We Are Not Afraid: The Montgomery Gospel Trio and protest songs for freedom


We Are Not Afraid: The Montgomery Gospel Trio and protest songs for freedom

By MATT MASTERS

The Montgomery Gospel Trio were met with an audience of about 100 people at the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival who heard the three women songs and stories about the groups origin and impact on the American Civil Rights Movement.

The trio includes members Jamila Jones, Minnie Harris and Najuma Mulefu — each dressed in long, elaborate dresses; blue, red and yellow.

As children the trio participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which took place in Montgomery, Ala., between Dec. 5, 1955 and Dec. 20, 1956, sparked in part by the arrest of Rosa Parks who refused to give her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case and the bus system was integrated. The bus boycott is remembered as one of the first successful protests of the Civil Rights era. 

Rosa Parks sits up front of a Montgomery, Ala. bus on December 21,1956, one year after she refused to give up her seat to a white man and was arrested. United Press reporter Nicholas Chriss, who arranged the photo, sits behind her. File photo by UPI.

The trio opened with “Ain’t Gonna Ride No Bus No More,” a song that Jones said was written by a music instructor at Alabama State as one of the first original songs about the civil rights movement.

“You could read in the newspapers and everywhere saying they hope that they get back on that bus. How they gonna get across town?” Jones recalled people against the movement asking with a laugh. 

“That’s why we sing. Why in the hell don’t they know? We gonna walk. We ain’t gonna ride them buses no more unless we can get on that bus and not be called nigger, unless we can get on that bus and not have to get up when the first white person got on the bus, and this happened in my community,” Jones said.“I was 6 years old and wondering why every time this one white lady got on the bus we had to get up and go to the back of the bus. We ain’t in the back of the bus no more.”

Jones spoke about the movement that was led mainly by women in Montgomery and one song in particular, “This Little Light of Mine,” that stood out as an important freedom anthem.

“[The song] became one of the foremost songs during that era in the movement. Everybody started picking it up, but it was the Montgomery Trio who started singing that song all over to raise money for what — The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Jones said before the trio broke out in a performance of the song.

“Some of the children had to organize themselves, and my sister who always said she ain’t bossy would tell us what we had to do as we tried to navigate getting across town,” Jones said. “So we would actually walk. A lot of the adults had wagons and cars that shuttled them to work but we went out that morning organized as children and we fought as soldiers in this army of making sure we were good to ride the bus without all of these restraints, soldiers in the army,” Jones said, the trio breaking into the song “We Are Soldiers in the Army.”

Montgomery Gospel Trio members Minnie Harris, Jamila Jones and Najuma Mulefu / Matt Masters

Jones spoke about Sundays as the most segregated day with black and white people filling their respective churches and Sundays as important days for the group to sing and spread their message, often adapting past songs of struggle and freedom.

“When we got ready to sing songs we would pull from the old freedom songs that we had heard during the times and what we would do is we would change words to make it fit our purpose,” Jones said, as the trio sang “Let Us Break Bread Together.”

“All right it’s 2019, what we gonna do?” Jones asked the crowd during the song. “Ya’ll gonna break bread with us?” 

The crowd reacted with hollers and “yeahs!”

“If you’re gonna break bread with us, we’re gonna lower this song down, lower this song down so I can reach these notes and we want you to sing these songs with us,” Jones said, the words, “Let us break bread together on our knees … on our knees …” slowly filling the tent as the audience swelled with the words, a low hum echoing the voices of the trio.

Jones said that the trio was already performing when the boycott began, offering a perfect fit for the spiritual and collective needs of the growing movement, song that would serve as messages and forms of fundraising for the movement throughout their teens.

“Practically every Sunday we had to be at some tea singing these songs and so there we could raise money for the Montgomery improvement, we are so glad” Jones said, leading the trio into the song, “I’m So Glad.”

“I’m so glad segregations got to go, I’m so glad segregations got to go, I’m so glad segregations got to go, singing glory, hallelujah, I’m so glad,” the trio sang, mesmerizing the crowd of young and old, black and white. “I’m so glad integrations on it’s way, I’m so glad integrations on it’s way, singing glory, hallelujah, I’m so glad, I’m so glad we are in this fight together, I’m so glad we are in this fight together, I’m so glad we are in this fight together, singing glory, hallelujah, I’m so glad.”

Jones spoke about attending workshops at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., where civil disobedience, race relations and leadership courses were set up.

Highlander Folk School / Courtesy of highlanderfolkschool.weebly.com

Jones recalled one night at the school when the school was raided by police in the dark, a night that she credits to their addition of a line to the song “We Shall Overcome.”

“I ain’t gonna say that we wasn’t afraid, but I’ll say we used our music to strengthen us,” Jones said. 

“What happened was the policeman came to me and put that gun down in my face and said, ‘Honey, if you got to sing do you have to sing so loud?” Jones recalled with near frightful energy. “It was then when I recognized that the power of our music was so strong that it captured all that came from being in the dark and we didn’t have any lights, it captured what they had as guns and billy clubs, that this man — shaking — put that gun in my face and I knew that night the power of our music.”

“We are not afraid …” The trio sang in harmony, breaking back into “Ain’t Gonna Ride No Bus No More” as they stepped down off of the stage and into the crowd who sat on wooded pews under the tent, a large tattered and patched American flag hanging above them all. They were not afraid.

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