Bernice Johnson Reagon and Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival

Bernice Johnson Reagon and Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival: “It was always a powerful experience to sing harmony with Mrs. Hamer, a leading organizer, dynamic speaker and incredible singer from the Mississippi struggle. The Newport Folk Festival made a point to always have songleaders from the Movement on program.” Photographer: Diana Davies (from

by Regina Shands Stoltzfus

Psalm 84: 4, 5

Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

Images from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement show the stark, painful reality of that struggle: police officers shouting at college students and women and men in their Sunday best. Water hoses pulsating with powerful streams of water to push back the crowds. Vicious looking dogs lunging at people.

Bernice Johnson Reagan, founder of the women’s singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, a college student during that time, is one of the memory keepers of the movement. Reagan recounts how groups of protesters were rounded up and thrown in jail overnight or longer. While they were in jail, they would sing. Yes, they would sing. Singing helped calmed their fears and name their faith in God during the long struggle to gain the right to have their humanity recognized.

Of course, the movement for civil and social rights did not begin in the 60s, and it has not ended. We don’t have to look at vintage photographs to bear witness to today’s singers.

We singers keep raising our voices. We keep telling the story, walking the walk and talking the talk. We keep going. We keep singing.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus is a Roots of Justice trainer, doctoral candidate in theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, and former pastor. She teaches classes on race, violence, and peacemaking at Goshen College and is a co-founder of ROJ’s Damascus Road Antiracism Process.