Among our best tools for social justice, music may be the easiest to share and enjoy. This Sunday, all are welcome in a special concert benefitting the Georgia Justice Project in collaboration with the United Church of Christ. A group of all-star Atlanta musicians will present a Sunday Gospel Brunch at City Winery, performing songs of inspiration and hope for change. Two of the performers joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom — Amy Ray of Grammy Award-winning folk duo the Indigo Girls, and mainstay Southern rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney.
Georgia Justice Project has worked for 35 years to support those victimized by the criminal justice system, advocate for progressive social policy change, and create opportunities in the community for minorities. They’ve made a name for their legacy of work, enough to earn the alliance of Atlanta’s most visible activists and artists.
“I’ve been hearing about the Justice Project over the years, just through different activists that I know and lawyers that do advocacy work,” said Ray. “It’s really well known in the movement of trying to battle the social injustice of mass incarceration. Chuck [Shivers, from] the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’s their tour manager, does a lot of projects like this and is super involved. He called me and said, ‘Do you want to do this thing?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely.’”
Kinney’s interest in social justice movements and prison reform came early in his life through an inspirational figure from his family’s church. “His name was Father [James] Groppi. Everybody should research him. He was really important,” said Kinney. “He was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. He walked with Martin Luther King; he was an advocate for housing rights and Indian rights in Milwaukee, so he’s been kind of a hero of mine; wound up driving a bus.”
Father Groppi led demonstrations in Milwaukee during the 1960s for civil rights and fair housing for Black residents, and indeed, often earned the ire of some of his peers in the clergy. “He was a big mouth. He was the Abbie Hoffman of Milwaukee,” Kinney added.
The singer and guitarist shared reflections he explores in a song he expects to share at the gospel brunch, a new composition called “Half Mast.”
“I’m just driving around for the last few years, and the flags seem like they’re constantly at half-mast,” he said. “At the end of the song, there’s a part in there that I really like, about… the right to bear arms. But you know, words are arms. Education is arms. ‘Arms’ in the 1830s was maybe a rifle, I don’t know, but I’m an advocate of education and learning and tolerance.”
Ray said she’ll likely share “The Rise of the Black Messiah,” a song she wrote for The Angola Three, a group of Black men who were incarcerated in Angola, Louisiana. “They were organizing for better prison conditions in the mid-’70s, late ’70, and there was a riot,” said Ray. “A prison guard was killed, and they were pinned with that murder.”
She continued, “One of them, Herman Wallace, wrote me a letter, and he had been in solitary confinement for 35 years when he wrote me this letter…. He’s since passed on. He was released because he had cancer, and then he died a few days later. Herman Wallace was his name, and he was one of those really amazing people that worked from within the walls, and worked on behalf of everyone else that was incarcerated, and worked against racism, and worked against all the suffering in the communities.”
“The reason I love activism in the South – one of the reasons – so much, is because it’s often faith-based and it takes the good part of churches and really highlights it,” said Ray, “That idea of just being part of the community and really enriching the community, and that’s what a church is for.”
City Winery’s Sunday Gospel Brunch, benefitting Georgia Justice Project, takes place Nov. 28 at noon. Tickets and more information are available here.