Bernice Johnson Reagon. Andrew Young identified your voice as the source of the “special spirit” that made the Civil Rights Movement a “singing movement.” The freedom songs that you brought from southwest Georgia to a nation in crisis still define the moment when Americans sought to make freedom and justice a living fire for all. You are the embodiment of American genius. Your work as a historian and a writer has enabled us to hear the history of our nation in the sacred musics of African Americans. As director of the Program in Black American Culture of the Smithsonian Institution, you highlighted the Freedom Songs and their roots in and relationships with spirituals, congregational singing, gospel music, hymns, and blues. Not content to let your star blaze alone, you brought forth living but neglected voices to tell their own stories of struggle and to sing their songs for the world. Because of you, we know Herbert Brewster, Lucie Campbell, Charles Albert Tindley, Roberta Martin, Marian Williams, and many more. Because of you, a vast but unknown number of teachers and artists are empowered and equipped to share the neglected geniuses of the African American sacred music traditions. As founder, lead singer, producer, composer, and arranger for Sweet Honey in the Rock, you have used myriad musical traditions to address contemporary struggles for human rights and social justice throughout the world. As you build the harmonies of your songs, you speak to us and you sing to us about justice, love, faith, freedom, memory, redemption, community, life, and Spirit. As you sing, speak, and teach, you call us to build a new harmony in our world.
By the authority of the Board of Trustees of Colby College, I confer upon you, Bernice Johnson Reagon, the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. The hood with which you have been invested and this diploma which I place in your hand are visible symbols of your membership in this society of scholars, to all the rights and privileges of which I declare you entitled.
Conferred May 23, 2004.