By the age of 9 Charles Neblett had begun his role in the civil rights movement. His journey would lead to 27 arrests, multiple beatings and put him on stage with the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez.
Once back home in Russellville, he would become the town's first black magistrate and play an active role in the formation of the new African American Research Center revitalizing "The Black Bottom" section of town. His battle continues today as Neblett traverses the country speaking at schools and historic celebrations about the history of the civil rights movement and its music and the importance of instilling a respect for history and education in the newest generations.
Born Charles Delbert Neblett in Robinson County, Tenn., to Pleasant and Bernice Neblett in 1941, Charles moved to Simpson County in that same year. His grandfather, who was born a slave had bought a farm, determined that his daughters would not have to work in white houses and be subject to the molestation he felt was common in that situation. His father, who was born in 1887, like his father before him, emphasized education, making his children spend hours at the local courthouse to learn thelaw.
Charles Neblett describes his father as a great musician who could play anything he heard on guitar and his mother a soprano for the church choir. Charles attended a one room country school until seventh grade and went on to play trumpet and football in high school. He then attended Southern Illinois University on a music scholarship. On the side, Neblett lead his own jazz band called The Hot Five.
His elders did not care to talk about their days as slaves, but Charles hungered for his family's history and coaxed them into talking whenever he could. He recalls his grandfather's sister, who was a teen during the Civil War, describing her memories of the family keeping both a Confederate and Union flag to take out depending on which side crossed their area. She did not recall any difference in her perception of the troops or the way they treated her.
When the war was over, blacks continued to be dehumanized by segregation, but the Nebletts emphasized to their children that they were as good as anyone else and insisted they always remember that. At the age of 9 Charles staged his first protest, sitting at the white counter to drink his soda in a shop just outside of Franklin. The shop owner, who knew the boys, threatened to tell his father. "I was more afraid of my father than the cops, Klu Klux Klan or anyone else!" said Neblett. Her threat ended the protest that had not been cleared with his parents.
When Neblett was 14 his world would be forever changed by the news of the death of Emmett Till, a boy his own age whose body was found in Mississippi after being lynched for whistling at a white woman. Till's attackers were acquitted in just over an hour and his body shipped home to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open casket wake, allowing photographers to take pictures of the brutally beaten child. Neblett was overcome with depression and the realization that he had no protection from the same fate. The incident became pivotal in igniting the American civil rights movement. Two years later Neblett would see Martin Luther King Jr. on television and for the first time see groups of blacks rising up against racism. He knew he was destined to join them and it would only be a couple of years before he marched beside them.
His high school teacher emphasized the importance of education, telling her students that they could make it and the knowledge in their head was one thing that no one could ever take from them. He also remembers an early thought provoking experience as being the first time he heard the lyrics to "You Got Shoes." "I'd never heard anything like that said before - everybody talkin' bout heaven ain't a goin' there’" he said, still shaking his head in astonishment at the revelation. In 1959 he attended the desegregated campus at Southern Illinois University. Despite desegregation, blacks and foreign students weren't allowed in some of the student housing or in homes near by, making their walk to campus a long one. Two-hundred of his fellow students gathered to plan their first protest but as the project drew near the number of cohorts shrank. In the end, when the group gathered to mimeograph their first scandal sheet in Rev. Ramsey's church basement, only five attended. The students had collected stories of indiscretions by white faculty and students including abortions, interracial sexual encounters and inappropriate expenditures. Hundreds were printed and thrown out of windows onto the campus in the middle of the night.
The next morning Neblett and his friend Baker were greeted by the police at the front gate and escorted to the president's office. When asked about the scandal sheet Baker replied, "Listen man, I'm flunking English and have my own papers due." Neblett informed the president that their concern was for fair housing and they were told if they would behave for the rest of the semester something would be done. They kept their end of the bargain and so did he. Neblett now knew that things could change and that he could have an effect on the process.
Neblett became part of the movement in Cairo, Ill., and in 1961 heard about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He traveled to join one of the North Carolina sit-ins that were springing up everywhere. He was told, "You haven't seen nothing til you go to Mississippi," to which he responded, "If your group can make it, I know I can." According to Neblett his only fear was being afraid. However when he followed the group to a meeting in the home of Fanny Lou Hammer of the Freedom Democrat Party in Atlanta, reality sunk in as he noticed the bullet holes in the walls of her house. "You knew these people were dangerous." According to Neblett, everyone knew who was responsible for killings and attacks taking place but news of these incidents just wasn't hitting the press.
