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The Freedom Singers

In 1995, Kentucky Life met The Freedom Singers, a group that started during the 1960s civil rights movement and continued to perform and educate audiences for decades.

“What we wanted people to know was what was really going down in the nitty-gritty, everyday work in the south,” says Charles Neblett of The Freedom Singers. “You had local leaders who would get shot and killed, jailed, maimed, and the news media just didn’t pick that up. So we were kind of like a traveling newspaper.”

The Singers visited universities where they performed and held workshops to bring more young people into civil rights activism and help them find ways to get involved in the movement for racial equality and justice.

Churches were also an essential component of The Freedom Singers’ activities and the civil rights movement as a whole.

“The churches were the only place in the south that people could go in and protest and fight for freedom,” says singer Betty Mae Fikes. “And as with church, there’s always music, there’s always praying, and there’s always preaching. But with the civil rights movement, it became an important part with the mass meeting because that was a way we could organize and find out strategies for what was happening the next day.”

Civil rights activists of the 1960s knew what they were doing had serious risks, but the importance of the movement kept them going.

“If you wanted to hear some singing, you would have to be in a jailhouse, where it was just packed to the fullest,” says Fikes. “You didn’t have room to stand, but the music and the energy was vibrating. I think it was like they say, when you’re young, you didn’t have the sense to be afraid. And music is the thing that was the key that kept us going.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 11. Watch the full episode.