Remembering Voices of Resistance

Strong voices for peace have left us this
year, people who used their art for social change, often at a high
personal price.

Odetta was a legendary folk singer of the
civil rights movement.

Considered the "Queen of American Folk
Music," Odetta introduced audiences worldwide to African-American
folk, blues and gospel music.

New Year's Eve was her birthday. She would
have been 78. When Rosa Parks was asked which songs meant the most
to her, she replied, "All of the songs Odetta sings."

Odetta sang "Oh, Freedom," an
African-American slave spiritual, at the 1963 March on Washington.
Early on, she attracted the interest of Harry Belafonte and Pete
Seeger. Her voice, her talent with the guitar and the natural style
in which she maintained her hair -- later to be dubbed "afro" --
set her as an icon of the civil rights movement. She told an
interviewer in 2003:

"When I first started, I would sing these
prison songs ... it got to a point where doing the music actually
healed me ... it was music from those who went before. The music
gave them strength, and the music gave us strength to carry it

She inspired Bernice Johnson Reagon, an early
member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)
Freedom Singers. She had been suspended from college in Albany,
Ga., for civil rights protests, then went on to Spelman College,
where historian Howard Zinn and his wife, Roz, brought her to folk
music concerts by Joan Baez and Odetta.

Reagon recalls the first time she heard

"In Georgia, where I grew up in the country,
the roads were built by chain-gang labor. I knew the sound, because
as the men worked, they sang. But I never thought I'd hear it
coming from a concert stage ... when she sang prison songs or work
songs. ... She was just what I needed to begin my life as a freedom
fighter and as a Freedom Singer."

Reagon later went on to found the women's a
cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Another great liberation singer we lost this
year was Miriam Makeba of South Africa, known as "Mama Afrika." She
sang against apartheid, then went into exile for decades. Belafonte
also helped her gain recognition.

In 1968, she married SNCC leader-turned-Black
Panther Stokely Carmichael, for which she was blacklisted in the
U.S. until the 1980s.

Soon after her death, I asked the Nobel peace
laureate Desmond Tutu about Makeba. The South African archbishop
smiled: "Her singing, her voice, helped many people to know a
little bit more about the vicious apartheid system. She was just a
tremendous human being, a great loss to us and to Africa."

Also blacklisted in 1968 was singer and
actress Eartha Kitt, who died at age 81 on Christmas Day. In 1968,
she was invited to a celebrity luncheon at the White House by Lady
Bird Johnson, who asked Kitt about urban poverty. Kitt replied:
"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They
rebel in the street. They don't want to go to school because
they're going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in
Vietnam." The first lady reportedly burst into tears. For years
afterward, Kitt performed almost exclusively overseas and was
investigated by the FBI and CIA.

Another voice we just lost sang out from the
written page. Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve in London. Though
too sick to travel to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize for
Literature in 2005, he sent a video address: "The majority of
politicians ... are interested not in truth but in power. ... To
maintain that power it is essential that people remain in
ignorance. ... What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of
lies." Pinter was referring to U.S. policy from Guantanamo to

As these icons are laid to rest, their voices
continue to inspire millions. Barack Obama will soon take the reins
of the most powerful nation on Earth, promising change. But it will
now take the actions of those millions, heeding these echoes of the
past and transforming them into their own voices, to effect real

Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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