The Bowdoin community sang and clapped through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration on Monday in Pickard Theater, led by activists and songwriters Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter, Toshi Reagon. The pair revisited protest songs from the Civil Rights Movement songs of freedom.

The Reagons sang familiar songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” as well as originals written about social issues in South Africa and Brooklyn. The singers happily coached the crowd through their bluesy renditions as Toshi plucked a guitar.

As a member of the Freedom Singers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bernice Reagon has been a major voice for social change since the 1960s.  She is the founder of the all-female African-American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which has used music as a way to speak out against injustice, and is a respected professor and curator of African American folk music.

Toshi is continuing her mother’s tradition of activist music with her band BIGLovely. The band also includes Bowdoin’s own Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry, who originally met the Reagons in the performance circuit and has developed a close relationship with the duo.

While the College held classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, Bowdoin formed a committee to honor the holiday by organizing celebration activities in remembrance of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We wanted something to honor King, but, more than honoring just King the man, honoring his legacy and the work he was committed to,” said Leana Amaez, associate dean of multicultural student programs and a member of the programming committee for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The programming themes in 2013 and 2014 were the eradication of poverty and activism, respectively. This year’s theme was faith, and the committee thought the Reagons were a good representation of the role of faith in social movements. 

“Sometimes we focus on people who are passed away. We think about these things in a historical context, which is part of how we should think about it, but there’s also a very present context. Dr. Reagon is living history,” said Casselberry. “I think it’s important for us to all remember that this isn’t a long ago history. It’s a current history, and people are still living who did work in that time period.”

The Reagons returned to this theme in their performance, inviting the audience to carry forward the spirit of African American folk music and protest music.

“One time I heard my mom talk about songs that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and she told people, don’t think of them as museum pieces,” Toshi told the audience. “You hear a song from the Civil Rights Movement, and you kind of separate yourself from it as if you don’t actually need it to be a part of your contemporary world, as if it can’t still do service to so many situations that are going on in the world today.”

The committee also saw the Reagons’ partnership as mother and daughter as a reminder that activism requires collaboration between generations.

“To have Bernice and Toshi together is for the community, and students in particular, it’s great to see the intergenerational continuity and how important that can be for how young people think about moving in the world, how young people think about the future,” said Casselberry.
The Reagons delighted as hundreds of audience members lifted their voices for the choruses of each new song.

“I’m gonna invite you to participate in these songs as if they’re yours,” said Toshi Reagon. “In case you didn’t know, we like people to sing along with us.”

The audience responded enthusiastically, giving the community the opportunity to experience the songs the way they were experienced during the Civil Rights Movement. 

“The traditions in which this comes from—old hymns, old Negro spirituals, protest music—it’s all about participation,” said Dean Amaez.

The performance elicited an emotional response from the audience, ranging from excited to nostalgic.

“It was absolutely breathtaking. It reminded me of my grandmother walking around the house singing some of the same type of Civil Rights spirituals, old church songs,” said Matthew Williams ’16, student director for activism and social justice at the Office of Multicultural Life.
The Reagons encouraged the audience and reminded them that social change is driven by the young people in a community—a particularly relevant point for student activist groups on campus.

“Young people always speak to the current and contemporary energy of the time,” Toshi told the crowd. “Older people can’t shape that dialogue for young people. Young people shape the dialogue, and old people get behind them and support them while they do it.”

Casselberry agreed.

“Each generation has its own issues to deal with. Even if those issues are maybe not quite as clearly connected, or at least feel like they aren’t as clearly connected, I think that it’s important for young people to remember that they’re the ones that always make things happen,” she said.
Williams also felt the songs were relevant to the work students are doing on campus to impact the community, like the protest acts following the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the petitions for divestment. 

Williams said he was surprised by the diversity of the turnout.

“I did not think that place was going to be that filled, let alone that diverse,” said Williams.“When they turned the lights on, I saw that it wasn’t just the entirety of the black population here, but it was filled with a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life.”
Williams added, “I think it really does show how their music can relate to things that are happening on campus or even in our world today.”

The last event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be Common Hour with Reverend Dr. Emilie M. Townes on February 27.