History of Civil Rights

African-American song is one of the most resilient traditions in protest rhetoric. Since black slaves sang as a response to the conditions of slavery, African-Americans have used music and song to comment on their circumstances and to resist oppression. In spite of the centrality of song in black protest, however, relatively little scholarly work has been done to account for its incredible appeal to African Americans as a communication outlet.

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Perhaps the least studied of the manifestations of black protest in song are the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. Few people who were privileged to hear the songs sung at mass meetings or in jail cells were unmoved by them and, yet, little has been written that attempts to make sense of the whys and wherefores of the strong appeal of singing to the activists who sang. The popular music of the early 1960s offers a unique and engaging entry point into how music affected the politics surrounding equal rights in mid-twentieth century America. In the spring of 1961, college students challenged the existing segregation laws in the American South with an assertive yet non-violent strategy. Four hundred black and white students associated with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) planned to ride Greyhound buses through Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and other states to protest illegal segregation in the South.

The activists of the civil rights movement recognized the power of song and performance and utilized this form of cultural communication in their quest for equal justice under law. The music of the group known as the Freedom Singers was used by these activists and was representative of the civil rights movement and its political and humanistic agendas. Most vital to the cause of the civil rights movement, however, was their music’s contribution to the functions of communication, symbolic representation, integration of society, and religion. The sit-ins and Freedom Rides were led by young people — college and high school students — and most of the demonstrators who filled the jails in the great mass protest movements were teenagers. But in the public meetings it was generally the older generation or the post-college staff organizers who gave the speeches and visibly assumed leadership roles. Meetings were the backbone of the freedom struggle, yet inevitably there were disputes and disagreements, but beginning a meeting with a song started it from a place of unity and ending every meeting the same way helped keep the groups together. Freedom songs were an essential element of the nonviolent direct-action tactics employed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In its simplest and most obvious aspect, the beat of the songs set the rhythm for the feet on picket lines and marches. Different songs, different verses of the same song, and differences in the tone and style of the singing itself, all evoked different responses. By choosing a different song, or inventing a new verse on the spot, or inserting into a verse the name of an official, or police chief, or business, or institution, the picket captain or song leader voiced a collective response to whatever was occurring. But the role and importance of freedom songs in protests went far deeper than that.

The power of nonviolent direct action was with the cohesiveness of the groups, and it was the songs sang together, that sustained that body. Music “communicates direct information to those who understand the language in which it is couched. It conveys emotion, or something similar to emotion, to those who understand its idiom.”( n3) The Freedom Singers accomplished this through their repertoire of spirituals and hymns, using their performances as opportunities to register voters, spread the message of the movement, and organize networks of verbal communication. Although they spread the message of civil rights through song, the Freedom Singers were also expected to join in direct education of the public. Members were employed as SNCC field secretaries of the movement, which meant that one of their major objectives was to register people to vote. Organized or impromptu concerts allowed their music to function as a communication tool; these gatherings were planned for the real motive of education, but they appeared to the outside world in the guise of entertainment. Altogether, the group reached close to 200 campuses around the country, singing and informing listeners of recent civil rights events, and explaining how the songs were adapted to reflect such events. Bernice Johnson Reagon once stated that the Freedom Singers, were, in fact, “a singing newspaper.”( n10) The successful registration of voters attributed to the Freedom Singers, lends testament to the success of music as a utilitarian tool.

Perhaps music was so effective as a communicative device because active participation and unique sounds were part of the musical heritage of black Americans of African descent. Participation, regardless of skill level, was encouraged in the performance practice of the music, transforming the concert-goer into an immediate participant. In essence, everyone was free to participate, move, sing, and improvise their own vocalizations and timbres. The specific performance practice of the Freedom Singers was also a reflection of heritage. Most often the songs were done without accompaniment, as many African Americans had been brought up without access to instruments. As Kalamuya Salaam points out, they saw that their ancestors had made music with nothing, while being chained and imprisoned. As a result, many chose to honor that method, letting their voices lend power to the communication process.( n12) Bernice Johnson Reagon also stated that, “When the SNCC people came to town they [audiences] found that the Albany sound was different. They’d heard students sing, but they had never heard black people of all ages sing at that power level.”( n13) The music that the Freedom Singers communicated was filled with text that symbolically represented the horror and the truth–and yet the peaceful hope–of the civil rights movement. Because the texts and melodies were so ingrained in the black American culture, the Freedom Singers were able to create new metaphorical meanings and symbolic lyrics within familiar musical contexts. New text combined with old music simultaneously represented the civil rights movement and paid homage to past lyrics and issues of American freedom. This musical familiarity also allowed the music and text to be transferred orally throughout the movement.

