The civil rights movement is one of the greatest social justice movements in American history. Through countless marches, speeches and rallies, African Americans were able to unite all races to protest for the equal rights of all individuals. Through these countless hours, music was often relied upon to maintain unity and uplift spirits. Music educators can highlight this fact to exemplify the power of music while also noting how, in studying music, students are not only learning an instrument, but also a powerful unifier.
Music & the Civil Rights Movement
The goal of the civil rights movement was to end racism, promote peace and establish federal law stating that all individuals, no matter their race, deserve to be treated in a fair and just fashion. In the early stages of the civil rights movement, social justice groups needed ways to not only spread the message, but also evoke emotion and inspire individuals enough to continue gathering together. To manage, civil rights groups relied heavily on music, so much so that the late great Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait that music was “the soul of the movement.” In fact, during long protests, individuals in both courtyards or jail cells would rely on singing and humming to keep unity and energy amongst the crowd. Singing was also an important part of opening and closing ceremonies, as vocal unity helped relieve anxiety and nerves amongst a diverse crowd.
Initially, the civil rights music was predominately Christian hymns and African spiritual songs, but soon expanded to include folk, gospel and soul concepts. With this expansion, music started providing financial support with musicians organizing concerts to promote causes and raise money for the movement as a whole. The civil rights movement eventually proved successful with the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which stated that any discrimination due to race, religion or national origin was entirely prohibited in the United States of America.
Important Musicians & Songs
Odetta – Born December 31, 1930, in Birmingham, Alabama, Odetta Holmes was a prominent musician and figure during the civil rights movement, so much so that she is often considered the voice of the entire civil rights movement. In listening to her music, it becomes quite evident why she was favored by fans such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. Odetta incorporates elements of folk, jazz, blues and spirituals into her music, and was a key inspiration for her folk peers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and even Janis Joplin. During the Civil Rights Movement, Odetta was particularly known for the song “Oh Freedom,” which she sang at the 1963 march in Washington.
Sam Cooke – Born January 22, 1941, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, singer/songwriter Sam Cooke was an active member of the civil rights movement. Known by many as the King of Soul, Cooke provided emotional and physical support to the movement, and is well known for writing “A Change is Gonna Come” about his arrest for trying to stay at what was then a “white’s only” hotel.
Pete Seeger – Born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, New York, Pete Seeger has been herald by the New York Times as the “champion of folk music and social change.” Seeger played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement, and his music and performances were able to bring together individuals from all races, classes and religions.
Nina Simone – Born February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone was a prominent singer and civil rights activist during the 20th century. Simone often included civil rights messages into her performances and was even a key figure at the Selma to Montgomery marches. In 1964, Simone released “Mississippi Goddam,” which was a song inspired by a church bombing in Mississippi that killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
“We Shall Overcome” – A song without a clear songwriter, “We Shall Overcome” quickly developed into one of the most popular songs of the civil rights movement. Although many music scholars believe that the origins of the song came from Charles Albert Tindley’s 1901 hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” the song wasn’t performed publically until 1945 during a food and tobacco union strike in South Carolina. In 1959, the song began its long association with the civil rights movement and eventually became the most popular song within the movement. Dr. Martin Luther King even incorporated pieces of the lyrics into a number of his sermons. “We Shall Overcome” remains an important civil justice song and has been performed all across the world, including Norway, India and Gaza.
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