Civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s essay
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Civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s essay
Freedom’s Story is made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation.
The Civil Rights Movement:
Kenneth R. Janken
Professor, Department of African and Afro-American Studies and
Director of Experiential Education, Office of Undergraduate Curricula
University of North Carolina
National Humanities Center Fellow
©National Humanities Center
When most Americans think of the Civil Rights Movement, they have in mind a span of time beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated education, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott and culminated in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The movement encompassed both ad hoc local groups and established organizations like the
Much of our memory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is embodied in dramatic photographs, newsreels, and recorded speeches, which America encountered in daily papers and the nightly news. As the movement rolled across the nation, Americans absorbed images of hopeful, disciplined, and dedicated young people shaping their destinies. They were met with hostility,
The drama of the mid-twentieth century emerged on a foundation of earlier struggles. Two are particularly notable: the NAACP’s campaign against lynching, and the NAACP’s legal campaign against segregated education, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision.
The NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s combined widespread publicity about the causes and costs of lynching, a successful drive to defeat Supreme Court nominee John J. Parker for his white supremacist and anti-union views and then defeat senators who voted for confirmation, and a skillful effort to lobby Congress and the Roosevelt administration to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Southern senators filibustered, but they could not prevent the formation of a national consensus against lynching; by 1938 the number of lynchings declined steeply. Other organizations, such as the left-wing National Negro Congress, fought lynching, too, but the NAACP emerged from the campaign as the most influential civil rights organization in national politics and maintained that position through the mid-1950s.
Houston was unabashed: lawyers were either social engineers or they were parasites. He desired equal access to education, but he also was concerned with the type of society blacks were trying to integrate. He was among those who surveyed American society and saw racial inequality And the ruling powers that promoted racism to divide black workers from white workers. Because he believed that racial violence in Depression-era America was so pervasive as to make mass direct action untenable, he emphasized the redress of grievances through the courts.
The designers of the Brown strategy developed a potent combination of gradualism in legal matters and advocacy of far-reaching change in other political arenas. Through the 1930s and much of the 1940s, the NAACP initiated suits that dismantled aspects of the edifice of segregated education, each building on the precedent of the previous one. Not until the late 1940s did the NAACP believe it politically feasible to challenge directly the constitutionality of “separate but equal” education itself. Concurrently, civil rights organizations backed efforts to radically alter the balance of power between employers and workers in the United States. They paid special attention to forming an alliance with organized labor, whose history of racial exclusion angered blacks. In the 1930s, the National Negro Congress brought blacks into the newly formed United Steel Workers, and the union paid attention to the particular demands of African Americans. The NAACP assisted the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest black labor organization of its day. In the 1940s, the United Auto Workers, with NAACP encouragement, made overtures to black workers. The NAACP’s successful fight against the Democratic white primary in the South was more than a bid for inclusion; it was a stiff challenge to what was in fact a regional one-party dictatorship. Recognizing the interdependence of domestic and foreign affairs, the NAACP’s program in the 1920s and 1930s promoted solidarity with Haitians who were trying to end the American military occupation and with colonized blacks elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. African Americans’ support for WWII and the battle against the Master Race ideology abroad was matched by equal determination to eradicate it in America, too. In the post-war years blacks supported the decolonization of Africa and Asia.
The Cold War and McCarthyism put a hold on such expansive conceptions of civil/human rights. Critics of our domestic and foreign policies who exceeded narrowly defined boundaries were labeled un-American and thus sequestered from Americans’ consciousness. In a supreme irony, the Supreme Court rendered the Brown decision and then the government suppressed the very critique of American society that animated many of Brown’s architects.
White southern resistance to Brown was formidable and the slow pace of change stimulated impatience especially among younger African Americans as the 1960s began. They concluded that they could not wait for change—they had to make it. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted the entire year of 1956, had demonstrated that mass direct action could indeed work. The four college students from Greensboro who sat at the Woolworth lunch counter set off a decade of activity and organizing that would kill Jim Crow.
Elimination of segregation in public accommodations and the removal of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs was no mean feat. Yet from the very first sit-in, Ella Baker, the grassroots leader whose activism dated from the 1930s and who was advisor to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pointed out that the struggle was “concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” Far more was at stake for these activists than changing the hearts of whites. When the sit-ins swept Atlanta in 1960, protesters’ demands included jobs, health care, reform of the police and criminal justice system, education, and the vote. (See: “An Appeal for Human Rights.”) Demonstrations in Birmingham in 1963 under the leadership of Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was affiliated with the SCLC, demanded not only an end to segregation in downtown stores but also jobs for African Americans in those businesses and municipal government. The 1963 March on Washington, most often remembered as the event at which Dr. King proclaimed his dream, was a demonstration for “Jobs and Justice.”
Movement activists from SNCC and CORE asked sharp questions about the exclusive nature of American democracy and advocated solutions to the disfranchisement and violation of the human rights of African Americans, including Dr. King’s nonviolent populism, Robert Williams’ “armed self-reliance,” and Malcolm X’s incisive critiques of worldwide white supremacy, among others. (See: Dr. King, “Where Do We Go from Here?”; Robert F. Williams, “Negroes with Guns”; and Malcolm X, “Not just an American problem, but a world problem.”) What they proposed was breathtakingly radical, especially in light of today’s political discourse and the simplistic ways it prefers to remember the freedom struggle. King called for a guaranteed annual income, redistribution of the national wealth to meet human needs, and an end to a war to colonize the Vietnamese. Malcolm X proposed to internationalize the black American freedom struggle and to link it with liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thus the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was not concerned exclusively with interracial cooperation or segregation and discrimination as a character issue. Rather, as in earlier decades, the prize was a redefinition of American society and a redistribution of social and economic power.
