Bernice Johnson Reagon

American singer, composer, and activist

Bernice Johnson Reagon (born Bernice Johnson on October 4, 1942) is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist, who in the early 1960s was a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement in Georgia.

She earned her Ph.D. from Howard University becoming a cultural historian, centered on the role of music, and is an emeritus faculty member in the History Department at The American University. She has also been a scholar-in-residence at Stanford[12] and received an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music.


  • If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition.[1]

Interview with Democracy Now (1997)Edit

  • we called ourselves, in those days — and I’m talking now about 1962, 1963 — sort of like a singing newspaper. We saw our responsibility as being very connected to making sure as many people as we could reach understood the complexity of organizing against racism in this country and that you were not always in a position of having a large march with lots of cameras present. Sometimes it was very tedious, mundane work, but no less dangerous. And so, we saw ourselves as really trying to keep an open window on the organizing activities going on in some of the most dangerous areas of the South.
  • The African American culture is just a rich singing culture. When you take a culture like that and move it into a kind of crisis, a trauma state, which is what you would have to say happened with the civil rights movement activity, then you actually get an expansion and an empowerment and explosion of the singing, because the singing matches the increased energy coming out of the community.
  • slavery was a very violent system. And slavery did not just happen in the South; it happened to the nation. So, as a birthing nation, we are a very violent culture. And I think we are reaping some terrible, terrible fruits from what is integral to being American.
  • I’m a historian and a radical, and I don’t see resurging something from the past to address contemporary issues. I think we really have to do something that is of the time we’re in to address what we’re facing. There is a major effort to resolve issues in this society by locking people up in jail. And it is absolutely expanding. So people are going into business, and states almost are going into business. It’s almost like — it reminds me, when I hear about a state like Texas renting itself out, I think about Kentucky and Virginia and Maryland breeding slaves. I mean, there’s a market now for locking people up. And there are states going into it. And there are corporations where people can buy stock into prison industries and prison-based industries. That means you have to build them. There’s a technology to it. And this is major. And I think the civil rights movement addressed an issue during its time. But I think we’re going to all be very challenged to get very serious about trying to find ways to respond in complex ways to what we’re seeing in our society.
  • there is a need to understand that we are a culture created by a slave culture and that we still operate out of lessons learned and taught during a time when that system was intact. And so, many of the things that we learn, we learn there, the kind of women we learn how to be, the kind of men we learn how to be. If you can think of the batterers, the leading men of society beating people all the time and integrating it into their lives and into their personality across a 300-year period, you can’t tell me that’s not related to the violence we have to deal with. If you can — if I can tell you about the child abuse that a young child experiences who’s Black on a slave plantation, the battering that Black people experience, where you are whipped for anything, the sexual violence and sexual harassment, we’re talking about 300 years, formative culture in this country.
  • you actually don’t have to lie about what kind of country it is, that there’s a maturity that’s implied in being able to enter discussions and studies about your history, that we need to see more of, especially in terms of our leaders, who seem very afraid to enter a period where we actually talk about these things.
  • It is very difficult to be born female in this country and not be — not be fearful. One of the first lessons you get is that it’s a culture that preys on girls and teenagers and women. And so you go through your life with this little trail of fear as a girl and as a woman in this culture. And so, the Joan Little case was important to me because I thought, “Aha, they die!” — rapists, you know. I thought it was an interesting idea to add to this culture of fear I was living with. I owe Joan Little a lot.
  • it’s a class notion that women should be in the home with children. It is a very narrow strata of females who have been able to be married, have children and be home. Most women in the world are forced to work outside of the home, especially if they have children, because there isn’t any other chance for survival.

Quotes about Bernice Johnson ReagonEdit

  • Bernice Johnson Reagon, writing what she called a cultural autobiography, recalled her childhood in the South in these terms: “My father would work from sunup to sundown/and would come home exhausted/eat, and go to bed/My mother would work from sunup to sundown/would come home/and work from sundown to sunup/to work from sunup to sundown again/The bottom line/When a dress had to be made for a play/if my father did not have the money to buy the material that was it/For mama that was just the beginning/She then had to figure out a way to get the cloth for the dress and/stay up all night making it/for this child to be in this play/It's called/making a way out of no way
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • Full inclusion requires us to root out all the ways in which we have been tricked into collusion with the oppression of others, and all of us have. It requires us to move beyond our comfort zones. I once heard Bernice Reagon say that being in coalition meant working with people we didn't much like, and we might need to vomit over it for a while, but we had to do it anyway.
  • There are a lot of young people that came out of SNCC, and not just came out of SNCC, but people who came down in to work in the Freedom Summer and spread out into the country — Mario Savio, right? — people in a lot of the different movements in the country. Bernice Reagon, who also came out of SNCC, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, that group of singers, all those were inspired by SNCC. And Bernice says the civil rights movement was the “borning movement,” right? It was — and SNCC was right at the heart of that borning movement.

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