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Songs and the Civil Rights Movement

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MLK and other leaders arm in arm, singing
Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

Music 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 Tee Walker, executive director of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 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 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”).


Carawan and Carawan, We Shall Overcome, 1963.

Carson, In Struggle, 1981.

King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.

King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.

Reagon, “In Our Hands: Thoughts on Black Music,” Sing Out! 24 (January 1976–February 1976): 1–2, 5.

Reagon, “Songs of the Civil Rights Movement 1955–1965: A Study in Culture History,” Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 1975.

Robert Shelton, “Songs a Weapon in Rights Battle,” New York Times, 20 August 1962.

Werner, Change Is Gonna Come, 1998.

Wexler, Civil Rights Movement, 1993.