‘His voice will rumble through the history:’ Longtime civil rights leader has Stage 4 cancer

Published 3:38 pm Friday, June 21, 2024

By Jake McMahon, Bowling Green Daily News

When Charles Neblett was 13, pictures of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 were the first photos he had seen of “Black folk being brutalized.”

However, while looking at the pictures of Till, Neblett saw a reflection of himself.

“I saw that as me,” Neblett said. “I was depressed for a long time. I knew I was going to do something, I said … ‘this can’t be happening.’ ”

Neblett did do something.

Since the late 1950s, Neblett has continued his fight for equality, and through his work as a member of the Freedom Singers, a group that went around the country to raise awareness toward equality, Neblett became considered “the voice of the civil rights movement,” his son Kwesi Neblett said.

“His voice will rumble through the history,” Kwesi Neblett said. “That’s something I cannot be more proud of.”

However, after all these years of fighting for equality, Charles Neblett finds himself in the midst of another battle – Stage 4 prostate cancer.

For the first time since the recent diagnosis, the family gathered in Russellville over Father’s Day weekend “to discuss the things he is dealing with now in his health” and how the family will be “joining forces to make sure that he gets the right care,” Kwesi Neblett said.

While helping their father through the battle, Kwesi Neblett said he and his siblings are trying to spread cancer awareness, especially revolving around prostate cancer in Black men. Kwesi Neblett said that, according to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 4 Black men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and “because of the racial disparities and different issues in the health industry,” Black men are two times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men, information Kwesi Neblett and his family want to “spread across the nation.”

Information on donating to Charles Neblett’s treatment costs can be found at https://giveahand.com/fundraiser/charles-neblett-prostate-cancer-treatment.

“Since he’s done so much for us, now, it’s our turn to return the favor and make sure that we do as much as we can for him,” Kwesi Neblett said.

Charles Neblett began “organizing and doing something about the situation” when he got to college at Southern Illinois University, but through his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Charles Neblett really found his voice in the movement with the Freedom Singers, organizing “through song and commentary.”

The group traveled across the nation with its freedom songs, songs based on old Negro spirituals, organizing protests and raising money for SNCC. Charles Neblett said that listeners “could understand courage and determination that the people had through these songs.”

“If it wasn’t for the music, there wouldn’t have been a movement,” Charles Neblett said. “The music is what brought people together. You could tell a story through song that people would understand.”

Through the Freedom Singers, Charles Neblett became a part of some of the most influential moments in the civil rights movement as, according to a press release, “Charles Neblett led participants in song after Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech at the 1963 March on Washington and marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.” His work with the group also led him to cross paths with music icons like Bob Dylan and Miles Davis.

“It meant a lot because those are the people that understood what we were going through and they joined in to give support to the movement,” Charles Neblett said on Dylan, Davis and the other musicians who joined the cause.

While Charles Neblett did move to Russellville in 1974 to start a family with his wife, Marvina Neblett, she said living in Russellville “has not stopped Charles” as he continues to make an impact. According to a press release, he became the first African American magistrate in Logan County in 1989, was honored by President Obama and preformed at the White House in 2010 and more recently was instrumental in protests after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

As Charles Neblett gets older and deals with his health, he said he still wants to “keep up the fight.”

“I’ve always said, ‘when I get so old and I can’t march with you, just prop me up against the fence post and let me hold the gate open so you can keep going,’ ” Charles Neblett said. “What I want to do is do what I can to keep the gate open.”

Neblett said he wants to continue to “keep the gate open” for his family, especially his children who Charles Neblett said “have seen the movement up front” and “know what’s up against them.”

“Carrying on that torch … my father’s story, my father’s history and the things he’s contributed to society, I have to keep that alive,” Kwesi Neblett said. “It’s been an honor being his son.”