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Kentucky Civil Rights Activist Charles Neblett Reflects on Fight for Equality

Library of Congress/American Folklife Center

Editor's note: This story contains strong language that may not be suitable for all listeners/readers.

Americans are honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., this week with marches and celebrations honoring the country's most famous civil rights leader.  King delivered his "I Have A Dream Speech" in 1963, when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

One of the people present that day was Charles Neblett, a young activist who survived prison and other challenges of the 1960s. 

At a coffee shop in his current hometown of Russellville, Kentucky Neblett recalled his time as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and the Freedom Singers.  Neblett said he and his fellow Freedom Singers, Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris, sang at the March on Washington.

Neblett: "In fact, we were in California at the time, but we wanted to go to the march.  They told us to stay out there and keep raising money.  So we call up Harry Belafonte (actor\singer).  He said, 'Okay, cool, got you.'  So we went there on a plane with a lot of movie stars including Sammy Davis Junior.  Everybody saw us as kids, we were, and the they looked at us and said, 'You guys are the ones doin' all that stuff, you guys are the ones raisin' all that hell down south,' and they look at us and they couldn't believe it.  We got off the plane and we got to the march and went straight to the stage and did some singing."

"At the time, the newspapers were taking the stories that was coming out of the south, people gettin killed.  So what we decided to do along with Pete Seeger (folksinger/activist) we decided we would put together a goup like the Jubilee singers, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and in the meantime we could put together commentary with our songs and we could tell the whole story and that's what we did, we put the group together and rehearsed for about a week and hit the road."" target="_self">

"Some of our people did some research and found out that if we crack Mississippi, the whole rest of the south would be easy.  We were just young and decided we had to do that.  I had no feeling, no qualms that I would get killed."

"You had to do a lot of things to convince people that you were seroius, especially black people, they had to know that you were gonna be there, that you weren't gonna stay and get them in trouble and then leave.  So we had to go out to the cotton fields.  We had to stay there until they'd come after us.  You noticed they were coming when they would hold their guns up above over the cotton.  You could see em comin, and when us see em comin, you gotta go and we would be back the next day and that's how we got people to register to vote. In fact, they put us in jail for registering people to vote on a charge of criminal anarchy (in Mississippi) on an old civil war law that carried the death penalty.  They put us on death row, but they couldn't make the charge stick.  Before we left, they put us on a chain gang and the guy had us out on the chain gang and he took the chains off of us, threw his gun one way, his ammunition, another way and said if you niggers can go get away from here and run before I can shoot you, I'll let you go."

"I felt like the difference we made was in black people themselves when they were willing to stand up and fight for themselves.  The March on Washington and seeing all those people and you felt like you were a part of that."

Charles Neblett is a Russellville, Kentucky, resident and civil rights leader who sang at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. 

You can see more of our conversation with Charles Neblett in a video at the WKYU-PBS Coffee Near Me Facebook page.