Social activist explores issues through song

By Carson Hele | 5/16/13 3:00am

The sounds of a more musical lecture filled Moore Theater on Tuesday afternoon, as social activist and musician Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter Toshi Reagon performed as a part of the Montgomery Endowment lecture series.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was involved in the civil rights movement and founded the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rocks in 1973, is interweaves music and social activism. Her repertoire, whichopened with “Steal Away to Jesus” and “There Is A Balm in Gilead,”lyrically explored past and current injustices in American society.

These songs, with their significance in the struggle against slavery and legal segregation, made music an important and powerful medium for Reagon from a young age. She stressed the importance of the sit-in movement in fighting for equality even in the face of violent opposition.

In the second half of the performance, Reagon sang “Joan Little,” which she wrote after the 1974 case of Joan Little, who killed a prison guard to defend herself against sexual assault. That event prompted Reagon to help empower women through her music. “Joan Little” opened the door for other women to come into the movement, she said.

The mother and daughter pair covered a diverse range of social issues, such as over-consumption in society and environmental degradation. Toshi Reagon spoke out against oil fracking and implored attendees to get involved in contemporary issues.

Reagon’s mix of music and social activism interested Audrey Landis ’16, who attended the lecture.

“The lecture showed me the importance of awareness and standing up for a cause in a way that is most meaningful to you and brings out the most passion,” Landis said.

Music professor Steve Swayne said that attendees “were witnesses to history.”

"Sweet Honey in the Rocks is an ensemble that people have known for decades, and Reagon is an extremely prominent and important person," Swayne said.

Swayne said he hoped that students took away a broader message from Reagon’s music and discussion.

"Change is inevitable, but it takes time,” he said.

As a Montgomery Fellow, Reagon is also teaching a course at the College.This spring does not mark Reagon’s first experience at Dartmouth: she visited in the winter of 1963 to perform. She has enjoyed the opportunity to meet members of the community in a new century, she said.

Carson Hele