In a presentation that was part speech, part concert, civil rights activist and singer Bettie Mae Fikes urged her Siena audience to elevate their education with spirituality to make progress in a fight that is far from over.

Fikes, known as “the Voice of Selma,” was welcomed virtually on March 3 as the College’s Black History Month keynote speaker. Her pledge as she began her address, interspersed throughout with song, was “to touch the heart while healing minds, and when you hear my story you will understand why my own heart is still healing.”

She sang at the 2020 funeral of U.S. Rep. and civil rights legend John Lewis, with whom she marched on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama in 1965. A former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, Fikes shared her vocal talent at the 1964 and 2004 Democratic national conventions, and has also sung at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.

Tatiana Vaz ’22 called the keynote “both moving and inspiring.

“Hearing her speak about the civil rights movement was personal and much more meaningful than anything I've read in history books,” said Vaz. “She reminded us that the work for racial justice is far from over, and that it is in the hands of the youth to bring change.”

A native of Selma, Fikes became involved as a young teen activist in 1960. She noted that it was mostly children, teens and college students who made the first commitments to protesting the Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. 

“When I say there were children, I mean children. Some of them were eight, 10 years old. The adults started coming out more once the jails became packed with kids.” 

Fikes attended meetings and rallies without her family’s knowledge. She recalled the movement leaders telling their young followers about what could happen to them during marches. They practiced the right way to curl into a fetal position to protect their heads and bodies from the blows of billy clubs and lead pipes. 

“The things they told us we might be facing were just unbelievable to us,” she said. “We didn’t know that the world would treat anyone like that. But what they were showing us was nice compared to what actually happened. We saw death, and we saw bloodshed.”

Fikes personally witnessed and experienced the brutality of the civil rights movement: the police and their deputies who threatened her and other jailed girls with rape. Hot coffee poured over the heads of those sitting in at lunch counters. Burning cigarettes put out on the faces and arms of those trying to register to vote. The clubs. The fire hoses. And most of all the hatred.

“I simply could not understand the hatred. When people got out of those freedom buses, the got out into the hands of a mob. What is it about Black and Brown skin that irritates people so badly?” 

She said she and her fellow activists simply wanted “to live abundantly:” to vote, own a home, send their children to college. 

“I always wondered why half the world was living so well, and the other half not. I would see Blacks picking cotton in the fields when it was so, so hot. But in those fields, you could hear singing, and I wondered what they had to be so happy about.” 

The songs that had long soothed the oppressed made their way into the civil rights movement. 

“The singing was gospel, but we turned it into freedom songs. The churches where we met were packed on the inside, and surrounded by police on the outside. The jail cells were packed so tight that we could only sit upright next to each other. So we sang; sometimes out of fear.”

Fikes, known in the movement for her singing as much as her commitment to activism, shared her disappointment that today’s social justice movements seem to have abandoned singing as a way to inspire and comfort.

“People are not singing today, and the spirit of song is what kills the fear and brings people together. You have to have a song in your heart as much as love in your heart.” 

She asked her Siena audience to listen to “the little voice you hear calling you to stand.

“Heed the call, y’all. The things you take for granted today, someone had to die for. I shake now when I think of it. Every day we woke up knowing it could be our last day, but we forged ahead.” 

Calling her Siena audience “children,” with the sense of guidance and connection that word connotes, she cautioned that the fight for justice is not over, and that education alone will not elevate society. 

“We are still fighting for what the Constitution has already given us,” she said. “Education by itself is no good, if you don’t have spirituality to guide it. There are too many educated people with cold hearts.” 

Kiera Mitru ’21 noted that this time in American history is right for leading with what Fikes called “love and song in our hearts.”

“Ms. Fikes does just this, as she called us to blend warmth into our education and to share our stories with those that are willing to listen,” said Mitru. “Above anything, she highlights the need for connection and compassion in the fight for justice.”

Amir Taylor ’22 said one of his biggest takeaways was that education by itself is no good. 

“That was very powerful. We as a society visualize injustice, we learn about injustice, and minorities specifically suffer from injustices and it is our time to fight for the things we can change. Powerful women like Bettie Mae Fikes bring us back to reality and humanize all the lives lost to live the freedom we live today.”