“We Shall Overcome”, a song sung by many in history, but none quite as loud as those who fought to be seen and heard throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Music was a driving force during this time for African-Americans as they needed something to inspire and help them in their time of need. Since even before the American Civil War, African-Americans, whom then were predominantly slaves, have been fighting against inequality and those who discriminated against them. This era and the eras to follow bred many trials and tribulations for those seeking to be seen as individuals and those fighting for the equality of rights. After countless years of this fighting, African-Americans were engulfed in a passion fueled for change by being treated unfairly in everything from jobs, education, and basic human rights. During the Civil Rights Movement, a difficult time both physically and emotionally for African-Americans, music became a powerful means of nonviolent expression and provided much needed emotional and financial support.
The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement was a time of growth in the United States as Americans of all shapes, sizes, and colors were fighting for equal rights and treatment of all. African-Americans were trying to free themselves from the discrimination that they had faced for years, this was their final push. Although this movement can be traced back to the times of slavery, many of the modern advances achieved were not made successful until later in history, predominantly the 1950s and 1960s (Of the People, 2017, pg 760). During this time in the United States, African-Americans were going through a beyond imaginable time of segregation and inequality. With the Jim Crow laws passed in southern states requiring legal segregation between whites and African-Americans, and the continued fight between citizens and government, a time of hate was developed (Of the People, 2017, pg 798). The negativity and laws surrounding equal rights created a need for someone to step up and answer the call to demand equality, although few in numbers, those who answered the call made the impact needed to change the course of history.
There were several important people involved during this time that made their mark on history. Some of those included President John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Striving to help the country in the right direction, they made uncomfortable, even fatal, decisions and voiced opinions against the majority that would usher in a new era of equality. Shortly before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in June of 1963 beseeching Congress to pass legislation that would make discrimination by private business owners and in public accommodations, illegal (Voices of Freedom, 2016, pg.272, entry 171). In his speech, presented in the textbook Voices of Freedom (2016) as found in entry 171, the president states:
It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated…
The President’s speech was in response to several recent events, predominantly the admittance of two African-American students to the University of Alabama where they faced great tribulation and prejudice. These boys were certainly not alone in the troubles they faced. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus, on December 1st, 1955, she unknowingly sparked the Civil Rights Movement as a whole (Of the People, 2017, pg 798).
An article by Herb Boyd (2006) about the late Rosa Parks really shows how influential her decision to not move from her seat became. In the article, Parks is quoted from her autobiography as saying “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.’. Though known as a humble woman, Parks actions sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and the Civil Rights Movement. This led to her commonly being viewed as and referred to as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”. Parks refusal to move from her seat, inspired many people to stand up and speak out, including the well-known and admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King spoke kind and impowering words of Rosa Parks, noting her strength and admirable character (Voices of Freedom, 2016, pg 268, entry 170)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is presumably the most prominent and well-known figure of the Civil Rights Movement. He began his involvement with the movement as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott (Of the People, 2017, pg799). With some of the most powerful speeches in history, he is revered as one of the nation’s best speakers and leaders of all time. His ability to inspire people, and incite change, made him able to aid in moving forward for equality. People all over the country were drawn to gathere together to hear his speeches that would forever change lives (F. Sunnemark, 2003). King would often reference music and freedom songs in his speeches. For example, King proclaimed during the Albany movement, “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle.” (Ryan Branch, 2013). King lends ear to the idea that music, its artist, its culture, became a guiding force for the Civil rights Movement.
Music’s Role in the Movement
As protestors marched through the streets of major cities or were barricaded in churches or buildings, through every moment they stared discrimination and inequality in the face, music was there to comfort them. A collection about Music in the Civil Rights Movement provided by the Library of Congress (Date Unknown) speaks to a woman named Jamila Jones. Jones was a professional singer whom while attending the Highlander Folk School for nonviolent activist training found herself in the mists of a police raid. Within the collection from the Library of Congress, Jones recounts her experience as follows:
She found the strength to sing out into the darkness, adding a new verse, “We are not afraid,” to the song, “We Shall Overcome.” Jones explains, “And we got louder and louder with singing that verse, until one of the policemen came and he said to me, “If you have to sing,” and he was actually shaking, “do you have to sing so loud?” And I could not believe it. Here these people had all the guns, the billy clubs, the power, we thought. And he was asking me, with a shake, if I would not sing so loud. And it was that time that I really understood the power of our music.
Jones shows music has great power and during this time music allowed for African-Americans to voice their opinions and voices peacefully and how they wanted. There were many songs that were made popular to the movement as they fueled the success for the activists.
