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Civil rights movement

Music and resistance

Every movement has its slogans: the concise encapsulation of demands, a cry of pain wrenched from the heart, or a yelled statement of defiance daubed onto walls and banners. In this, the Civil Rights Movement was no different. But for its participants, this was taken much further, thanks to what became known as “freedom songs”.

Of course, music’s cohesive quality emphasised injustice in the United States way before the Civil Rights Movement. African-American work songs, with their roots very much in the tradition of African chants and recitals, emerged and were developed as a consequence of slavery in fields and plantations in the South.

These songs – often utilising the ‘call-and-response’ approach which would later be incorporated into spirituals, gospel and blues music -– were part of a vital oral tradition among slaves, highlighting their plight, conveying deep anger at their circumstances and signifying a form of resistance in the fields.

"Go Tell It On The Mountain"

The freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement emerged out of those same spirituals and blues songs that had been inspired by African-American work songs, but they also drew from folk, hymns and gospel music as well. Indeed, the link with religion was clear in many of the tunes, with musicians and activists even tweaking the words of well-known church songs, such as “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, in order to reflect the aspirations of the movement and the challenges faced by the victims of segregation.

"We Shall Overcome"

Freedom songs also sprang up from the Rock 'n Roll scene and were included to make sure that those without faith would take part in the singing, ensuring the movement built a broad base of support. Others, such as “We Shall Overcome”, which became the de-facto anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and was sung by tobacco workers, were influenced by or drawn from songs that existed within the labour movement.

The songs became the courageous soundtrack to the campaign for equality, disseminated and belted out by participants at protests, sit-ins, mass meetings, marches and while separated in jails across the South. And in doing so, the songs and the act of collective singing bonded people, emphasising unity, bolstering the movement and ensuring that its messages were conveyed successfully and unmistakably.

One powerful feature of music is that, much like the act of sharing food, there’s something in the process of experiencing it alongside others which enables barriers to fall and relationships to form. And so it was with freedom songs and their ability not only to create community but to go even further: to emphasise a commonality which stressed that those who would sing together could live together.

A social movement’s success lies partly in its ability to adapt to rapidly changing situations, and a feature of the success of freedom songs lay in the way in which the songs were altered in both premeditated and spontaneous fashions to fit a particular environment. Sometimes it would be members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or other activists at the Highlander Folk School adjusting lyrics before an event. On other occasions, the changes would emerge organically in the context of a demonstration or march. Either way, this was indicative of a movement that championed continuous creativity, with the emphasis placed firmly on what was effective rather than notions of tactical purity.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Written and developed by slaves during the 19th century (though the precise origin remains contested), ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ is an African-American spiritual song that was spread orally across communities and given a new lease of life during the Civil Rights movement.

The song itself is thought to be what’s known as “coded”, with the religiosity of the lyrics providing cover for a hidden connotation about escaping slavery. In this case, that escape is considered to be tied, through the use of metaphor and symbolism, to the Underground Railroad: the collection of secret routes and safe houses maintained by abolitionists which enabled African Americans to flee slavery to free states.

The song received a bump in popularity during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, with singers, activists and folk artists recognising how references to the Underground Railroad reflected their own circumstances, adopting the song and situating it in the context of their own struggle for racial equality and an end to Jim Crow laws.


A photo of the actor Clarke Phillips
A photo of the actor Clarke Phillips

“Music played a major role in the civil rights movement. without music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, because music created a sense of solidarity. It unified people. It inspired us to go out and sit in, so if someone would come up to you while you were sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Montgomery, Atlanta or Birmingham and pour hot water or hot coffee or put a lighted cigarette down your back, you would sit there and perhaps hum a song. You get arrested, a mass arrest, and you start singing.”

 Actor, Clarke Peters