Songs of a Movement

Music is a powerful tool. It can create an emotional response, a feeling, a certain attitude. Music can unite people, and give a voice when simple words fail. During the Civil Rights Movement, music played a vital role. Freedom songs drew from spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues, football chants, blues and calypso and were sung by protesters, activists, civil rights leaders and music legends to spread the message of the movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called these songs ”the soul of the movement” in his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait.” 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.”’

In the new Library of Congress exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which opens today, 25 songs from the era are highlighted.

Making up a large group of music in the exhibition is a selection of songs from Smithsonian Folkway’s “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966.” Many of the songs were recorded live during mass meetings. Several of the songs feature the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, a performance group arm of one of the key organizations in the civil rights movement. The singers performed throughout the country to raise money and awareness for SNCC.

Whether sung in churches or in jails, such freedom songs as “Oh Freedom (Over Me)” and “This Little Light of Mine” helped to shape the movement and sustain it in moments of crisis. Most freedom songs were common hymns or spirituals familiar to the southern black community; the lyrics were often modified to reflect the political aims of the civil rights movement rather than the spiritual aims of a congregation. The songs not only reflected the views and values of the movement’s participants but also, in the case of the Freedom Singers, helped to share them with a national audience. (Hatfield, Edward A. “Freedom Singers.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 11 July 2014. Web. 08 September 2014.)

Considered the unofficial anthem for the movement, “We Shall Overcome,” popularized by folk singer Pete Seeger, has its roots in African-American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. A few years later, activists in the civil rights movement discovered the song and quickly made use of it during protests, marches and sit-ins. You can read more about the song in this blog post from the American Folklife Center.

Often referred to as the African American National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was a poem written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John for a special celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1900, in Jacksonville, Fla. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) later adopted the work as its official song.

Featured on a listening station is Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” Known as the first American popular song of racial protest, the jazz standard was written in 1929 by African American songwriters Thomas “Fatts” Waller and Andy Razaf for an all-black-cast Broadway musical revue. Originally conceived as a romantic lament, Armstrong transformed it into a protest song against racial discrimination. The song inspired Ralph Ellison to write in his book “Invisible Man” that Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible.”

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” is made possible by a generous grant from Newman’s Own Foundation and with additional support from HISTORY®.

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