The repertoire of the Freedom Singers consisted mostly of spirituals and hymns, with characteristic call-and-response styles and free improvisation. Some members of the black community, however, expressed disinterest in hearing these “old Negro spirituals” that spoke of slavery, sadness, and desperation. Civil rights singers responded by altering the text to align with current times and struggles. As musician and activist Candie Carawan recalls, “Some people were offended at first–these were very personal songs about salvation. But sometimes people would be suddenly moved to change a word–like Bernice Johnson Reagon did when she changed ‘over my head I see trouble in the air’ to ‘FREEDOM in the air’–and something happened. People realized that these were their songs and they could change them to express what they were feeling.”(n18) Consequently, black Americans began to see the old hymns as a source of ancestral pride and a message of freedom and deliverance. This trend was simply a variation on an old theme, as slaves a century earlier had once adapted their spirituals to have dual meanings and symbolic representation.( n19) In words applicable to both time periods, Edgar Clark writes, “while the white hymn makers sang about bursting the bonds and crossing over Jordan to freedom, which meant the ‘bonds of sin’ and ‘freedom from temptation,’ to the Negro, they were interpreted as the real thing–real bonds, and real freedom.”( n20) As Ron Eyerman and Scott Barretta state, “Social movements temporarily transcend the specific situations from which they emerge; they create new contexts, new public spaces for addressing the particular problems of the time.”( n24)

The social movement was once again toward freedom, and music followed the same circuitous path, representing the social upheaval of society. The music of the Freedom Singers also served to integrate society and unite the public for a common purpose, and a need for a redefinition of self. The inspiration of the Freedom Singers’ music can be described as a catalyst; the singers’ daily interactions ultimately spawned momentous events. Singing as they marched, these advocates were pivotal in inching America closer to an integrated society. As one civil rights marcher stated, “The freedom songs uplifted us, bound us together, exalted us, and pointed the way, and, in a real sense, freed us from the shackles of psychological bondage.”( n41) The Freedom Singers’ communication endeavors and fieldwork helped give impetus to the marches, and their symbolic songs provided a literal soundtrack of fortitude, courage, and a new identity. the freedom songs of the civil rights movement were examples of purposeful communication that enabled civil rights activists to set forth a definition of themselves and their undertaking that gave impetus to movement activities. Both the act of singing rued the lyrics sung contributed to a positive definition of the activists as capable of improving the conditions of African Americans in the United States. The testimony of civil rights activists, as they recalled the impulse to commit their energy to the civil rights cause, suggests that they shared at least a tacit understru1ding of the need to replace the prevalent definition with a self-definition that would enable them to move forward. Many activists talked of the self-doubts they experienced before their movement involvement.

The impetus for the civil rights movement came from such people, those unwilling to continue to live according to a definition relegating them to inferior status. The activists framed the situation in such a way as to accept partial responsibility for their oppression. In so doing, they suggested they were also capable of ending the oppression, by defining themselves as autonomous and repudiating the white definition of blacks. The people who worked to kindle the flame of civil rights felt they must craft for themselves a new and positive self-definition. Only by such redefinition, a fundamental change in the way they saw themselves, could blacks effect the outward changes necessary for blacks and whites to learn to live together as equals. Such willingness to change self-definition is an important step toward doing so but the activists were also faced with finding a vehicle for such change. They argued for singing as that vehicle. The songs offered a compelling means by which activists could communicate among themselves and disseminate a positive self-definition and provide answers to questions about black identity and black relationships with one another and with whites. For the civil rights movement to be successful, leaders needed to encourage and motivate all blacks, not just the strong ones who had maintained self-confidence and initiative in spite of all white Americans would tell them to the contrary. All blacks in Montgomery had to be convinced to boycott the buses. Hundreds of blacks had to be motivated to march in the cities of the South. Thousands of blacks had to be urged to register to vote. For such feats to be accomplished, activists were faced with finding ways to reach these people, to overcome negative self-definitions and to redefine what in meant to be black in the South.

