Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Modified: 10th May 2021
Wordcount: 1488 words

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The civil rights movement in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s boasted a wide array of musical anthems (Hartford, 2011). The elevated role of music in the movement came naturally as music is so engrained into the African-American culture (Reagon, n.d.). Folk artists rose above others in popularity with their politically charged lyrics and messages. Though these songs gained popularity on the entertainment front, the most influential music was the freedom songs. Freedom songs are less performance focused and require active participation. They are less focused on the quality of the sound and put great emphasize on the chorus of an entire body engaging with the music through singing. These songs would be sung in a variety of settings encompassing the civil rights movement. It was common to sing freedom songs at prayer vigils, sit-ins, and marches. They were sung to build unity and boost courage among those in attendance at these events. At marches, the songs filled an even more practical role as “the beat of the songs set the rhythm of our feet” (Hartford, 2011). Though the quantity of song linked with the civil rights movement is vast, there are a few that stand out with extra importance to the cause (Ward, n.d.).


We Shall Overcome

 This piece originated from the era of American slavery. Originally titled “I’ll be Alright, Someday”, the piece was an anthem sung by slaves while oppressively working in the fields. It was in 1945 that the title changed to “We Will Overcome” at the hands of the Food and Tobacco Union as the workers were on strike for fair wages. It was Pete Seeger who adapted the tile for the American Civil Rights Movement (See Appendix A). Joan Baez became the most notable performer of the piece (Hartford, 2011). The phrase itself “we shall overcome” became an anthem for those engaged in the civil rights movement. The phrase alone was spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. in speeches and President Lyndon Johnson as he appeared before congress in 1965 regarding voter rights (Adams, 2013). The song was sung as a chant, with hands linked amongst groups of people. A promise was made, We shall overcome. The lyrics could be altered as groups saw fit to meet their specific circumstances. The song has continued to ripple around the world as an anthem against injustice (Hartford, 2011).

People Get Ready

 In the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield’s song People Get Ready (See Appendix B), the illustration is painted of a train coming down the tracks. The train is ready for passengers but there is no time to waste; not even time to get your bags. Mayfield likened the train to civil rights movement and encouraged listeners to hop on the train without delay. The title was used as a rally song encouraging individuals to join the civil rights movement (Ward, n.d.).

This Little Light Of Mine

 This title was one of the most popular anthems utilized at protests (Hartford, 2011). Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris said in reference to the song that it just has to be shouted not sung (Deggans, 2018). It originated as a church hymn but was adapted for the civil rights movement (See Appendix C). The nature of the song lent itself to seemingly endless verses. Singers would insert their oppressors into the song by singing ‘Tell (insert oppressors name) we’re going to let it shine’. Often this line was directed at whom the protesters were up against whether it was police or city officials or individual citizens (Hartford, 2011).

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round

 This title was another adapted from church hymns (See Appendix D). The lyric ‘nobody’ was exchanged for a variety of words when sung at protests during the civil rights movement. The “verses would identify anyone or anything that was trying to halt the Freedom Movement: racism, violence, cops, tear gas, jailhouse, Klansmen, Governor Wallace,…names of individual cops…” (Hartford, 2011). The song was one sung to showcase determination by protesters jailed in mass quantities (Trescott, 2011). Their singing annoyed the guards so much that they threatened to take the mattresses from the cells. In response they changed their song to “You can take my mattress (2X), oh yeah, I’ll keep my freedom, oh yeah” (Reagon, n.d.).

This May Be the Last Time

 Often sung as groups headed out to begin a protest or rally, the song ‘this may be the last time’ (See Appendix E) became a somber reminder of the danger protesters faced. As Freedom Singer Bernice Reagon recalls “You can’t really sing the song without thinking about the statement you’re making” (Gross, 2020). Like most other freedom songs, verses could be added in. ‘Pray together’, ‘gather together’, and ‘sing together’ were all common phrases to end the statement as the group sang with a somber tone (Gross, 2020).



 Otis Redding wrote the song ‘Respect’ that was most notably sung by Aretha Franklin (Ward, n.d.). Franklin took a song that was initially crafted as a cry for domestic respect and transformed the meaning into a demand of respect for those in the African-American community. This song was the first of its kind to showcase the fight for human rights not just African-American civil rights (See Appendix F). Aretha felt that respect was a basic human right deserved by man and woman, black and white. Released in 1967, the track became a battle cry for the civil rights movement but also for the feminist movement (Ward, 2011).

Blowin’ in the Wind

 Bob Dylan penned this title in 1963. It was Peter, Paul, & Mary who memorably sang the number at the March on Washington ( Editors, n.d.). Dylan comments that the answer in the song is in the song. The answer is ‘blowin in the wind’. The title has had many interpretations and applications over the years due to the simplicity and symbolic nature of the lyrics (See Appendix G). As the verses pose the questions of when people will be free and how many lives lost will be enough for change, the song was a way for those impacted by the civil injustices occurring to cry out their deepest questions that seemingly had no answer (Naylor, 2000).

The Times They Are A Changin’

 It is easy to look at this song title as a statement. However, it is meant to be more of a feeling. For those singing it out at rallies and protests it certainly grappled at the emotions individuals were feeling (See Appendix H). The penned words ‘come senator, congressman, please heed the call” became a rally cry for change. Perspectives were altering on the citizen level but the laws needed to be modified to reflect those changes. The lyrics ‘the line has been drawn’ made a divisive statement that listeners needed to choose a side (Neary, 2018). 


 Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted saying in reference to freedom songs that “…they give people new courage and a sense of unity” (Stanford, n.d.). This was no more evident than at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. There were over 250,000 people that descended on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to march for freedom ( Editors, 2009). The program for the day boasted speeches from civil rights activists broken up by musical performances by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, & Mary; Bob Dylan; the Freedom Singers; and others. Next to the benediction, the last item on the program was a collective singing of the title ‘We Shall Overcome’. This was the charge as individuals went to leave to go back to their hometowns to carry on the movement. The feeling of a quarter million people singing in unison surely would have given chills and empowered all who were in attendance (The New Yorker, 2013).


 While people engaged in civil protest against racial injustices, they were encouraged to sing. Music is a universal language that brought protesters together as their voice was heard as part of the chorus (Ruehl, 2017). Folk singer Candie Carawan recalls that no matter the mood, there was a song for it (Library of Congress, n.d.). This is all the more evident as showcased by the freedom songs and popular songs on the 1950’s and 1960’s. There truly was a song for every occasion. The songs that rang as anthems in the civil rights movement conveyed messages not just through the lyrics but also through the unification of a people fighting for human rights. It was these songs that people fell back on when they mourned, celebrated, and activated throughout the civil rights movement. 


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