Black History | Music and the Civil Rights Movement

Let Freedom Sing22Music and singing played a critical role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement. ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,’’ said Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Albany Movement. ‘‘They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours’’ (Shelton, ‘‘Songs a Weapon’’).

The evolution of music in the black freedom struggle reflects the evolution of the movement itself. Calling songs ‘‘the soul of the movement,’’ King explained in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait that civil rights activists ‘‘sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday’’’ (King, Why, 86).

‘‘We Shall Overcome,’’ a song with its roots in the Highlander Folk School during the labor struggles of the 1940s, became the unofficial anthem of the movement. Wyatt T. Walker, executive director of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said, ‘‘One cannot describe the vitality and emotion this one song evokes across the Southland. I have heard it sung in great mass meetings with a thousand voices singing as one; I’ve heard a half-dozen sing it softly behind the bars of the Hinds County prison in Mississippi; I’ve heard old women singing it on the way to work in Albany, Georgia; I’ve heard the students singing it as they were being dragged away to jail. It generates power that is indescribable’’ (Carawan, 11).

Professional singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte were early and consistent supporters of civil rights reform efforts, but group singing was the most prominent music in the movement. As a community-based campaign led by church leaders, the music of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955–1956 consisted of Baptist and Methodist hymns and traditional Negro spirituals. As King recalled in his memoir of the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, ‘‘One could not help but be moved by these traditional songs, which brought to mind the long history of the Negro’s suffering’’ (King, Stride, 86). In contrast, beginning with the sit-in movements of 1960, black students throughout the South began to take leadership roles in the broader movement. The songs of campaigns led by student activists moved beyond traditional church music. Younger activists made up new lyrics, giving new life to many traditional songs.

In the 1961 Freedom Rides songs played a critical role in sustaining morale for those serving time in Mississippi’s Hinds County Jail. James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a Freedom Ride participant, recalled one night when a voice called from the cell block below to the freedom riders: ‘‘Sing your freedom song.… We sang old folk songs and gospel songs to which new words had been written, telling of the Freedom Ride and its purpose’’ (Wexler, 134). The female freedom riders in another wing of the jail joined in, ‘‘and for the first time in history, the Hinds County jail rocked with unrestrained singing of songs about Freedom and Brotherhood’’ (Wexler, 134).

For many on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the protests in Albany, Georgia, proved an important training ground in which to learn the techniques for mobilizing the dormant black populace of the Deep South. Perhaps of greatest importance, they became more aware of the cultural dimensions of the black struggle, quickly recognizing the value of freedom songs to convey the ideas of the southern movement and to sustain morale. Bernice Reagon, an Albany student leader who joined SNCC’s staff, described the Albany Movement as ‘‘a singing movement.’’ Singing had special importance at mass meetings, Reagon observed: ‘‘After the song, the differences among us would not be as great’’ (Reagon, ‘‘In Our Hands’’).

About SouthernGirl2

A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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15 Responses to Black History | Music and the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Freedom Rider: James Zwerg

    Freedom Riders-James Zwerg's physical wounds healed after he was attacked by an Alabama mob, but the emotional wounds festered.

    (CNN) — The mob was already waiting for James Zwerg by the time the Greyhound bus eased into the station in Montgomery, Alabama.

    Looking out the window, Zwerg could see men gripping baseball bats, chains and clubs. They had sealed off the streets leading to the bus station and chased away news photographers. They didn’t want anyone to witness what they were about to do.

    Zwerg accepted his worst fear: He was going to die today.

    Only the night before, Zwerg had prayed for the strength to not strike back in anger. He was among the 18 white and black college students from Nashville who had decided to take the bus trip through the segregated South in 1961. They called themselves Freedom Riders. Their goal was to desegregate public transportation.

    Zwerg had not planned to go, but the night before, some students had asked him to join them. To summon his courage, Zwerg stayed up late, reading Psalm 27, the scripture that the students had picked to read during a group prayer before their trip.

    “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear?” the Psalm began. But there was another passage at the end that touched Zwerg in a place the other students didn’t know about: “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”

    Zwerg’s parents had forsaken him for joining the civil rights movement. That same night, he had written a letter that was to be handed to them in case he was killed. It explained his decision to join the Freedom Riders.

    Zwerg called his mother to tell her where he was going.

    “Don’t go. Don’t go,” she said. “You can’t do this to your father.”

    “I have no choice. I have to,” he said.

    “You killed your father,” his mother replied. Then she hung up.

    The Greyhound bus doors hissed open. Zwerg had volunteered to go first. The mob swarmed him as he stepped off the bus, yelling, “Nigger lover! Nigger lover!”

    Then, as the mob grabbed him, Zwerg closed his eyes and bowed his head to pray. “The Lord is my light and salvation, of whom shall I fear … ”

    The mob dragged him away.

  2. Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard: White people. Sticks & bricks. ‘N****r! Kill the n*****s’.

  3. Liza says:

    Thank you for Black History month, SG2 and 3Chics. This is the best work I’ve seen anywhere this year. So much truth…

  4. The Freedom Riders were young fearless warriors READY TO DIE for what was right. I salute them!

    Freedom Riders- Fire bombed bus

  5. Hallelujah I’m a travellin’
    Hallelujah Ain’t it fine
    Hallelujah I’m a travellin’
    Down freedom’s main line…

  6. ‘Lets burn them n*****s alive, they’re trying to get off the bus’

    Meet the Freedom Riders Who Survived a Deadly Attack from the KKK

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      I had never heard this interview. Thanks for this.

      Only because the fuel tank exploded did the evil, depraved Whites move away from the bus door they were holding shut so that the riders could not get out! It was at that moment that the Freedom Riders were able to escape from burning to death.

      What a horrific experience endured by the riders!

  7. yahtzeebutterfly says:

    Fabulous article. I so appreciate all of the videos you included!,204,203,200_.jpg

    • yahtzeebutterfly says:

      p. 44 of above book:

      Took a trip down Alabama way,
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long
      We met much violence on Mothers’ Day
      Freedom’s comin; and it won’t be long.

      We took a trip on a Greyhound bus,
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long
      To fight segregation, this we must
      Freedom’s com in and it won’t be long.

      Violence in ‘bama didn’t stop our cause
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long
      Federal marshals come enforce the laws
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long.

      On to Mississippi with speed we go
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long
      Blue-shirted policemen meet us at the door
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long.

      Judge say local custom shall prevail
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long
      We say ‘NO’ and we land in jail
      Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long.

  8. Ametia says:

    Let FREEDOM ring! Thank you, SG2, for bringing these powerful, truth-telling posts.

  9. Sing, My People! Sing!

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