She knew Martin Luther King, Jr. well, calling him “Uncle Martin” now and then.
She remembers sitting in meetings, plotting peaceful civil rights protests with Malcolm X.
She watched as white men beat her friends and mentors during equality efforts in Montgomery.
It was 1961 in Selma, AL when Bettie Mae Fikes first got involved with Freedom Riders John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)--an organization that later became known as a leading organization during the Civil Rights Movement.
It was then that she first learned what hatred really was.
“I have never seen violence like I saw then,” Fikes said, recalling the peaceful protests she participated in, which often ended in bloodshed. “The worst of it was to see the pure hatred in the white men’s eyes.”
Today, Fikes travels the nation recounting her work as an SNCC Freedom Singer, telling her story of her quest for equal rights to any group that will listen.
Fikes has performed at the Democratic National Convention and Carnegie Hall. And on Feb. 23, Fikes added Robbinsdale Area Schools to her list of travels.
“I love performing for students because having an education is so meaningful to me,” Fikes said. “It’s the only thing a man can’t take from you.”
Fikes performed for students at Northport Elementary School and sung in a public event at Cooper High School.
“For years, I’ve been traveling for the unsung heros,” Fikes said. “It’s become my life.”
Students participated in Fikes’ performance, singing songs and listening to her story. “Each performance I do is different than the last,” Fikes said. “I never know what the day will bring, or what God will give me.”
Gospel in Her Blood
Born into a family of gospel singers, Fikes began singing when she was just four years old. She continued to sing in her church choir in Selma. When she first met John Lewis, one of the most revolutionary civil rights leaders of the 19th century, she knew she wanted to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
“For years I was sheltered from the discrimination all around me,” Fikes said. “I didn’t realize how serious this was until I met John [Lewis].”
And “Serious” was a kind way of describing it.
In 1963, Fikes was jailed for her protesting efforts. In 1965, Fikes participated in what would later become known as “Bloody Sunday,” a civil rights march in Selma in which ended with beatings and tear gas explosions.
Throughout her efforts to bring equality to America, music has been a common ground.
"It's in my blood," Fikes said of her singing talent. "And I love sharing that with people."