflections, composed and arranged and recorded hundreds of songs, taught on the faculties of two universities, received more than a dozen honorary degrees (including one from Williams in 1995), and one McArthur “Genius” Grant, and given performances that have inspired millions of people. One of my favorite Sweet Honey songs is “We Who Believe in Freedom Will Not Rest until It Comes.” Talk about living your creed. In the brief article from Sojourners magazine which BISA participants have in your folders, Dr. Reagon says she’s not a soloist – she’s a song leader. Song leaders, she says, start songs – but they don’t finish them. They get us to do that. They show us how to connect the breath in our lungs to the words on our lips to the truths in our consciences. The events of this weekend at Williams – and, for that matter, the events of this week in the history of the world – have reminded us again how precious and beautiful and fragile is the ecology of true human community. And now our eyes and ears and minds and hearts are open to drink in the balm and the energy and the commitment we’ll receive from her reflections on “Coalition Building and the Power of Song.” Will you share my unbridled delight in expressing our welcome and our gratitude to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon?