Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

2011 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient

Transcript from Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s speech at Living the Dream…Singing the Dream, the 23rd Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, February 20, 2011 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.


Thank you a great deal. For more than 45 years, Bernice Johnson Reagan has been a major cultural voice for freedom and justice. Singing, speaking out against racism and organized inequities of every kind. A child of Southwest Georgia, an African-American woman’s voice born in the struggle against racism in America during the civil rights movement of the fifties and the sixties. She was a member of the original SNCC Freedom Singers formed in 1962. In 1963, while a graduate student at Howard University and Vocal Director of the DC Black Repertory Theater, she formed the internationally renowned African-American women’s a capella ensemble, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

And she led the group until her retirement in 2004. She is professor emeritus of history at American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and served as the 2002 and 2004 Cosby Chair of Fine Arts at Spelman College, her alma mater in Atlanta, Georgia. Perhaps no individual today better illustrates the transformative power and instruction of traditional African-American music and cultural history than Bernice Johnson Reagon, who has excelled equally in the realms of scholarship, composition, and performance. We have been friends for more years than either one of us cares to count, although she is many, many years younger. Our relationship goes back to that band of brothers and sisters of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and it endures today. This is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia, where she proved human voices raised in song are more eloquent, more powerful than the spoken word. On behalf of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and people across the nation, I’m honored to present this year’s Humanitarian Award to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.


[Singing the civil rights song, “Freedom Is in the Air”] Over my head, I see freedom. [To audience] In on freedom, in harmony. Over my head, I see freedom in the air. Okay, match me in volume. It’s not a soft song.

[Audience joins] Over my head, I see freedom in the air. Over my head, I see freedom in the air. Over my head, I see freedom in the air.

Y’all did the chords so beautifully, thank you. [singing] There must be a God somewhere.

It is very moving for me to be here tonight. The first time I saw Julian Bond, I was in Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. It was December 1961. And I was on this side of the congregation facing the pulpit. He was lined up on the wall with a group of Freedom Riders who had come from Atlanta on the train, and, of course, had been arrested. And I saw his face. I knew his face from that point on because those people standing there had lights. Of course, they’d been arrested, but there was so much beaming coming from them. So, it is very special when I have a chance to be in the same space with Julian, and especially to reach a half-century mark and find that both of us are here and we still are blessed to know our names. I mentioned that because it is not a given. It is not a given that you woke up this morning and you actually knew who you were.

I came to Washington in 1971 and I have not experienced anything like what went on in the first half of this evening. To the musicians who worked on creating and working with the singers, it is more than a notion to talk about building a new world. We’re sitting in an evening where we have master musicians doing what comes naturally to us because we’ve done it since we knew we had a voice, and then moving over and being someplace else that we had to study and learn, because we were not born in it, and then shifting and doing something else again. And it really does require that you actually are able to hold onto who you are and lend your power and creativity to help somebody else’s stuff live also. And then to all together do the clapping you all did!

I have not experienced anything like this since I came to this city in 1971, and I am thoroughly honored for the recognition of this award. I will cherish it, but more than anything, I am blessed to have lived to witness this thing here. And I just urge you to move forward with it, not just in the music, but there’s a principle being expressed in this program and all of these vocal styles. And you know, when you need to be still and sing like this, everybody gets still. And when you need to rock, you rock! Thank you very much. I am just thrilled.