Dorothy Cotton spoke of the re-creation she perceived as coming from the act of singing, saying, “We sang … songs affirming the joy of coming alive, of becoming new persons.”23 Bernice Reagon suggested that, when sung, the songs took on a power of their own. She described this power as growing beyond the control of the people who begru1 the songs, ru1d as a power capable of changing the very being of the activists. In other words, Reagon represented the freedom songs as having the power to symbolically remake the people who sang. In her references to singing, for example, Reagon made connections between the songs ru1d the selfhood of the singers. She claimed that, for the movement to succeed, “everyone had to sing. Everyone had to identify themselves musically.”24 Such musical identification enabled singing activists to remake t11emselves into people who were living refutations of t11e white myths regarding blacks. Another source of inspiration for these songs, was African American religion. The centrality of religion and spirituality in the nonviolent civil rights movement has led some historians to equate the movement with a religious revival. These Freedom Songs cannot be dissociated from the African American religious tradition, sacred and Gospel music being the main source of inspiration for the singers of the southern civil rights movement. Although, in the previous decades, a majority of black churches had dissociated themselves from civil rights activism for fear of uprisals, the minority of ministers who did challenge segregation – and became leaders of the struggle for freedom – offered their churches for mass meetings that sustained the nonviolent movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, drawing both from her personal experience and her research, she emphasizes the importance of churches in the development of Freedom Songs: Again and again, it was to the church that the movement activists came for physical protection and spiritual nurturing – the very structure developed by the Afro-American community for the survival of its people. The church provided the structure and guidance for calling the community together; it trained the singers to sing the old songs and gave them permission to create new ones Songs left the traditional setting of churches with the spread of the sit-in movement and of the Freedom Rides in 1960 and 1961. The students who resorted to nonviolent direct action to fight for the desegregation of eating places and interstate transportation also took the habit of singing during their actions and continued to sing in jail after being arrested. A majority of the students who constituted the shock troops of the nonviolent movement between 1960 and 1964 were native southerners steeped in Protestant religion, and their activism was fueled by the Christian values they had learned since childhood. Believers in nonviolence as a way of life, such as John Lewis, aimed at applying such values to secular society.6 They actually transformed the traditional religion into what they called “soul force” or “the spirit” (Lewis 1998: 78), i.e. a profound faith in freedom, of which Freedom Songs became the incarnation.

Lewis remembers the church of his childhood, “vibrant” with “pure singing, the sound of voices fueled by the spirit, people keeping rhythm with a beat they heard in their hearts, singing songs that came straight from their soul, with words they felt in every bone of their body” (1998: 20-21). Lewis’ testimony suggests that, in such a context, singing took on a definite theatrical dimension, the participants literally acting out their faith. From the many testimonies of people who participated in nonviolent actions in many different places throughout the civil rights movement, it is clear that the most obvious function of Freedom Songs was to maintain unity and solidarity within the movement, while giving people the courage to face the violence of white supremacists and to go on fighting. “Freedom Songs suffused each singer with the summed power of the whole,” Bruce Hartford writes. Hartford was involved in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the SCLC from 1963 to 1967. He comments on the Freedom Songs in the following words: They wove into a single Freedom Movement the adults who sang them in mass meetings, the young militants who carried them into jail, and the local activists who raised them in small circles of courage surrounded by danger. […] As the furnace-fire turns iron ore into steel, singing our shared songs forged bonds of loyalty that for many of us have not withered with age in five decades. (2011) Another SNCC veteran organizer, Sam Block, observes that music not only brought people together but provided the “organization glue to hold them together” (qtd. In Hartford 2011).

Such a function was vital because it prevented the disintegration of the movement, which was characterized by a great diversity of opinions and attitudes and, as a result, by permanent tensions and conflicts. Music did not erase conflicts but transcended them, as Bernice Reagon explains: “You see all these Black people and we’re singing together, it looked like we all had erased all the friction – that is a façade. That is not what the singing does. The singing suspends the confusion and points to a higher order, sometimes long enough for you to execute the next step In sum, singing during the civil rights movement was definitely a means for African Americans to liberate themselves, not only by claiming their civil rights but also by asserting a distinctive collective identity that had been repressed by white society and institutions for centuries. They did so by taking traditional songs from the centuries-old African American culture and by giving them new meaning.

In the process, the songs they had heard and sung at church since childhood, which had been familiar but totally disconnected from the daily reality of discrimination, became powerful nonviolent weapons through which they could defy their oppressors. Ultimately, singing conferred the activists a new sense of humanity. “I felt I was joining the human race,” says Mendy Samstein, “and this was what was so moving and continues to move me” (qtd. in Greenberg 1998: 126).15 In the final analysis, although the power and role of Freedom Songs in the civil rights movement has been the object of a few scholarly studies, it remains little known of the general public. They actually constituted the essence of the nonviolent movement. In other words, many of the demonstrations or actions of nonviolent resistance that occurred in the early 1960s would not have succeeded, or they would not have had the impact they had on local communities, had it not been for Freedom Songs.

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