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Most of us have never heard of George Raymond. People involved in the civil rights movement stress this again and again: that the movement required bravery and sacrifice not just from the heroes whose names we know, but from thousands of ordinary people. They gathered at night, usually in churches, to form strategy—and to lift one another's courage. One way they did that was through the "freedom songs."

Hollis Watkins often led the singing at Mississippi civil rights meetings. There's a recording of a 1963 rally in Jackson, for example, in which he leads in the singing of "Oh, Freedom Over Me." More than thirty years later, Watkins explains that most of the freedom songs were adapted from gospel, blues, and folk, as tools for organizing and mobilizing people.

"In the mass meetings you wanted to raise the interest, you wanted to raise the spirit," Watkins says. "And in doing that, it coincided with what would be going on in your daily activities." He sings: "'Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, turn me 'round, turn me 'round. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, I'm gonna keep on walkin', keep on talkin', fightin' for my equal rights.'

"And as you sang the different songs getting the spirit and the momentum goin', you could eventually get to the song where you sang the question that kind of locked people in. 'Will you register and vote?' 'Certainly Lord.' 'Will you march downtown?' 'Certainly Lord.'

"The late Fanny Lou Hamer," Watkins adds, "she was good about that. After we'd get people to singing certain songs, if they made certain commitments in songs, then she would hold them to that after the meeting."

Fanny Lou Hamer was a potent spiritual force in the Mississippi Civil Rights movement. In 1962, she and her family were evicted from a cotton plantation for trying to register for the vote. The following year she was severely beaten in a Winona, Mississippi jail, after several people she was with used the whites-only restroom and lunch counter at a bus station.

Euvester Simpson, then a teenager, spent that night in the Winona jail with Hamer.

"I sat up all night with her applying cold towels and things to her face and hands trying to get her fever down and to help some of the pain go away. And the only thing that got us through that was that ... we sang. We sang all night. I mean songs got us through so many things, and without that music I think many of us would have just lost our minds or lost our way completely."

Fanny Lou Hamer would play a prominent role in the final chapter of Freedom Summer: the Mississippi movement's dramatic challenge to the nation's dominant political party.


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