civil rights


The History of Songs in the Civil Rights Movement


[song: Oh, Freedom]

In the United States, by far one of the most important and far-reaching struggles was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Some progress was made early on, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But in the South, America’s version of apartheid—known as Jim Crow—was alive and well.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a young civil rights activist by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person in a deliberate act of civil disobedience. She was arrested and fined $10.00, but her act of bravery and defiance was like a spark.

Blacks made up 70 percent of the bus line’s patrons, and from December 1955 to December 1956, blacks in Montgomery chose to walk rather than ride in the back of segregated buses. And in December of 1956, they won integration of the city buses. But Rose Parks’ single act of courage brought about more than the integration of Montgomery’s buses; it also turned a relatively small struggle of handfuls of people here and there into a mass movement.

Because singing has always been an integral part of the African culture, singing played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement. Bernice Johnson Reagon, civil rights organizer, musicologist, and co-founder of Sweet Honey In The Rock, says this about the singing:

To sustain and unify the community during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, mass meetings were held. There were speakers and there was singing. In boycott-organized car pools that took people to work, there was singing. In 1960, when black students sat in and were beaten at segregated lunch counters across the South, they sang. They sang as they were dragged into the streets. They sang in the paddy wagons and in the jails. And they sang when they returned to the black community’s churches for strategy rallies. When the buses carrying the Freedom Riders were stopped and burned, when the riders were pushed to the ground and beaten, they sang. When the Freedom Riders were jailed in Mississippi’s Hinds County Jail and Parchman Penitentiary, they sang again. During the summer of 1961 when students in McComb, Mississippi, were suspended from school for participating in SNCC’sa first voter education project, they sang. In 1962, when mass arrests followed the first testing in Albany, Georgia, of the Interstate Commerce Commission’s ruling that interstate travel be integrated, songs thundered from Birmingham, in Greenwood and Hattiesburg, in Danville and Pine Bluff and Baton Rouge and Cambridge, in segregated cities across the nation, communities of activists came together. Central to their gatherings—mass meetings, rallies, marches, pray-ins, jail-in—were their freedom songs.

[“This Little Light of Mine”]

The sit-ins began on February 1, 1960, when four black college students sat at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked for service. When they were refused service, they refused to leave.

Within a week, the sit-ins had spontaneously spread to Durham, Winston-Salem, and Fayetteville, and then on to Charlotte, High Point, and three other North Carolina cities. By the end of the month, sit-ins had spread to Hampton, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee, where 80 students were arrested. On the same day, the 28th, black and white students in New York City began massive picketing of Woolworth stores. Then students in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit set up picket lines, as well.

By mid-1961, hundreds of thousands of black college and high school students were taking part in sit-ins, and thousands had been arrested, beaten, tear-gassed, and expelled from school.

The three young women singing on the song “This Little Light of Mine”—Mary Ethel Dozier, Minnie Hendrick and Gladys Burnette Carter—were high school students who called themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association; the bass singer is Sam Collier, a seminary student who was a member of the Nashville Quartet. These young people were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement who spent time in jail, endured beatings, and who also used their voices to unite and motivate.

The students broadened the concept of the sit-in, and were soon conducting stand-ins at segregated movie theaters, kneel-ins at churches, wade-ins at beaches, and constant civil disobedience of the segregated buses, trains, depots, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. In the meantime, the adults, impressed with the courage and commitment of the young people, began rallying in greater numbers. They raised funds for legal defense, participated in economic boycotts, went to the polls in increasing numbers, and began joining the students in their demonstrations.

Many of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement were adapted from familiar songs of the church, both gospel and spiritual,b  like this one also by the Montgomery Improvement Association, “We Are Soldiers in the Army.”

[We Are Soldiers in the Army]

The students not only sang, but they viewed singing as a powerful organizing tool, one that unified them, gave them strength and courage—both individually and as a people—and lifted their spirits and resolve through the most terrifying and discouraging ordeals. As a result, the body of music known as Civil Rights Freedom Songs really began with the students’ sit-ins.

