Cordell Reagon
(1943 — 1996)


As remembered by Unknown
Date unknown

Veteran Civil Rights Movement Activists, singer and organizer of the SNCC Freedom Singers Cordell Hull Reagon resident of Berkeley for the past decade was found dead in his apartment, an apparent homicide victim, Tuesday, November 12, 1996.

Cordell Reagon was one of the cadre of courageous student organizers who were the backbone of the Southern based grassroots Civil Rights Movement that brought the issues of racial justice and first class citizenship for African Americans to the core of the nation's conscious during the Sixties. Reagon, who was arrested more than 25 times during his work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SCLC) was a talented community organizer and one of the strongest members of the staff in conducting workshops in non-violence to those who wanted to participate in movement activities. He-is probably best known for his voice, he was a powerful singer and organizer of the SNCC Freedom Singers, an ensemble that carried the message of the Movement to audiences throughout the nation.

A native of Nashville, TN and a resident of Berkeley for the past decade, Cordell Reagon became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in in 1959-60 as a student at Pearl High School in Nashville. He called for a walkout in support of a Fisk University student demonstration protesting the arrest of one of their student leaderss. Reagon then became a part of the Nashville Sit-in Movement, receiving training in the philosophy of nonviolence in workshops led by Rev. James Lawson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He became one of the consistent participants in the sit-in actions that resulted in the first negotiated integration of . public facilities in a Southern city.

When the Freedom Riders organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were called off because of brutal violence against the riders in several Alabama cities, Reagan was among the first students who left Nashville and Atlanta to resumen the Freedom Rides. For this action, he was arrested and spent time in the Hinds County jail and Parchmen Penitientary in Mississippi.

When he was released from jail, he joined the staff of SNCC, becoming the youngeststaff member of the newly formed radical organization of students organizers. He worked first in McComb, MS on a voter registration campaign led by Bob Moses. Fall, 1961 Reagon along with Rev. Charles Sherrod and later Rev. Charles Jones, Reagan and local activists launched the Albany Movement that resulted in massive demonstrations and the largest mass arrest in the history of the nation in 1961 , and 1962. Reagon also worked in local campaigns in Cairo, li., Talladega, AL, and Danville, VA.

During his experiences with the Nashville Sit-in Movment, Cordell Reagan, a tenor and great performer of rhythm and blues, was deeply moved by the power and spirit of the singing. When he began to work in Southwest Georgia, the power of the congregational style of singing led to a decision by him and then Executive Director of SNCC, James Forman, to form a singing group that would travel and sing songs of the Movement across the nation. Cordell organized the first of three groups of singers that were a part of the student organization. With him on the first tour beginning December, 1962 were: Rutha Mae Harris, soprano and Bernice Johnson (to whom he was briefly married), alto of Albany, GA; and Charles Neblett, bass of Carbondale, IL.

The group travelled the country for a full year perfonning freedom songs in concert halls, churches, living rooms, schools — anywhere peopple would gather seeking ways to learn, and become actively involved in the nonviolent movement sweeping the country. This group was recorded live by Mercury Records at the Ashgrove Folk Club in Los Angeleles, August, 1963, they also perfonned at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and the 1963 March on Washington.

After his work with SNCC, Reagon moved to New York where he continued his commitment to social and economic justice in the Anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear movements; he was also a labor union organizer with the Social Services Employers Union, and a human resources and rehabilitation counselor in New York. He moved to the Bay area in 1988 where he was a member of the group that founded the Urban Habit an organization advocating issues of environmental justice especially as they impact on peoples and communities of color.

In declining health for a number of years, Reagon was a part of a reformed group of the Freedom Singers with perfonnances at the 1994 National Black Arts Festival, 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, and the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Cordell Hull Reagon is survived by four children: Toshi Reagon of Brooklyn, NY, Kwan Tauna Reagon of Oakland, CA, Mariama Reagon of New York City, and DaLisa Love of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is also survived by his mother, Mrs. Viola Reagon; five sisters: Violet Hayes, Pauline Nelson, Gloria Price and Joy Leonard; one brother, Lyman Reagon; and a host of other nieces and nephews, and sisters and brothers in struggles for justice and freedom across the nation.


As remembered by Casey Hayden
June 2, 2015

I will never forget that beautiful Cordell.

Casey Hayden

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