It was 50 years ago today that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial during The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the attendees and participants was Charles Neblett of The Freedom Singers. I knew Mr. Neblett’s voice from recordings of the Civil Rights movement and the 1963 Newport Folk Festival where he and The Freedom Singers joined in the encore performance of “We Shall Overcome.” But it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary celebration of The Ash Grove at UCLA in 2008 where I saw The Freedom Singers perform that I could to put a name to the voice.
According to a profile of Charles Neblett in The Park City Daily News, it was his strong bass voice that made him a natural leader of sing-alongs as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I saw him sing nearly half a century after he joined SNCC, the power of his voice to lead had not diminished one bit. Indeed, Mr. Neblett’s voice carries a unique power to lead others to stand, to join, to sing. It is strong and resonant and certain of the way; the perfect voice for the arduous work of nonviolent resistance that ended Jim Crow and brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a remarkable voice singing the most important song of all.
Someone was kind enough to compile all of the available music from the 1963 march in honor of today’s anniversary. You can see The Freedom Singers at 7:20 singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” with Charles Neblett on the left. Let freedom ring!
In 2010, The Freedom Singers sang at The White House as part of celebration of music of The Civil Rights Movement: