Slavery. The Civil Rights Movement. Freedom.
Those are just some of the topics Bettie Mae Fikes and Pierce Freelon spoke — and sang — about during SJC Long Island’s Black History Month event Thursday in the McGann Conference Center.
“Martin Luther King to you is a legend. But he was Uncle Martin to me 50 years ago,” said Fikes, who became a student leader for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement. “Malcolm X is a legend to you today. He was Uncle Malcolm to me 50 years ago.”
Fikes began singing with the SNCC Freedom Singers — a group with which she still performs — and raising awareness while challenging segregation more than five decades ago. She participated in protests and sit-ins, and she was arrested and jailed while fighting for the right to vote. Today, she still uses song to teach about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
“You are here because someone died for you. You are here because you are standing on the shoulders of many,” said the self-styled “Queen of the Blues,” who has performed alongside such popular musicians as Joe Turner, James Brown and Bob Dylan.
A man with many hats, Freelon is a professor, director, Emmy Award-winning producer, founder of Blackspace, former candidate for Mayor of Durham — and a musician.
“Music has always been very important in the black freedom struggle, the struggle for liberation,” said Freelon, who on Thursday performed the spiritual “Freedom Over Me,” doing his own remix and calling attention to black women in history.
“The spiritual really speaks to a black perspective on the institution of slavery,” he said. “It’s important, especially today, to remix a spiritual to speak a poem of thanks-giving to the impact that black women have had on the freedom struggle.”
Check out their performances in the video below.