Bertha Gober in jail in the early ’60s Credit: Photo courtesy of Anti-war songs

The recent death of civil rights legend Charles Sherrod, who we profiled in last week’s column, summons a gallery of young people in the South who risked death in their defiance of Jim Crow laws. A precious few are still with us, including Bertha Gober, who like Sherrod was one of the Freedom Singers from Albany State College. Like her colleagues, Gober was drawn to the movement while still a student and joined them in direct action against segregation, subsequently becoming a member of the NAACP Youth Council and then with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1961.

She was among several students who heeded the call of Sherrod and Cordell Reagon when they visited the campus recruiting students to work in the movement. Gober was further prompted to action after three high school students were arrested for refusing to leave an all-white dining room at the Trailways bus station. Later, she and another student, Blanton Hall, were arrested. She was 19 years old.

Gober and Hall refused bail and were expelled from college. This provoked student demonstrations outside the home of the school’s president, and this was followed by a mass rally at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Upon release from jail, Gober addressed a crowd and delivered powerful testimony on her experience while incarcerated. Her speech was so moving that it inspired a massive turnout of students as they marched from dormitory to dormitory, expressing their grievances. Two weeks later she was part of a demonstration on Jackson Street, and soon many of them were arrested, including Gober who was found back in the same jail of her previous arrest. The cells were overcrowded, infested with vermin, with water fountains over toilet seats, and soiled mattresses that were removed, leaving them to sleep on metal bunks. 

She joined Janie Culbreth in song as they put music to Culbreth’s lyrics: “Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelley/open them cells…I hear God’s children/praying in jail/Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,” referencing the sheriff and the mayor. Immediately they were joined by a chorus of others in the jail as their voices resounded from corridor to corridor, from cell to cell. In 1963, Gober penned her own song, “We’ll Never Turn back,” written after the murder of Herbert Lee in Mississippi. One music journalist defined the song as “part lament, part prayer, part battle cry.” In many respects, it possessed an anthem-like quality and was often sung at SNCC gatherings.

Gober composed this and other songs while working as a secretary of SNCC and later as a member of the Freedom Singers. In this capacity, she traveled around the country, raising awareness and funds for the fight against injustice. Their songs were uplifting, and many activists felt renewed in their commitment after hearing chorus after chorus from the singers. And this may have been an opportunity for Gober to rehearse her song, which we offer here and that was a version recorded by Mavis Staples. “We’ve been ’buked and we’ve been scorned, we’ve been talked about; sure as you’re born. But we’ll never turn back, but we’ll never turn back, until we have all been free. We have walked through the shadow of death; we had to walk it all by ourselves, but we’ll never turn back, until we have all been free. Until we have all been free, and we have equality. We have hung our heads and cried, cried for the ones who had to die/died for you and died for me, died for the cost of equality. But we’ll never turn back; until we have all been free/No, we’ll never turn back/No, we’ll never turn back.”

In effect, Gober’s incident sparked the Albany Movement that eventually grew to have an impact on the city’s white newspapers which were boycotted to the extent they had to close down. The movement became so intense that soon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy came to town. But their arrival and commitment did little to diminish Sheriff Pritchett’s tactic of arresting protesters without the brutal approach that had occurred elsewhere in the South. An overall assessment is that the Albany Movement did not remove some of the age-old Jim Crow barriers but the inspiration provided by the singers and the songs of Albany would in the long run prove beneficial, and to this end Gober’s creativity was crucial.     

She was fondly recalled by Annette Jones White during her memories of Rev. Dr. Janie Culbreth-Rambeau at her funeral in 2017. “Janie and I,” White said, “were receptive to his ideas [Dr. King] and nonviolent philosophy and the two of us walked to SNCC’s office every morning to hear more and to do office chores. We lived in West Albany and were close to the location of the office. Bernice [Reagon] lived in East Albany and did not always have transportation, so she could not come to the office as soon or as often as Janie and I could. The college administration forbade Sherrod to come back to campus, but he came. He told us he was organizing meetings for students who were interested in becoming nonviolent canvassers. He came to our NAACP Youth Council meeting and told of SNCC’s philosophy of nonviolent protest marches and ‘jail without bail.’ Janie was very impressed. Later, she, Bernice, Bertha Gober, Blanton Hall, and I switched our allegiances from the Youth Council to SNCC, although we remained members of the Youth Council…Janie, Bernice, and I attended the first meetings that Sherrod held at Bethel Church and became members of a committee to recruit students to become canvassers. Bertha Gober and Blanton Hall also joined the committee. Sherrod and Reagon also taught us ‘Freedom Songs.’”

While Bertha is still with us, her husband, Dorvan, is not. He died on Dec. 28, 2021, at 86. He retired after being self-employed and was a cattle farmer.

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