BIRMINGHAM -- In a church where four little girls lost their lives, angels still seem to be singing. Their songs are not of the pain left behind, but of freedom.
The choir rose to its feet and sang:
Before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
I'll go home to my Lord
And I'll be free.
As if a wave swept through the pews nearly everyone in the audience rose, swayed and clapped. The energy was palpable, the way Sunday at a Southern Baptist church can be. But this wasn't Sunday service, it was a special performance at the 16th Street Baptist Church (pictured below) by the Carlton Reese Memorial Choir for an audience of very special guests - the Freedom Riders.
In a city synonymous with the strife of segregation and the forces that fought so fiercely to end it, this church is a sacred place in the Civil Rights Movement legacy. Birmingham is also a place where the Freedom Riders suffered a particularly brutal beating by the Ku Klux Klan as they challenged the segregation of interstate buses there.
The violence in Birmingham became so bloody then, that the city became known as "Bombingham."
It was the latest stop along the 2011 Freedom Ride, which brought together a handful of original Freedom Riders and 40 college students from across the country and from different backgrounds to retrace the original journey through the Deep South. Each stop up until then had been wrought with emotions: guilt, sorrow, anger and hope.
I sat about a dozen rows back from where those little girls lost their lives in 1963 when a klansmen's bomb was detonated outside the church, and couldn't help but glance over at the stained glass window that once rained down in shards on the congregation.
To be in that room, in that city, was breathtaking.
And then the choir sang -- so sweet a sound.
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
I'm gonna keep on walking, keep on walking.
Again a wave of energy swept through the church. The Freedom Riders in attendance, now in their late 60s or 70s, swayed and a surge of difficult joy coursed through the students.
Even I was starting to feel possessed by whatever it was the choir or that place was doing to us.
I felt, for lack of a better word, empowered, and it became immediately clear how much this music meant to the movement.
There were influential ministers who preached power from the pulpits, but it was the church choirs of the Civil Rights era that gave the people a soundtrack that stirred them into the streets to stand up for their rights. The movement was filled with music, freedom songs and old gospel standbys born from the souls and spirits of black folks and our struggles.
So many of these songs also became the life-blood of the Freedom Riders, who braved heaps of brutality along interstate highways throughout the Deep South during the Freedom Rides of 1961.
"Music was just as important as learning about nonviolence," said Ernest "Rip" Patton, one of the original Freedom Riders. "Music brought us together -- we can't all talk at the same time, but we can all sing at the same time. It gives you that spiritual feeling. It was like our glue."
A couple days earlier, about five of the original Freedom Riders and the 40 students accompanying them were in Atlanta, sitting in the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Sr. and his son, Martin Luther King Jr., once preached.
We sat and listened to a sermon by the younger King that played over the speakers. And then a woman's voice, a beautiful voice, rose and unfurled from the speakers and filled every recess in the place. It was a haunting song called "How Great Thou Art" -- powerful and subdued.
It was a change of pace for the students, who had by then passed the long bus rides by singing "We Shall Overcome," "This Little Light of Mine" and "The Buses Are A-Coming" over and over, even remixing some of the songs or making up raps with names of the Freedom Riders on the bus worked into their lyrics. But this was different. It had a bit more weight.
"We sang that in church every Sunday," said Samantha Williams, 23, a student at the University of Arkansas, of the song that played inside the church. "To hear it sung in that context, you almost feel guilty for singing it."
In Birmingham the choir sang, "I Don't Feel No Way Tired" -- the kind of song that could keep you keeping on no matter what.
"The music was the inspiration. It gave the people a lot of courage that they didn't think they had," said Eloise Gaffney, the choir director who joined the choir in 1962 and quickly "found a place in the movement."
"When we were talking about we ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, it kind of just fired them up. And it was Martin King that was the one that said this choir can sing them out of their seats and into the streets."
Annie B. Levison, another longtime choir member, said that people came to the church to hear the preaching and the teaching, but also the singing.
"You know how when you start singing in your church, and you know how it just catch on fire, well everybody would catch on fire, and when they get on fire and the Lord is just dwelling inside of them -- they're ready," she said. "That's what you had to do. Get them on fire. And when the fire starts burning all over, they're going to run. So, where' you going to run to? You're going to run out to the people and say lets get free. Lets get free!"
"Singing With The Freedom Riders" is one part of a series of pieces by Trymaine Lee that first ran on Black Voices:
- "Ku Klux Klan Violence: Town Near Appalachian Mountains Tries To Shake Memories"
- "Let Freedom Ring: 2011 Freedom Riders Reach New Orleans"