When Bernice Johnson Reagon thinks back on her childhood in segregated southwest Georgia, she recalls a force more powerful than injustice: music.
"I was born in a culture where music was breath," she said in an interview last week. "If you start to sing as soon as you start to talk, then there's no separation between talking and singing."
Reagon will be doing a lot of both Monday, when she is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program at Lexington Center's Heritage Hall. And that's a good thing.
In addition to being a much-honored scholar, historian and social activist, Reagon has provided one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of the civil rights movement for 43 years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Reagon, 71, was born outside Albany, Ga., the third child of Beatrice and the Rev. Jessie Johnson.
"If we weren't in school, we were in church," she said, describing how she and her young friends sang grace at lunch and games on the playground. "Music was everywhere in the culture I was born into."
It was only natural that music would play a central role in the Albany Movement, an anti-segregation coalition that in 1961 focused national attention on racial discrimination in her hometown.
While in high school, Reagon was secretary of the junior chapter of the NAACP. She later participated in some of the first civil rights demonstrations in Albany, which got her expelled from Albany State College and put in jail.
She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became a member of the famous Freedom Singers, a touring quartet formed by Cordell Reagon, the man she would marry.
"I didn't go back to complete college until after my second child was born," said Reagon, who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
"But I continued to do the work that got me put in jail," she said. "I didn't have to change who I was to do that."
In 1973, while a graduate student and vocal director of DC Black Repertory Theatre, Reagon formed Sweet Honey In the Rock, a black women's a cappella ensemble that has toured the world and has made acclaimed recordings ever since. Reagon led the group until her retirement from it in 2004.
"I came out of the civil rights movement with an understanding of and a respect for strong-harmony, unaccompanied singing," she said. "And singing that in terms of text spoke to injustice and the importance of believing that you can change the world."
Reagon is a history professor emerita at American University in Washington D.C. and curator emerita of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her scholarship has focused on American black music traditions.
She was the principal scholar and host of Wade in the Water, a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio in the 1980s. She was the score composer for Africans in America, a PBS documentary film series in 1998.
Reagon has been a music consultant, composer and performer for several film products, including Beloved, Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. In 2003, she wrote the music and libretto for Robert Wilson's production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which has been performed around the world.
Reagon's many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (1989) and a Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the humanities (1995). She has a long list of solo and ensemble recordings. She has collaborated with many other musicians, including her daughter, Toshi Reagon.
Although much progress has been made since she began working in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, Reagon sees many challenges of injustice, imbalance and inequity, such as environmental justice and the very survival of the planet.
"My sense of injustice is much broader now," she said. "I've found myself pulled to listen and learn, and I think that has kept me true to the young girl who was the secretary of the first junior chapter of the NAACP in Albany, Ga. I guess I'm describing a great life."