Sweet Honey in the Rock, the internationally known African-American women's a capella ensemble, gave a free concert in Kresge Auditorium for 1,000 schoolchildren from Cambridge and Boston on January 14.
The rousing hour-long event was presented by MIT's Office of Government and Community Relations and the Algebra Project, Inc., a mathematics literacy program for middle school students, founded in 1982 by veteran civil rights leader and Cambridge resident Robert Moses.
Paul Parravano, co-director of the Office of Community and Government Relations, welcomed the crowd. "Everyone at MIT is so happy you are here, getting ready to celebrate this important weekend, the weekend in which we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Said Kenneth E. Reeves, acting mayor of Cambridge, "In this weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King's life, but the real theme of this concert is trying to make the world a better place."
Also present were Cambridge School Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro; Omowale Moses, director of the Young People's Project (YPP) of the Algebra Project; and London Hardy, director of the Boston and Cambridge YPP sites. The Cambridge Algebra Project oversees implementation of the Algebra Project curriculum in several Cambridge middle schools.
Mayor Reeves introduced the singers, saying, "Sweet Honey in the Rock has a purpose. They grew from the Freedom Singers and now they are world famous."
Group members appeared one by one, each woman adding her voice to a round of "We are the ones/We've been waiting for," a song that eventually included the whole auditorium.
A rap refrain -- memorized almost instantaneously by the excited crowd -- brought many to their feet: "I'm young! And I am positive! I am the future! I'm gonna tell it like it is! I won't let anything stand in my way! My eyes are on the prize and they will stay that way!"
Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon took charge of the ever-more-active students by guiding a discussion of the importance of drums and why drums were banned during the time of slavery. A sense of the presence of many drums occurred as the ensemble sang Juba.
Ms. Reagon offered a lesson in American geography in the context of the 1960s Freedom Rides. As she described the first Freedom Riders' bus leaving Washington en route to New Orleans, she named places in the South that once inspired foreboding.
"You're headed south. You leave Washington, DC -- white people in the back of the bus, black people up front. What's your next state? Virginia! North Carolina! South Carolina! Georgia! What kind of turn do you have to make now? Right turn! To Alabama! Well, in Alabama, they burn the bus!" she declared, her deep, melodious voice still projecting the shock and outrage of the time.
Ms. Reagon also described the sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, and urged the audience to think about "the world you see today and ask, what would you like to change? What do you want to take on?" This elicited responses from the students -- "Pollution!" "Racism!" "Hunger!" -- and gave immediacy and spirit to a round of We Shall Overcome. For that, arms were linked across generations in the intimate, woven-together style of 35 years ago, when Dr. King and thousand of others marched together.
The concert brought together three veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Robert Moses directed the voter registration campaign of SNCC. Dr. Bernice Reagon was a member of SNCC's Freedom Singers. David Dennis co-directed Freedom Summer '64, often sadly remembered for the murder of three civil rights workers.
Dr. Janet Moses, a pediatrician in MIT Medical, wife of Robert Moses and a former SNCC voter registration worker, said of the Algebra Project, "Literacy for the information age has a mathematical component. In a real sense, the issue is still that of democracy. Education is a crucial resource that needs to be distributed equitably, and the Algebra Project sees the stuggle for literacy as a continuation of the struggle of poor communities and communities of color for broad participation in our society."
The MIT Community Service Fund has funded Algebra Project initiatives, including summer and afterschool programs run by YPP at the Area IV Teen Center. Students and faculty have assisted with these local initiatives.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2000.