Ella’s Song

Composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, copyright ©Songtalk Publishing Co.  http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/ella.shtml

We who believe in freedom cannot rest 
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons 
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people 
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail 
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on 
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me 
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize 
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard 
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest 
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

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Bernice tells the story of how she found her voice in jail after having been arrested during a nonviolent protest. The demonstrators had been crammed together into the cells, and, as was customary for everybody who’d been raised in the Black Church, someone called out to her, “Bernice, sing a song.” Knowing that that meant “lead a song,” not “perform a solo,” she opened her mouth… and an unfamiliar voice came out, a big voice, a powerful voice, a voice that had not come out of her before. She didn’t know at the time that it was her new voice, one that would never leave her now that it had been found.

That dawned on her later, when, at a freedom rally in a church (of course—the churches were the social center of southern black communities), she again opened her mouth to lead a song, and that new, unfamiliar voice came out of her again, filling the space. Soon she realized that this new voice was not a fluke, that it was her new voice and that it had found her and she it and it would, indeed, never leave her.

I can’t think of this Democratic National Convention without thinking of powerful Civil-Rights-Era speakers such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, two of the organizers in 1964 of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

I think of them and of Bernice Johnson Reagon as I think of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech on Tuesday night at the convention:

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard                                                                               At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

I think that Hillary did find her voice back during the primaries when she reported that she felt herself to have done so. That’s the voice with which she spoke Tuesday. I think that voice is never to leave her, that her old shadow-of-a-voice is gone forever and she won’t be able to speak without this one.

And I think of the PUMAs, women, mostly—though not exclusively—who have decided that they cannot rest and that they’re not going to rest until they see some cleaning up of acts. I haven’t seen this kind of enthusiasm among women since the days of the Equal Rights Amendment, and I have to say, it’s pretty damned exhilarating to watch.

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