From the beginning, the students understood the importance of creating songs that everyone could sing. So they wrote songs to tunes that everyone knew and could join in singing. They adapted songs not just from the church, but also from popular music like “Get Your Rights, Jack” (from Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack”).

The students organized into singing groups, performing at rallies and mass meetings and even cutting records; sometimes they had to be bailed out of jail to make a recording date! Groups like the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Nashville Quartet and the Selma Youth Freedom Choir, were composed entirely of high school and college students.

[“If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus”]

On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Rides began. Organized by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, seven blacks and six whites, ranging in age from 18 to 61, boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses and headed south.

For ten days, the Freedom Riders encountered no problems, but on the 14th, in Anniston and in Birmingham, Alabama, mobs gathered, and the Freedom Riders were beaten senseless. In Anniston, a bus was burned to the ground and some of the Freedom Riders were hospitalized. All the while, the police did nothing to stop the mob, but instead arrested the Freedom Riders. Throughout that summer, the Freedom Rides continued, and over 360 Freedom Riders were arrested.

As more and more people were thrown in jail together—people from all around the country—more and more songs were created. In fact, in their book Sing For Freedom, activists Guy and Candie Carawan called it “the beginning of a great spread of freedom song material.” The song, “Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly,” is loosely based on the spiritual, “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” and it was written by Bertha Gober—one of the Movement’s most important activists and songwriters—and Janie Lee Culbreath, while they were in jail together in Albany, Georgia.

[Oh Pritchett, Oh Kelly]

Candie Carawan was one of the ones arrested during a sit-in and put into a segregated jail. She wrote this about the experience:

Eighty of us were arrested. It was one of the first instances where large numbers of students went behind bars, and we found that singing was truly good for the spirit. For two white girls, alone in a cell and only in sound’s reach of the other students, the music offered a bond of friendship and support.

When CORE leader James Farmer was arrested, he said:

I remember one night at the jail, a voice called up from the cell block beneath us, where other Negro prisoners were housed. “Upstairs!” the anonymous prisoner shouted. We replied, “Downstairs!” “Upstairs!” replied the voice, “Sing your freedom song.” And the Freedom Riders sang. We sang old folk songs and gospel songs to which new words had been written, telling of the Freedom Ride and its purpose. Then the downstairs prisoners, whom the jailers had said were our enemies, sang for us. The girl Freedom Riders, in another wing of the jail, joined in the Freedom Ride songs.

The songs of the Civil Rights Movement came from many sources, the richest of which were the spirituals and gospel songs of the African American culture. The spirituals, in particular, had a great deal of meaning and power for blacks in America; these were the songs of slavery, their songs of salvation and courage through the darkest times of brutality and inhuman bondage. As Frederick Douglass said about the spirituals, “Every tone was a protest against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.”1

Since the traditional spirituals were familiar songs, they easily became communal, shared songs, with everyone participating in a spontaneous, impromptu creation, everyone gaining strength and solidarity from the communal act of singing. Like the time in Albany, Georgia, during the summer of 1962, when a federal judge issued an injunction banning demonstrations. During a reading of the injunction at a mass meeting, someone sang out from the crowd, “Ain’t gonna let no injunction turn me ‘round!” And that song became a new freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around.”

[Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around]

There were also lots of parodies and satires: songs making fun of the awful conditions in the jails, like the one about the giant bugs at the Parchman Penitentiary or songs like “Freedom’s Comin’ And It Won’t Be Long,” which was born during the Freedom Rides when Harry Belafonte’s song, “Day-O,” was popular.

From the very beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, there were grass roots schools, workshops, and conferences to organize the movement, develop strategies and train Civil Rights workers in non-violent techniques. From the most famous organizing school—The Highlander Center in Tennessee—to informal sessions around someone’s kitchen table, singing and creating songs increasingly became an integral part of the movement, until conferences and workshops were set up just to share and create new freedom songs. Anywhere Civil Rights workers got together—whether at a workshop or sitting in jail together for 30 days—songs were passed around and born on the spot.

One of the earliest and most widely sung freedom songs, “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize,” was first adapted in 1956 by Alice Wine, a resident of Johns Island, South Carolina, who had participated in one of the early voter education schools. She adapted it from the traditional spiritual, “Keep Your Hand On The Gospel Plow,” and it became more popularly known as “Hold On.”