As part of SNCC, Neblett helped coordinate protests and voter registration drives. He said in an interview with Genie Potter and Betsy Brinson at the History Center in Frankfort, Ky., "And what was so really refreshing, is some of those people were 80 years old, 70, 80 and 90 years old, would try to go down and register to vote. Take the lead to go down and try and register to vote. And another thing that was so powerful, as far as I'm concerned, you had people who were fighting for people to have jobs that they never could get themselves, never could get themselves. They were fighting for young people to have rights that they never even expected to really deal with or enjoy. And it just reminded me in later years, when I could hear some of the things that my mother and them would say, and some of the prayers that the people would pray in slavery. They would tell God that I know I'll never be free, but you're going to have to promise me that my children will."
Neblett became a song leader for events, laying down the bass line to get the rhythm going for selections from old spirituals and sorrow songs. The Freedom Singers were formed in 1962 and consisted of Neblett, Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Rutha Mae Harris. The group sang traditional songs but would often change the words to fit the times. A song to the tune of the spiritual "Oh Mary, Oh Martha, "for example, became the freedom song "Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelley," a reference to Albany's notorious police chief, Laurie Pritchett, and mayor Asa Kelley. Neblett penned one of their standards, "If You Miss Me From The Back of the Bus," which was sung to the tune of "O Mary Don't You Weep."
The role of music in the civil rights movement was undeniable. Songs centuries old like "Ole Freedom" were powerful and relevant in inspiring and uniting the activists. Singing at protests as police with dogs and clubs approached served to calm fear and reinforce resolve. And the Freedom Singers in particular were successful in spreading the message throughout the northern states and funding the cause.
The first tour of the group was produced by Pete Seeger, who had been part of the movement from the beginning. It included stops at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival and countless campuses. The group was performing in California when they heard of plans for a march on Washington, D.C., and though they were instructed to continue their tour they didn't want to miss the historic occasion. Harry Belafonte heard of their plight and invited them to fly to D.C. with his entourage, which included Paul Newman, Rita Moreno, Sammy Davis Jr. and others. The group was surprised when they saw the Freedom Singers was made up of 20-year-olds.But as Neblett points out, the movement consisted mostly of kids. "Young people can do a lot; they just need leadership and role models. I look back and see the part young people played in things that changed the '60s. It was an army of young people organizing in cotton fields, facing dogs and fire hoses and jails."
In the Potter/Brinson interview, Neblett described efforts to alleviate fear." And you have to find ways to make fear serve you, instead of you serving fear. We would do a lot of things in order to dispel fear. And in turn it would help you. I'll never forget, we had some kids on a picket line, and the Klan came up. There were kids on one corner and Klan on the other. And the kids were shook up, I mean, they were there. So I happened to walk behind the Klan. I was behind them. So I just touched them on the shoulder and said, 'Excuse me.' And I walked all the way through that crowd, just saying, 'Excuse me.' They just moved out of the way. And I heard a lot of 'these niggers' behind me, but I walked all the way through that crowd and never got touched. And when the kids saw me come through that crowd, they were just relaxed."
Charles Neblett was arrested 27 times, once spending 42 days in Parchman Penitentiary for "criminal anarchy." The legal remnant from the Civil War was a type of treason which could be punishable by death and was intended for groups that attempted to overthrow the government. The prison staff took every opportunity to scare the protestors into giving up their cause but Neblett and his coconspirators held their resolve. "They showed us the electric chair," Neblett snickered proudly as he described their response; "We cut off all our hair and yelled 'ready to go!'"
Next the guards put the protesters on a chain gang and took them out to break rocks. "I was just knocking the dust off of mine," recalled Neblett. But then one of the more experienced prisoners taught him about the grain of a rock and he was able to break them up.
One night after a long day on the chain gang, the guard took all their chains off and laid them on the ground. "I still remember his dog," Neblett recalled with a shudder as he described the German shepherd-Doberman mix who helped guard the prisoners. "He would grin at you, snarling with those gold fangs." The guard emptied the bullets out of his gun onto the ground and said, "Now if you niggers can get through those woods before I can get you I'm gonna let you go!" Neblett was silent for a moment, recalling the tense situation, "Then a minister that was with us said, 'We ain't gonna leave you, God sent us to you.'" With sighs of relief the prisoners were escorted back to the prison free of chains and without incident.
The next morning the frustrated guard said to Neblett, "If you all keep this up we won't be white no more." "He was a poor white," Neblett explained. "His only power was his color and he saw equality as taking away his only authority. He'd kill for that! This guy needs pity." The incident was one of two that for Neblett spurred an epiphany and became the foundation for his dedication to nonviolence as a tool. "The nonviolence game allows you to look past the actions and see the way they are, the thing that haunts them. Racism is a demonic force. It grabs people."
In the beginning, Neblett went along with the idea of nonviolence because that was what he was taught by the leadership he respected in SNCC. However, in his heart he wondered how he could ever refrain from fighting back if someone were to attack him. He learned first hand during a demonstration in Atlanta. "As I was lying on the ground and he was kicking me, I looked up and saw the look on his face. It wasn't a human being; his thinking was on another level."
