Cleo Kennedy

Voice of the Civil Rights Movement

Gail Short

Cleopatra Kennedy

For more than 70 years, singer and Birmingham native Cleopatra “Cleo” Kennedy has used her voice not only to entertain and inspire audiences, but also to move them to fight for freedom, justice and racial equality. 

Kennedy is the former backup singer for gospel artists such as James Cleveland and Dorothy Love Coates, as well as rock, pop, and soul singers such as Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and James Brown, to name a few. But she says she got her start as a child singing in church.

“I was brought up in the church and they would have me sing songs,” she says. “I even remember them standing me up in a chair so the people could hear me sing.”

One of her earliest memories was when at age four, her mother took her to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham at Christmas. The store had a special promotion offering children a chance to obtain a recording of themselves singing. Kennedy says she sang the gospel tune, “I’m Bound for Higher Ground.”  

I was never afraid to get up and sing.

“I was never afraid to get up and sing,” she recalls. “My mom used to take me to church, and they would clap, and it just stayed in my spirit. I loved it, and it became one of my favorite things to do.”

But Black people like Kennedy and her parents and three siblings lived under the heavy weight of Jim Crow laws that prohibited Blacks from sharing public accommodations with whites. Places such as movie theatres, buses, trains, restaurants, hotels, public restrooms, and water fountains were marked either “Whites only” or “Colored.” 

Meanwhile, as the Black civil rights movement began heating up, one activist, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956, after the state outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from operating in Alabama. The ACMHR held mass meetings to inspire people to join the protest movement against racial segregation. 

Kennedy (sitting on her father’s lap) with her parents and siblings.

In 1959, Shuttlesworth came up with the idea of forming a gospel choir that could help stir up audiences at the ACMHR mass meetings. So he called on fellow activists Mamie Brown Mason and Nims Gay to organize what would become the ACMHR Choir, with Nathaniel Lee as its musician. A year later, when Lee left the group, the choir recruited a young college student named Carlton Reese to take over as the musician.

“I knew a lot of the people who sang in the ACMHR Choir before I joined,” Kennedy says. “The ACMHR had mass meetings every Monday night, and I started going to them.” 

Before long, Kennedy, a 13-year-old soprano, joined the choir herself.

Music helped to draw people to the mass meetings because they wanted to hear the choir.

“Music helped to draw people to the mass meetings because they wanted to hear the choir,” she says. “Then they would hear the preacher. Then they wanted to hear Martin Luther King speak.” 

Kennedy became a popular soloist in the ACMHR Choir, she says, often called upon to sing before or after King delivered a speech to the crowd. A favorite song, she says, was “A City Called Heaven.” 

“I sang that song all the time,” she says. “I sang other songs, but that was the one they used to love to hear me sing all the time.” 

She describes Reese as a talented choir director and musician with a knack for choosing the songs that would fit the mood and message of each mass meeting. “He was awesome,” she says. “He was a good musician. He could sing. He could teach music and everything.”

Kennedy after a Bruce Springsteen concert in New York City; she sang backup for Springsteen and other artists such as Diane Ross, Ray Charles, James Brown, and many more.

But Reese tolerated little nonsense during choir rehearsals, she says. “He didn’t want you playing or palling around during rehearsals, and he would always say, ‘If you don’t listen, you can’t learn. You’re not gonna get it, and it will take you longer to learn a song, and this is a serious thing.’” 

Before long, Kennedy moved from just singing to becoming a teen civil rights foot soldier herself, joining other youngsters in the demonstrations. A few times, she even got arrested by police for protesting, she says. 

Despite the risks and the possibility of being jailed, she continued participating in the demonstrations. “It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t easy at all. I went to jail a couple of times. I’ve been in some positions where I didn’t know how it would all come out. But through prayer and faith in God, I made it through, and I never got hurt.”

“It was scary,” says Kennedy, “but I had to be a part of it, so I fought my way through it. I was never too afraid to go on out and try.

I was so determined that if I kept doing it, it had to make a difference in the way we had to live…

“The first time I went to jail, when I got out, I turned around and went right back. My mom said, ‘I thought she was crazy, but now I know.’ I was so determined that if I kept doing it, it had to make a difference in the way we had to live, because I knew it was wrong, the way white people did us.” 

A few years later, Kennedy got what would become her big break as a singer. 

Her family lived around the corner from the gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates, leader of the famous Dorothy Love Coates & the Harmonettes. Kennedy recalls many days sitting outside on Coates’s steps to listen in on the group’s rehearsals. One day, Coates asked Kennedy if she wanted to train with them. 

“I had only one rehearsal with them because I knew all of the songs and had learned them sitting on the porch listening to them sing,” Kennedy says. “So, she sent her sister to my house one day to ask my mom and to ask me if I wanted to join the Harmonettes.”

Kennedy (far left) during her days as a backup singer for artists, including singer, composer, and songwriter Paul Williams (middle).

Kennedy joined the gospel group and spent the next three years on the road as a Harmonette. Afterward, she sang briefly with another group called Butch McDaniel & the Gospel Trio before moving to California in 1979. There, she landed a gig with the Grammy-award winning gospel legend James Cleveland. 

But while in California, Kennedy began having health problems. A doctor’s visit at UCLA led to the discovery that she had multiple sclerosis. But despite the diagnosis, Kennedy says she refused to quit her career.

More opportunities to sing came her way. She sang backup for many famous musical artists. In addition, she landed parts in a few films as well. She appeared in the blockbuster television movie “Roots” and sang backup for soul singer James Brown in the film “The Blues Brothers.” 

Cleo Kennedy meeting with young student at NorthPointe Christian School.

Around 1992, Kennedy returned home to Birmingham and joined the Birmingham Community Mass Choir. She also reconnected with Butch McDaniel & the Gospel Trio and occasionally accepted invitations to sing solos at different events in and out of town, she says. 

Today, despite her MS and having to walk with a cane, Kennedy says she is doing well and refuses to let anything prevent her from staying active. At 78, she spends most days working at her church’s daycare. She says her faith in God keeps her going.

“If you don’t have faith, you don’t have anything,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in God, and I know He’s the one who has brought me through. And I’m still moving.”

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