Music of the Civil Rights Era

What purpose did black music serve during the modern Civil Rights Movement?

From the spirituals and work songs to the later forms of blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel, African-American music from the time of slavery to the climax of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s has inspired protest and progress. During this period, a number of songs served to empower civil rights demonstrators. Some of these songs were performed by the Freedom Singers of Albany, Georgia, to raise money for protesters and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The same songs performed, and later recorded, by the Freedom Singers were sung at marches and rallies to inspire protesters, giving them a common orientation and sense of purpose and direction. Prominent among the singers were Cordell Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. “We Shall Overcome” was the theme song of the movement in its early days. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the movement commonly referred to that freedom song as a spiritual, probably because it resembled the nineteenth-century slave song “No More Auction Block for Me.” Among other prominent songs of protest were “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Some of these songs, including the spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” were actually anti-slavery songs later adopted for the Civil Rights Movement. Singer, songwriter, and pianist Nina Simone, who was passionately committed to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, is said to have given musical expression to both. She contributed her talent to the movements by singing at benefit marches. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” became a classic during the Civil Rights Movement. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” and James Brown’s song “I’m Black and I’m Proud” were two of the most well-known, popular songs to inspire and serve the Civil Rights Movement.


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