By Sloane M. Perron, Manager of Marketing Communications
Bettie Mae Fikes, known as “the Voice of Selma”, was just 15 years old when she joined the Freedom Singers, a group of Black youths who used their voices to empower their community and bring awareness to the Freedom Rides which took place in 1961 and fought against segregation on interstate bus transportation.
On April 3, Fikes spoke to Anna Maria College students, faculty, and staff, as she described her memories from the historic Freedom Rides, the brutality she witnessed during the fight for equality, and the healing power of music.
“The 1960s prepared us for today,” Fikes told the crowd, “We laid the foundation, all you had to do was build.”
Along the Freedom Ride journey from Washington D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, Fikes and her fellow civil rights protestors were jailed, beaten, and murdered. The group of youths faced hatred not just from Whites in the South, but members of the Black community who did not want the younger generation to further “embarrass” them, Fikes described.
“How long did we have to die for this thing called Freedom? I didn’t know that Freedom would cost so much,” she said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, to know how it feels to be unloved and unprotected from both sides, Black and White.”
Fikes worked alongside Congressman John Lewis and met historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. As the Freedom Riders progressed, they wanted to also eliminate segregation found in restaurants so Blacks could eat without being taunted, teased, and brutalized. According to Fikes, while Martin Luther King, Jr. was the iconic leader of the Civil Rights movement, it was the black youths of Selma who were on the ground non-violently protesting and doing the work to pave the way for a brighter future.
“It was the children of Selma, not the adults who made an impact,” Fikes said, “This is our history, and it has not been documented right, and a lot of our history has never been told.”
No matter what tragedy she went through or where she went, music was Fikes’ constant friend and a way to keep the history of previous generations intact. Regarded as the “Queen of Blues”, Fikes used her voice as a Freedom Singer to lead marches in song. Oftentimes, Fikes would change the lyrics of well-known Gospel songs to reflect the experiences and brutality that the young Civil Rights protestors came face-to-face with daily.
Fikes interspersed her recollection of memories with singing. When 7-year-old Jameson King, son of Health Science major Katie King, asked Fikes why she sings so much, Fikes responded, “Because singing is freedom of the spirit.”
In addition to preserving the history told from the Selma youths, Fikes wants to make sure that the singing roots of gospel songs, hymns, and “moans” are kept for future generations.
During the discussion portion of the event, an Anna Maria student asked how Fikes could still have faith in humanity after watching her loved ones be discriminated against, attacked, and killed because of the color of their skin.
“I will not let anything break me from where God is carrying me. Everything I went through was for a reason,” Fikes replied to the student, “You have the strength too, you just haven’t been called upon yet.”
Fikes wanted Anna Maria College to know the power of education is something that no one can ever take away. In a world that often focuses on divisions and differences, Fikes wants younger generations to respect one another and love one another. However, her most important lesson for the next generation was to live “with a song” in their hearts.
“Where is our unity today? Who are we listening to today? What does your heart say to you today? What will be your legacy?”