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Singer, activist Reggie Harris addresses gathering

Singer and activist Reggie Harris, appearing at the March 11 LEPOCO annual gathering in Bethlehem, praised the organization for its 57-year history of struggle for peace and social justice, urged listeners to “step up and stand up” and continue the work, and inspired the audience of about 80 with his music.

Addressing “the role of community, culture and relationship in making social change,” Harris said that our stories are important; they “are the foundation on which we connect with community and the world.”

Song has been a part of Harris’ life for a long time, “connecting body and spirit”. One of the songs he performed was “This Little Light of Mine,” which he was told by his mother was the first song he learned, at about age 3. But he said it was also a favorite of late folk giant; Pete Seeger, whom he considers one of the “elders.”

His family was part of the “Great Migration” of blacks fleeing the South in the first half of the 20th century. He grew up mostly in Philadelphia, where he credits the vocal programs in the public schools with fostering his love of singing. Later he picked up the guitar after a young woman told him that if he “didn’t have time” to learn the instrument then maybe she would not have time to go out on another date with him.

Harris did not get sent to Vietnam, thanks to a very favorable draft lottery number. That made him the first male in his family in generations not to serve in the military. He explained to his overwhelmingly white audience that African Americans have long viewed military service as a way “to prove that they belong” in the United States. He said this may be why advocating for peace in the black community can be difficult.

He was brought into the peace movement through the Peoples’ Music Network and meeting Sonny Ochs, who introduced him to the music of her brother, the late Phil Ochs. He has since participated in the Phil Ochs Song Nights that Sonny Ochs organizes.

Harris said the pandemic, while canceling a lot of scheduled gigs, provided him a “san kofa moment,” a term from the Ghanian tradition that means to go back again to what has been forgotten. For him, this included finishing a book of memoirs, which will be published later this year.

Among other thoughts shared with his audience:

• Love is what justice looks like in public.”

• Citing Rev. C.T. Vivian, “work for what you love, not against what you hate;” the latter course can end up making you resemble what you are against.

• He is grateful that for him, music has been a transformative vehicle to work for peace and social justice.

• Citing Cornell West, African Americans have to “try to teach the rest of America about community.”

Harris is known for many roles: singer and songwriter who is a frequent performer at folk festivals and coffee houses (including Godfrey Daniels in South Bethlehem); storyteller and educator, visiting schools and colleges throughout the country; and activist for peace, social justice and the environment. He is considered an expert on the music of the Underground Railroad and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Through the Living Legacy Project, he leads Civil Rights pilgrimages throughout the South.

At the gathering, held at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Margot Hillman and Amanda Zaniesienko, both of Bethlehem, Susie Ravitz and Monica McAghon, both of Easton, and Martricia McLaughlin of Upper Black Eddy were all elected to the LEPOCO Steering Committee. Julius Iwantsch of Bethlehem was re-elected co-treasurer. The LEPOCO Peace Singers also performed, and Mimi Lang of Bethlehem read her “Mouse Poem.” The gathering included carrot cake and brownies from Tombler’s Bakery in Easton along with hot beverages.

PRESS PHOTO COURTTESY LEPOCO Reggie Harris says his family was part of the “Great Migration” of blacks fleeing the South in the first half of the 20th century. He grew up mostly in Philadelphia.