The Borning Struggle: An Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon


The Borning Struggle

Interview by Dick Cluster

Through the story of the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in one town—Albany, Georgia—students get an insider’s perspective on how and why people got involved in the Movement, the collaboration and tension between groups, and the impact the Movement had on the town and its people. The interview also highlights the integral role of music as a unifying and strengthening force. As a native of Albany, an historian, a lifelong activist, and renowned songwriter and vocalist, Bernice Johnson Reagon is the ideal person to tell this story.

How did you first get involved in the Movement?

In Albany, Georgia, there’s a district called Harlem. It’s about three blocks long, and it’s a Black district Harlem’s Black wherever it is. There was a drugstore in Harlem. It was owned by whites and they wouldn’t hire Blacks. Not anybody to sweep nothing. So we formed, in the summer of 1960, a junior chapter of the NAACP; I was the secretary. We’d go to the drug store in Harlem, to talk to the owners and try to get them to hire a Black person. And they’d run us out, and then we’d go and meet and talk about what to do next.

What I’d known before then about struggle and the Civil Rights Movement centered around Autherine Lucy [the first Black student to enroll in the University of Alabama in 1956 only to be subsequently expelled], who affected me deeply. I think I was in junior high school, so I was 11 or 12, pulling for this woman to get into this university. She had been admitted, she was suspended, she was readmitted, and then they kicked her out again. I thought we were just beginning to fight…and then she got married to this preacher. I was real upset, because for me it felt like when she got married she got tired, like she had been so battered on and this preacher was marrying her and taking her away so she wouldn’t fight any more. I did not want her to be tired, and I didn’t want her to be taken away, and I didn’t want her to rest. I wanted her to go back. Read the full article (PDF).