One extremely popular song of the time, that inevitably became the unofficial anthem of the movement, is known as “We Shall Overcome”. This song was originally written by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley in the year 1900 (Victor M Parachin, 2017). The anthem could have been heard on a Sunday as a means for religious expression and again the following day carefully vocalized by protestors and activists. In an interview by Maria Daniels, Bernice Johnson Reagon is quoted as saying:
There is a story of a policeman beating a demonstrator on the ground and the man being assaulted began to sing, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and this particular policeman could not continue the beating… And the singing was essential to those of us involved in the action, it was galvanizing, it pulled us together, it helped us to handle fear and anger… it was powerful music, the freedom songs.
Reagon shows that music was vital to those fighting and demonstrating and had the power to bring many people from different backgrounds together.
An unlikely person to play a pertinent role in the Civil Rights Movement was Zilphia Horton. Horton was the daughter of a white coal mine owner from the rural south and a well-educated woman (Chelsea Hodge, 2017). Though having a seemingly different upbringing, she was a major activist that helped transform old hymnal songs into songs of protest and expression. A notable transformation, was the change of “I Shall Overcome Someday” written by Reverend Tindley to the staple anthem “We Shall Overcome” in 1945 (Victor M. Parachin, 2017). As stated in an article by Noah Adams (2013) Horton is heard on a tape sometime in the 1940s saying,
This is the song of ‘We Will Overcome’ — it’s a spiritual, I sang it with many different nationality groups. And it’s so simple, and the idea’s so sincere, that it doesn’t matter that it comes from the tobacco workers. When I sing it to people, it becomes their song.
Horton’s words show the power of this song, and why it played such a vital part in the influence of the movement. With such a simple yet powerful message, the freedom songs could move anyone who heard it.
Countless events were held to protest the unfair treatment such as rallies, marches, speeches, concerts, among other gatherings where activists made their advances. Other events were held and had little to do with the fight but made huge strides in their own way. One of the largest concert gatherings in 1967 shows a major triumph against segregation as some 200,000 people came together to listen to artists of both races including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, 1967). When watching the videos of the music festival, that set the bar for both modern and historic music events, one can see, it is not a segregated event. There are both African-American and white citizens enjoying music without the fear of repercussion and disciplinary action. In the midst of a major political movement, no one seems to care what race the artist Jimi Hendrix is, they only seem to be mesmerized by the mind altering and emotional performance given by him on the stage.
Rock ‘n’ Roll music acted as a major common ground for the fight on segregation and inequality. In the 1950s artists such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard were performing songs that attracted both races because of their extremely sought-after sound in a time that segregation was strictly enforced (Maureen Mahon, 2015). Although they were not directly affecting the movement with political statements or protest songs, they established an atmosphere that people of all backgrounds and colors wanted to be a part of no matter the implications. As music gradually became one of the most prominent parts of the movement, it evolved into a more popular culture. With more and more listeners tuning into the artists as they sang about freedom and equality, money was raised for the cause through concerts and other musical showings. Money that would be well spent, as the Civil Rights Movement was successful. Music showed time and time again its connective, spiritual, powerful means of expression. The music could not do it alone, the musicians themselves were making strides and combated against the discrimination and hate.
Another large step forward came with the collaboration of two notably popular and important figures of the time, Elvis Presley and “Big Mama” Thornton. Together, through the collaboration of breaking down the race barrier between white and African-Americans, they customized the song “Hound Dog” as performed by Elvis in 1956 (Maureen Mahon, 2015). This is such a great example of two exceedingly well-known people, on opposites sides of the fence, ignoring the stigmas and working together to create something unique and wonderful. These artists were not alone in their willingness to advance equality, others worked hard for the cause, including Odetta Holmes. Odetta became such a prominent voice she was noted by some of her biggest fans such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as the voice of the movement (Kent State University, Date Unknown). Music was the connecting link between those wishing for a brighter, more inclusive future.
An article by Leslie Paige Rose (2007) dictates a quote from Alan P. Merriam in 1964 from his book entitled Anthropology of Music stating, “There is probably no other human cultural activity which is so all-pervasive and which reaches into, shapes, and often controls so much of human behavior”. Music moves and motivates cultures as a whole and is a great tool for difference. The overall goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to bring people together to show that everyone deserved to be treated fairly, no matter the color of your skin. Music provided the support needed and was the way the activists spoke to the masses and changed people’s feelings for the better, in a peaceful, yet powerful, way. And, they did overcome.