Neblett a special guest at the White House
By Jim Turner

Posted on January 1, 0001 12:00 AM

Almost half a century after he stood nearby in Washington, D.C. as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the world's most famous speech, Russellville's Charles Neblett was a special guest of President Barack Obama at the White House during Black History Month.

Dr. King proclaimed his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. It came at the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This is considered a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.

On Feb. 10, 2010, Charles Neblett was one of the guest performers during the "A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement." He and the others were the guests of Barack and Michelle Obama, the first African American President and First Lady of the United States. "It's amazing how genuinely nice they are," he says of the First Family. "They actually listen to you."

The day before, Neblett did workshops with Michelle Obama for about 200 children gathered in the White House, including the Obamas' daughters. "Being with her, I realized how bright she is. I know she is a lawyer, but the way she handled the workshop, the response she got from those kids and the way she got into their heads, she would have made a great teacher."

Because of a heavy snowstorm, such guests speakers as Robert DeNiro, Queen Latifah and Joanne Woodward were unable to attend. Morgan Freeman was the primary speaker. Performers included Jennifer Hudson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Natalie Cole, John Mellencamp, Seal, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Legend, Yolanda Adams, the Howard University Choir, and Smokey Robinson, who was one of the executive producers.

Sharing the spotlight with them were a man from Russellville and two of his fellow members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, Rutha Harris and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. The fourth member and founder of the group, Cordell Reagon, is no longer living, but his and Bernice's daughter, Toshi, performed with the other three.

The Freedom Singers were an outgrowth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which helped young people find various ways to protest the treatment of minorities in those days before integration. Neblett had been involved in sit-in demonstrations in Cairo, Ill. Harris and Johnson were with the Albany, Ga. desegregation coalition. Cordell Reagon had been active in both. The foursome worked together all over the country through 1966 and have been reunited many times since to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement in song to generations that followed them.

The foursome gained attention by singing songs which had come "out of jails, picket lines, churches, marches and pulling bodies out of rivers," Neblett explains.

The original plans were for The Freedom Singers not to be present during the Washington March or for Dr. King's speech in 1963, Neblett recalls. "They wanted us to stay in California and continue to raise funds for the movement. But Harry Belafonte, who had been instrumental in our development, said we should be in Washington. So with his help, we flew with Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno, among others, to Washington and were there for the March and the speech.We sang during the March."

On that monumental day in 1963, Dr. King is reported to have strayed from his prepared remarks before the estimated 200,000 people assembled when singer Mahalia Jackson cried out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!"

Many years later Charles Neblett performed with Mahalia Jackson at New York's Carnegie Hall. "That was special," he says, "but it was like a job. Being at the White House with the first African American President, I have never felt anything like it. The White House has become the real 'people's House.' There was so much camaraderie
among those gathered there that we realized the work done in the past was actually respected. We were welcomed at the White House. We belonged there."

Two of the celebritites who were most been instrumental in the development of The Freedom Singers were Belafonte and Lena Horne, who died early this month. The entire Neblett family was with Belafonte recently in Raleigh, N.C. for "The Big 5-0," a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw College there.

Neblett had the honor of coordinating the music at that well attended gathering, chosen by a group of planners which included Dick Gregory, Danny Glover and Belafonte, who is now in his eighties. Jesse Jackson was one of those in attendance.

An adaptation of Belafonte's signature song, "Day-O" or the "Banana Boat Song" from Jamacia, became one of The Freedom Singers' standards, using as the refrain "Come, Mr. Kennedy, and take me home," instead of "Daylight come and me wan' go home." (Neblett first met JFK and his wife Jackie when the Kennedys were campaigning at Southern Illinois University where Neblett was a student.) That song was reprised at the convention at Shaw, as was the legendary "We Shall Overcome," which Neblett says a caucasion couple who were students at Fisk University in Nashville in the sixties had reworked from the old Negro spiritual "I'll Overcome."

Each of the people who entertained at the White House evening performed one of their numbers and then gathered on stage for a mass rendition of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," generally known as the Negro National Anthem. President Obama joined them on stage to join them in song. How did he sing? "A lot like Dr. King when he would join us," Neblett laughs. "His heart is in the right place, even if his voice isn't."

As Charles Neblett talks, references to people he has known provide an amazing review of mid-century American history. He talks about his having come into contact with Ray Charles, Maya Angelou. Marion Barry, Andrew Young, Paul Robeson, Theodius Monk, Pete Seeger, Jim Foreman, Huey Newton, Bobby Seals, Eldridge Cleaver, Miles Davis, Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Thurgood Marshall.

Charles' wife Marvinia had hoped to join him at the White House. She was traveling to the nation's capital by bus when the snowstorm struck. She made it as far as Columbus, Ohio and then had to stop. Marvinia and Charles not only attended the reunion together at Shaw College but were accompanied by their children, Khary, Kwesi, Komero and Kesi.

Charles Neblett was arrested 27 times in the early sixties, once spending 42 days in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi for "criminal anarchy." There he was put on a chain gang and assigned to break rocks. "Now Mississippi leads the nation in elected black officials," he says, showing how much things have changed in the 50 years since the formation of SNCC and The Freedom Singes.

The Nebletts are involved in that government transformation on a grassroots level. Charles was the first (and still only) elected black magistrate on Logan Fiscal Court. Marvinia is a candidate for a seat on Russellville City Council subject to this Tuesday's election.

"In Performance at the White House" is a music series distributed for national television broadcast by PBS. The concept is "to showcase the rich fabric of American culture in the setting of the nation's most famous home." The link to a portion of the program is

Copyright © The Logan Journal 2009 - 2023