[Hold On]

Many songs held particular meaning in the culture and history of the African-American experience, and the song, “Wade in the Water,” is a traditional spiritual associated with Harriet Tubman. During the Civil Rights Movement, it also became associated with the wade-ins. Dorothy Cotton of the Southern Christian Leadership Council described one such wade-in:

I remember the wade-ins because the bump hasn’t gone off my jaw yet. We had taken a lot of kids down to the beach, not really realizing it was gonna be so bad. As I approached the water, I could see it was tense—all these policemen congregated there and five or six feet away a group of hoodlums. They started yelling obscenities at us, but we went on—myself and a group of teen-age girls. We were afraid but we felt we just had to go on. We stood at the edge of the water for awhile and it was quiet—an awful kind of quiet. Then two or three of the fellows would run and charge the group—not hitting or anything, but just running into the group. The girls would just step aside. I thought they would leave us alone, so I encouraged the girls to go ahead and swim. Some fellows who were working with the movement, larger fellows, were out there; but somehow they picked on the group of girls. Finally, they really charged. It was obvious they felt they just couldn’t take it anymore—our being there. They knocked those little girls like they were men. One girl got a broken nose, and there were messed up eyes and faces. There was a white fellow back on the beach saying to the policemen, “you’re supposed to protect them. Why don’t you protect them?” And it was so obvious that they weren’t there to protect us, but that they were friends of the hoodlums. After the beating we went away. We sang “Wade in the Water” and decided to go back another day.

By far, the most famous song of the Civil Rights Movement is “We Shall Overcome.” It was adapted from a gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” written by the Reverend Charles A. Tindley in 1901.

In 1945, Lucille Simmons and other members of the Negro Food and Tobacco Workers Union adapted the song for their strike in Charleston, South Carolina. The song was brought to the Highlander Center and activist/musician Zilphia Horton adopted it as the school’s theme song. She started introducing it to unionists across the South, and then, when the Civil Rights activists started coming to Highlander for workshops and conferences, they adopted it, and that’s how it became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

[“We Shall Overcome”]

In 1963, New York Times music critic Robert Shelton wrote:

“We Shall Overcome” has been called “The Marseillaise” of the integration movement. It has passed by word of mouth with great speed despite the fact that no single disk of the song has been issued and no sheet music will be available in the stores until next month.

Civil Rights activist Pastor Wyatt Tee Walker wrote about the effect the song had on people:

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 it indescribable.

Charles Sherrod, SNCC field secretary, described what happened at the first mass meeting held in Albany, Georgia, in November of 1961:

The church was packed before eight o’clock. People were everywhere, in the aisles, sitting and standing in the choir stands, hanging over the railing of the balcony, sitting in trees outside the window. When the last speaker among the students, Bertha Gober, had finished, there was nothing left to say. Tears filled the eyes of hard, grown men who had seen with their own eyes merciless atrocities committed. And when we rose to sing “We Shall Overcome,” nobody could imagine what kept the church on four corners. I threw back my head and sang with my whole body.


Songs have the power to move mountains because they have the power to move the people who move the mountains. As civil rights activist Reverend C.T. Vivian said:

I don’t see anyone having struggle separate from music. I would think that a movement without music would crumble. Music picks up people’s spirits. Anytime you can get something that lifts your spirits and also speaks to the reality of life, even the reality of oppression, and at the same time is talking about how you can really overcome: that’s terribly important stuff.



The Notes to The History of Songs in the Civil Rights Movement

a: Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee

b: The difference between spirituals and gospel music is that spirituals are traditional songs originating from the 17th to 19th centuries; they are generally based on the Old Testament, are considered to have been based in rural areas, and their authors are unknown. Equally important, spirituals arose from slavery as expressions of art, hope, story-telling, and the horrors of slavery; they also famously served as coded messages for passing along information, culture, messages of resistance, and history. Gospel music began in the 20th century, is based on the New Testament, and originated from urban-based composers; the authors of gospel music are known.2,3