Songs of Freedom

The Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir

Gail Short

Carlton Reese

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ down to freedom land

Over the years, the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir—featured in the film Bending the Arc: The Vote—has inspired audiences with the sound and heartbeat of the American civil rights era.

The choir was the brainchild of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Black civil rights leader in Birmingham who in 1956 founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). 

The ACMHR held mass meetings in churches to encourage people to become active in the movement. But around 1959, Shuttlesworth wanted a new way to help motivate and inspire people to go out into the streets to protest against segregation. 

That is when he got the idea to start a choir that would sing rousing, inspirational hymns during the mass meetings. So he asked activists Mamie Brown Mason and Nims Gay to start one and the ACMHR Choir was born.

But when the choir’s original musician left the group in 1960, they turned to a young, dynamic teenage organist, pianist and singer named Carlton Reese. Not long afterward, Reese became the choir’s director. 

The ACMHR Choir was known for its stirring freedom songs, many of which Reese wrote and arranged. Freedom songs were based on hymns, but the words were changed to highlight the struggle for civil rights. 

Some of the most well-known freedom songs include, “We’re Marching On to Freedom Land,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Brown herself wrote and sang, “I’m On My Way to Freedom Land.”

Audiences sang the songs not only in the mass meetings, but also in the streets as they marched in demonstrations and even as police officers arrested and carried them to jail.

It was amazing…he [Reese] would teach us a song sitting right there before the congregation.

“It was amazing,” says Eloise Gaffney who joined the choir in 1962 at age 13 and became an activist herself. “We would be in the mass meetings some Monday nights and he [Reese] would just say, ‘Watch me,’ and he would teach us a song sitting right there before the congregation.” 

One song Reese wrote and composed was, “We’ve Got a Job.” 

We’ve got a job.
We’ve got a job to do.
We can’t get freedom ’til we get through.

 “He was just an awesome musician,” says Gaffney, “and he had personality plus. He really became the musician for the movement. He could just about get anything out of you musically that you had because he was going to pull it out of you.” 

She remembers how the music energized audiences. 

“They would all be sitting and waiting for the choir to get up because we were really the driving force in unifying everyone,” she says. “When we would start singing, ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,’ just about everybody in the building would get on their feet, and we would all sway from side to side.”

Reese and the choir continued to perform in the years following the civil rights movement. The choir became a fixture at the annual MLK Unity Breakfast in Birmingham. It also became more diverse with a few white members like Kent Boyd and Maizie Nelson who are white. 

Boyd, who is now the group’s president, joined the choir in 1998 at the invitation of Nelson, his mother-in-law at the time, he says.

“There’s so much music in the world that’s interesting to listen to or that’s intellectually stimulating, but doesn’t necessarily draw you in,” Boyd says. 

This music draws you in. If you’re sitting in a congregation and the choir is singing, then it’s a grand success if you feel the need to stand up and sing with them.

“This music draws you in,” he says. “If you’re sitting in a congregation and the choir is singing, then it’s a grand success if you feel the need to stand up and sing with them. That’s what this music is for.” 

Reese died in 2002. Afterward, the group’s musicians Lenett Brownlee Taylor and Sam Robinson spearheaded efforts to rename the choir as the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir in Reese’s honor.

Today, the choir continues to perform at schools, places of worship, and at civil rights memorial events throughout the year. 

Boyd says being a member of the choir has afforded him the opportunity to hear the stories and testimonies of fellow choir members like Gaffney, who today is the choir’s director. 

this choir is a living artifact

“I realize that this choir is a living artifact,” says Boyd, “that still has a mission to pursue to this day.”

Explore More
Eloise Gaffney
Mamie Brown Mason
Nims Gay
Bending the Arc: The Vote