Neblett, who has always felt religion was the cornerstone of his family and his community, is quite literal in his belief that racism is a result of possession by a demon, and that belief allows him to love his persecutors no matter their actions and accept the tenets of nonviolent revolution. In an interview with NPR, one of Neblett's mentors, the Rev. James Lawson who was kicked out of Vanderbilt University for his beliefs but later invited to join their faculty where he sits today describes the basis of nonviolence: "It tries to create a different configuration of power so that the opponents come to recognize that they can do nothing about the movement that is intervening with their daily life... In the city of Nashville in 1960, the incidents with the white thugs beating up on us, throwing rocks at us and all the rest of it with all the taunting and the name calling, we responded not with attitudes or behavior like that, we responded with our own dignity and with insisting that the problems needed to be faced and could be solved."
According to Neblett, many people knew that segregation was wrong but were afraid to speak because of its institutionalized acceptance. On the Freedom Rides he described the treatment of the white students involved as being the worst. He knew of one prominent family in Mississippi that finally chose to speak out. The result was being shunned by their church and friends and run out of town. "The federal government wasn't doing anything; the FBI said murder was not a federal crime. But when you confront it from a nonviolent philosophy it challenges the political and religious institutions and they have no way to justify it." Neblett also explained that it was desegregation, not integration, that he was fighting for. "I just wanted equal justice under the law. I didn't want to be no one but me. I didn't want to go in white restaurants, I just didn't want anyone telling me I couldn't, or couldn't vote or have the opportunity for a job and do for myself and live where I wanted to."
And the battle rages on today but the troops are not organized as they were. "The '60s were so dynamic, the most in this century. Transformation from confrontation" he explained. "It's a different band but the
same old tune today. Low test scores, health issues, economic conditions, drugs and overrepresentation in the jail population. There's lots to be done."
"Music has always told the story of its time. We don't want to deal with it but it's what happens. Rap in the '70s was revolutionary. Kids couldn't identify with the old and they started scratching and laying down rhythms to come up with a new form. I didn't know what the heck it was talking about but they did." Neblett continued, describing the evolution of the rap scene saying that when the record companies saw what was happening they wanted to control it but African Americans had learned a lesson from seeing jazz artists ripped off and they weren't ready to sell out without enormous compensation. Once in the hands of big business "it started getting pornographic. Big distributors play down and dirty and it's about the bling bling."
Neblett believes in the power of music and the power of words to engage change. "If you believe the Bible, the world was created by words. They can create. They can destroy." He shares the concerns of rap moguls like Russell Simmons, who are beginning to speak out about the language of the music that has become so popular, particularly the words bitch, ho and the n-word. Neblett understands the tactics of artists such as Richard Pryor, who used racially charged words in an effort to remove their power. However, with regard to the common use in rap music he feels that the dehumanization of African Americans has come full circle. "Kids using these words don't understand the historical ramifications and they need to be made aware of their history in terms of dehumanizing people. They are dehumanizing themselves and don't realize it. We can't let that happen." Neblett believes the next revolution will happen within the black community itself, but as in the past it must be lead by the people, particularly the youth. "Listen to the people involved, they have the answers. The ones with their finger caught in a machine are the ones that come up with a machine that doesn't catch fingers."
He believes youths have no leadership today because people are afraid to lead them. "This generation is out there on their own. At school the teachers are afraid of the principles and the principals are afraid of the superintendent who is afraid of the parents. The kids aren't scared of nobody. You have to give people a reason for what they do and have to let them know you care even if you have to meet them in the streets and get dead in their case." His involvement withthe Black Bottom Project in Russellville and the African American Research Center are an important part of his efforts to bring history to life for the next generation. "Touring the bottom has been important in making youth receptive to history by showing them the important people who came from their own neighborhood and their accomplishments." Neblett believes in telling the truth about history and not forgetting what is seen as negative. "They see how courageous people were and what blacks were able to accomplish even in slavery. It has been taught from a negative perspective. Really what should be emphasized is what they did in trying times and the hope and courage that existed in those conditions. That's what gets people turned on."
Neblett continues tuning up to turn people on touring with the Freedom Singers for about 12 concerts a year. This year's schedule includes a concert in Turkey. According to Neblett the Middle East is very interested in the American black movement. He is also booked at the Apollo in support of a later member of the Freedom Singers, Mavis Staples’ and her new album "We'll Never Turn Back" (produced by Pete Seeger) on which he sings. The Smithsonian is preparing to release a collection of albums featuring the Freedom Singers and Charles himself is in the process of remastering some of their original recordings, which have not previously been released, as well as some new material for the Freedom Singers' first independent release. In addition he serves as a consultant on several projects, including museums in Mississippi and Little Rock and travels extensively for speaking engagements related to the civil rights movement.