It is not often that one comes face to face with a hero, but for a select number of ABAC students and faculty who were able to go see the world-renowned Freedom Singer, Rutha Mae Harris, live on Feb. 26 at Howard Auditorium, this became a reality. Born on Nov. 27 in 1940, amidst a second struggle for African-American freedom, Rutha was born to liberate.
Her mother, father and seven siblings were all a part of the freedom movement, welcoming SNCC (otherwise known as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which Ms. Harris will later join) and other activists alike using their home as a Freedom House and granting lodging to members of the movement regardless of race, Her family was ready to embrace a new future. Her father, Reverend Isaiah Harris, was the founding minister of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church and used his place in the community to encourage members of the black population to vote. Reverend Harris was known for his efforts and part of his legacy is embodied by his bold statement, “Never back down when you are right. We’re in the Southland and we’re human beings, but they don’t treat us like we’re human beings.” Harris’s mother, Katie Harris, was a schoolteacher who raised the spirits of activists and worked hard to promote the movements even after the death of her husband in 1951 (when Rutha was only 10).
Rutha Mae Harris had big shoes to fill in her local community, and although her family was active in the black freedom movement, Rutha lived a sheltered life. She was embraced by her friends and family in Albany, Georgia, where she was born and raised and never really saw the injustices for what they were. When she was asked if she wanted to be free and came face-to-face with the realization that she was not really free, she knew that she wanted to do something to change that, “…before I became involved in the movement, I thought I was free, but becoming involved in the movement I found out that I was NOT free. I couldn’t go to the hotels; I couldn’t go to the movies—I couldn’t do anything humanly. Everywhere I went had to be done through the back door.”
Ms. Harris stated, “I wanted to be free and I wanted to get my freedom myself. I didn’t want anyone to say I fought for you, I wanted to say that I fought for myself and that’s what inspired me to get involved. I canceled my education to be involved.”
A bundle of nerves, swinging to-and-fro with indecision, the rest of her life dangled on the moment that Ms. Harris contemplated walking into the SNCC office in Albany, “Before I actually went inside, I had to walk around the block several times… I wasn’t sure whether to become involved in the movement or to continue my education. I just had to walk around a little bit more so I could get in my head, or in my mind, exactly what I wanted to do.”
Harris stated, “Although I still wasn’t sure whether I should put my education on hold, I went on inside.” She risked everything that she had worked towards up until that moment of her life to be involved in the freedom movement of Albany.
The freedom movement is a part of the civil rights movement, in which African-Americans worked endlessly “to end racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans and to enforce constitutional voting rights.”
When Harris first joined SNCC in summer 1961, she was not the Freedom Singer she’s known for today, but she did life-changing work at voter registration drives, silent mass meetings and even taught at a citizenship school. She touched the lives of many, “During the teaching of the citizenship school, I was able to teach a young man at the age of 19 to write his name.”
But voting wasn’t all that Albany’s SNCC was worried about. They had the goal to desegregate every single place in Albany that would not allow black and white people to both walk into the front door. Ms. Harris spoke powerfully as she stated, “Your money’s green just like their money’s green. Separate schools. Separate everything. So, when the Albany movement started, we chose to go across the board, we decided to desegregate EVERYTHING: schools, hotels, bus stations. Everything that wouldn’t let us go through the front door we chose to conquer, and we did conquer.”
Although some think of Albany’s movement as a failure because of the lack of drama and violence, some believe that that is what makes it a success. The whole point of their movement was to nonviolently gain their freedom and rights, and though it was a long and slow battle, they did. Ms. Harris said it best when she told her captivated audience, “it was not a failure because we accomplished everything, we set out to do.”
Ms. Harris became a Freedom Singer in 1962 where she and her partners’ songs were heard as they traveled for 9 months to 46 states, over 50,000 miles and they used their voices to raise money for SNCC. The movement was heavily grounded in the traditions of black congregational songs, core quartet and ensembles. The singers simply used popular spirituals, gospel and rhythm and blues to move an audience into singing along, “The art of song focused attention on injustices and formalized expression about them, these songs simply stated: ‘we are here, and we endure.”
Through song, Ms. Harris and the other members of the movements were able to more fully relate the struggles of the people to a wider audience. They fought the injustice with stoic civility and inspired others to do the same. Even when the activists were in danger, even when it seemed that their struggles would be for nothing, the song helped them carry on. “Massive church rallies, picketing demonstrations and even jailhouses echoed with the songs of resolve declaring songs, just like a tree planted by the rivers of water; we shall NOT be moved.”
“As an original Freedom Singer, I have first-hand knowledge about the music of struggle,” Rutha Mae Harris and all the members of the movement knew struggle and they knew to fear. Members were shot at, dragged and jailed, and although Ms. Harris was never beaten, there were many who were. Many lived in the face of constant threats, one member of SNCC, Sam Walker, was called and threatened by a member of the KKK for their efforts to help end voter discrimination. The aggressor told him that, “If you take anyone else up to register, you’ll never leave Greenwood, Mississippi alive.”
Rutha Mae Harris held her head high with pride as she spoke about other members of the movement, “There are a lot of unsung heroes. Most people here have heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but he wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of young people, your age, that participated in the civil rights movement, but their names are not even mentioned.”
She believed that the efforts of the other members in the movement were invaluable to the continuation of the civil rights movements by others, “They’re the reason— Albany, Georgia is the reason for Martin Luther King. He learned how to strategize for the next cities that he went to.”
She spoke in the memory of the youth who gave their lives for the movement, “People were beaten, killed and jailed only because we wanted to be treated as human beings. It was just a shame that people had to lose their lives to accomplish freedom that was ours in the first place.”
Rutha Mae Harris still lives in the house in which she was born and raised, although the town is now completely different because of the efforts she made to desegregate it. It’s now a town worth living in. Because her home was a Freedom House, Ms. Harris is now in the process of giving it a historical marker so that it can remain a testament to the struggles and achievements that those like her had made. Many people take their freedoms for liberty and forget that at one time, it was impossible for them to do the things they take for granted today.
Ms. Harris ended her time with ABAC by reminding people that the struggle isn’t over, “We’ve accomplished quite a bit, but there’s still more work to be done, right now we’re still fighting on voting rights. Some states still do not want people of color to vote.” She wants people to stand and vote and continue to make a change to better the future of our nation.