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Freedom Summer

Mass Meeting and Prayer
Songwriter: Hollis Watkins
Performed by: Hollis Watkins

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One of the voter registration activists in Mississippi during Freedom Summer was Hollis Watkins, freedom singer and native Mississippian. He explained, "If you sang with people, then you could talk about voter registrations." Music was a way of life for the people he was trying to reach, a "natural entrée into the hearts, souls, and minds of black people in presenting and offering something that was not foreign to them."

"Mass meetings would generally start... with people singing songs -- spiritual songs, singing freedom songs -- and it was really kind of a warm-up thing to get people involved, to get people to relax." In a recording of a "Mass Meeting and Prayer" Watkins demonstrates the power of song.

One of the most popular freedom songs, "This Little Light of Mine" summed up the process and the power of an individual's commitment to change.

This commitment could not be taken lightly. In the early years of the movement, it could mean persecution or even death. In later years, activists like those who set out to improve Chicago's housing situation didn't face as dire consequences, but they still took financial, political, and even physical risks. The song's lyrics confirmed a person's departure from accepting the world as it was and his or her decision to act.

This little light of mine,
I'm going to let it shine,
Every day, every day,
Every day, every day,
Gonna let my little light shine.

As the light spreads -- and other voices join in -- the light begins to illuminate the darkest corners of the country. This call and response version of the song reinforces the idea that one "voice" -- literal and metaphorical -- can be the start of something bigger.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

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