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November 23, 2007

An excerpt from THE SONGS ARE FREE with Bernice Johnson Reagon (Please note this special Web excerpt is slightly altered from the broadcast version.)

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:This next song is about a woman named Ella Baker. She's put over 50 years in struggle for justice in this country for her people and for human beings. And shesays, "We who believe in freedom should not rest until the killing of black men..."

ELLA mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until thishappens.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:She was talking about the Civil Rights movement workers who had been murdered in Mississippi in 1964. And as they searched for the bodies of the three missingworkers, they turned up bodies of black men in the rivers of Mississippi that nobody had searched for because they were black and they did not get killed withwhite men. She was angry about that.

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK:[singing] We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes / We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believein freedom cannot rest until it comes / Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons / Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons /We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until-

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:This next song I learned in school from the same teacher but then I heard it sung by a blind man who had learned it from his grandmother who had been sold.Virginia's this great slave-breeding state, so so many of us who end up in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi have Virginia or Maryland roots. And this song, hisgrandmother had come down from Virginia, was sold on the block in Americus, Georgia, and it's "Steal Away." And he said it was a song that was calling people tocome together to the meetings that were secret meetings and they used to go to the bush-hoppers to do them.

[singing] Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus / Steal away, steal away home.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:In our tradition, we are told that crossing over, all of those words, "crossing over," "tomorrow," "in the morning when I rise" - all of those words, all of thosephrases could be applied to any practical, everyday situation, talking about changing your life. It has to be a change that was as drastic as death so that, youknow, if you were saying "in the morning when I rise," you really might be talking about "in the morning when I rise, I'm leaving."

[Singing] If you don't go, If you don't go, If you don't go

So really within the African-American experience, you could sing ahh, you could own this story. You could own any story floating in you lee. And this has to do with this everymoment being special. If every moment is sacred and If you are amazed and in awe most of the time when you find yourself breathing and not crazy, then you are ina state of constant thankfulness, worship and humility.

BILL MOYERS:The astonishing thing to me, you keep saying that they would celebrate this moment, they would take the reverence of the moment, they would treat each second asa sacred experience, yet these were people suffering, these were people in slavery. These were people who had nothing to possess of their own except theirtradition and their stories. These were not first-class citizens and yet you keep talking about their celebrating the moment.

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:You might not have money. You might not have blah, blah, blah. But you've got this culture that empowers you as a unit in the universe and places you and makesyou know you are a child of the universe.

BILL MOYERS:Even though you're not free?

BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON:When the culture is strong, [faint singing: "Wade in the Water"] you've got this consistency where black people can grow up in these places with this voice just resonating about our special-ness inthe universe. And I always say you're in trouble if you get too far away from that core that grounds you.

[singing] Oh, see those children dressed in white / God's going to trouble the water / You know the leader looks like that Israelite / God's going to trouble thewater / Wade in the water, wade in the water, wade in the water...

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