The City of Birmingham will honor the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir during its AWAKEN 2023 event on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Themed “Lifting Voices: Changing History,” the community is invited to gather and celebrate the indomitable group who sang inspiring freedom songs during Birmingham’s civil and human rights movement (and still do so today). The free event will take place at the Birmingham Museum of Art, located at 2000 Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd. Doors open at 9:30 a.m. and the event begins at 10 a.m.
“It has been long due for this historic choir to be celebrated by our community,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin. “Carlton Reese’s legacy lives on through this amazing choir and his timeless songs serve as the soundtrack to Birmingham’s movement. We invite everyone to join us and become a part of something truly special.”
In July 1959, while leading the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth recognized the need to incorporate music into his effort to rally the community around social justice. He enlisted Mamie Brown Mason and Nims Gay who established the ACMHR Choir with singers from around the city. In 1960, the choir welcomed Carlton Reese, a young gifted musician who would become an instant sensation, composing numerous freedom songs that encapsulated the spirit of the movement. The choir’s repertoire of songs, arranged by Reese, served as a source of strength and inspiration during mass meetings and demonstrations.
“I don’t know what the Movement would have done without Reese’s contribution,” Reese’s widow, Patricia, recalled Dr. Abraham Woods, former President of the Birmingham Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, saying. “Dr. King said that this young Miles College teenager composed songs that stirred the masses to march and go to jail for freedom and dignity.”
The October AWAKEN 2023 event, which is orchestrated by the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity, will feature the Miles College Gospel Choir and the Carver-Hudson Combined Choir, with narration by veteran journalist Art Franklin. The event promises to be a morning filled with soul-stirring performances and storytelling that will inspire the community.
“We truly appreciate this recognition and hope it will be a blessing to the family of Professor Carlton Reese, who sacrificed so much in his lifetime for his dedication and contributions to the Movement,” said Kent Boyd, the choir’s president.
Currently, the membership includes singers from across Birmingham ages 30 to older than 80. Members represent a wide range of occupations, including retired persons, educators, administrators, bankers, musicians, clergy, engineers, nurses, teachers, and students. The Carlton Reese choir is multi-ethnic and cultural, and ecumenical in nature. It is led by Eloise Ford Gaffney–choir director, foot soldier, and original ACMHR member–as well as Patricia H. Reese, board president and wife of Carlton Reese.
“We sang for the cause of freedom every night during really critical times,” Gaffney said. “The Carlton Reese group gets great joy in sharing our experiences and stories with young students and encouraging them to be all that they can be.”
Attendees must register for this free event. Go here for details.