August 8, 2003
During the intense summer of 1963 in Birmingham, Cleopatra Kennedy sang with the Alabama Christian Movement Choir nearly every night. Gifted with a large, golden-noted soprano voice, Cleo grew up knowing she was born to sing. She was 20 that summer when she first became involved with the movement, where she used her voice to inspire and uplift. She performed solos in the 16th Street Baptist Church, usually as a preamble to Dr. King's speeches.
Arrested three times for demonstrating, Cleo says, "we went to jail the way we were going to check into a hotel. The first time, when the paddy wagon rolled up, we ran to it. One person had her hair rollers! We didn't have sense enough to be scared."
That first time, she was in jail for 14 days, but the group sang songs and stomped their feet on the iron beds to make their music. "Singing songs was our way of keeping our self-esteem up, of washing away fear," she says. The day after she was released, she went back on the picket line.
Cleo attended training classes in which Dr. King taught nonviolent procedures -- how to act, what to do, how to protect oneself from blows to the head and stomach. "I was locked up in jail during the time they sicced the dogs and put the water hoses on people," she says. "You learned a lot about each other, being in there -- how people really thought about what was going on. Your main purpose for being there was what gave you the strength to tough it out. If we didn't get killed at it, then we'd survive it."
On the morning of Sept. 15, though, Cleo was on the road. She remembers well how she reacted to the news of the church bombing. "I felt hurt, pain, anger -- so much stuff. I thought anybody who could belittle themselves to bomb a church, a house of God, and a Sunday School area where little kids go ... . I'd never had anything hurt me like that, the type of heart-piercing thing that went to the pit of my stomach."
Cleo's musical career would take her far from the South. She has performed with Ray Charles, Shalamar, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Olivia Newton-John, the Rev. James Cleveland and Bruce Springsteen. Her professional life began when she was 16 and joined Dorothy Love-Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes. She moved to Los Angeles in 1979 and started singing with Graham Nash, Paul Williams and Diana Ross ("she calls me Tweety-Bird," she says). She also joined the Actor's Union and got roles in "Roots," "The Blues Brothers," "The Idol-maker," the "No-Nukes" movie for Save the Children and "The Making of a Dynasty." Her voice can be heard transfiguring the old spiritual "City Called Heaven" on the Smithsonian's recording, "Voices of the Civil Rights Movement."
She returned to Birmingham in the early 1990s to be with her dying mother. Since then, she has performed with Della Reese and in concerts, tours and gospel music workshops in South Africa, Tokyo, Milan, Paris, Japan, London, Ireland, the Holy Land, Ecuador, Barcelona and Germany.
To this day, Cleo sings for concerts and services in churches throughout Alabama. She spends two days a week feeding the homeless at a local mission and continues to teach gospel workshops across the country with her 6-year-old adopted daughter in tow. Cleo has multiple sclerosis, now in remission, but she never has let it daunt her, even though it's often required her to wear a thigh-to-toe plastic boot so her leg wouldn't collapse in midstep.
"When I moved back (to Birmingham in 1992), I reunited with the Freedom Singers, going around doing schools and colleges, telling them about the Civil Rights Movement and all the hardships we lived through."