Guiding Student Discussion
Students discussing the Civil Rights Movement will often direct their attention to individuals’ motives. For example, they will question whether President Kennedy sincerely believed in racial equality when he supported civil rights or only did so out of political expediency. Or they may ask how whites could be so cruel as to attack peaceful and dignified demonstrators. They may also express awe at Martin Luther King’s forbearance and calls for integration while showing discomfort with Black Power’s separatism and proclamations of self-defense. But a focus on the character and moral fiber of leading individuals overlooks the movement’s attempts to change the ways in which political, social, and economic power are exercised. Leading productive discussions that consider broader issues will likely have to involve debunking some conventional wisdom about the Civil Rights Movement. Guiding students to discuss the extent to which nonviolence and racial integration were considered within the movement to be hallowed goals can lead them to greater insights.
Nonviolence and passive resistance were prominent Tactics of protesters and organizations. (See: SNCC Statement of Purpose and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.) But they were not the only ones, and the number of protesters who were Ideologically committed to them was relatively small. Although the name of one of the important civil rights organizations was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, its members soon concluded that advocating nonviolence as a principle was irrelevant to most African Americans they were trying to reach. Movement participants in Mississippi, for example, did not decide beforehand to engage in violence, but self-defense was simply considered common sense. If some SNCC members in Mississippi were convinced pacifists in the face of escalating violence, they nevertheless enjoyed the protection of local people who shared their goals but were not yet ready to beat their swords into ploughshares.
Armed self-defense had been an essential component of the black freedom struggle, and it was not confined to the fringe. Returning soldiers fought back against white mobs during the Red Summer of 1919. In 1946, World War Two veterans likewise protected black communities in places like Columbia, Tennessee, the site of a bloody race riot. Their self-defense undoubtedly brought national attention to the oppressive conditions of African Americans; the NAACP’s nationwide campaign prompted President Truman to appoint a civil rights commission that produced To Secure These Rights, a landmark report that called for the elimination of segregation. Army veteran Robert F. Williams, who was a proponent of what he called “armed self-reliance,” headed a thriving branch of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, in the early 1950s. The poet Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” dramatically captures the spirit of self-defense and violence.
Often, deciding whether violence is “good” or “bad,” necessary or ill-conceived depends on one’s perspective and which point of view runs through history books. Students should be encouraged to consider why activists may have considered violence a necessary part of their work and what role it played in their overall programs. Are violence and nonviolence necessarily antithetical, or can they be complementary? For example the Black Panther Party may be best remembered by images of members clad in leather and carrying rifles, but they also challenged widespread police brutality, advocated reform of the criminal justice system, and established community survival programs, including medical clinics, schools, and their signature breakfast program. One question that can lead to an extended discussion is to ask students what the difference is between people who rioted in the 1960s and advocated violence and the participants in the Boston Tea Party at the outset of the American Revolution. Both groups wanted out from oppression, both saw that violence could be efficacious, and both were excoriated by the rulers of their day. Teachers and students can then explore reasons why those Boston hooligans are celebrated in American history and whether the same standards should be applied to those who used arms in the 1960s.
An important goal of the Civil Rights Movement was the elimination of segregation. But if students, who are now a generation or more removed from Jim Crow, are asked to define segregation, they are likely to point out examples of individual racial separation such as blacks and whites eating at different cafeteria tables and the existence of black and white houses of worship. Like most of our political leaders and public opinion, they place King’s injunction to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin exclusively in the context of personal relationships and interactions. Yet segregation was a social, political, and economic system that placed African Americans in an inferior position, disfranchised them, and was enforced by custom, law, and official and vigilante violence.
The discussion of segregation should be expanded beyond expressions of personal preferences. One way to do this is to distinguish between black and white students hanging out in different parts of a school and a law mandating racially separate schools, or between black and white students eating separately and a laws or customs excluding African Americans from restaurants and other public facilities. Put another way, the civil rights movement was not fought merely to ensure that students of different backgrounds could become acquainted with each other. The goal of an integrated and multicultural America is not achieved simply by proximity. Schools, the economy, and other social institutions needed to be reformed to meet the needs for all. This was the larger and widely understood meaning of the goal of ending Jim Crow, and it is argued forcefully by James Farmer in “Integration or Desegregation.”
A guided discussion should point out that many of the approaches to ending segregation did not embrace integration or assimilation, and students should become aware of the appeal of separatism. W. E. B. Du Bois believed in what is today called multiculturalism. But by the mid-1930s he concluded that the Great Depression, virulent racism, and the unreliability of white progressive reformers who had previously expressed sympathy for civil rights rendered an integrated America a distant dream. In an important article, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Du Bois argued for the strengthening of black pride and the fortification of separate black schools and other important institutions. Black communities across the country were in severe distress; it was counterproductive, he argued, to sacrifice black schoolchildren at the altar of integration and to get them into previously all-white schools, where they would be shunned and worse. It was far better to invest in strengthening black-controlled education to meet black communities’ needs. If, in the future, integration became a possibility, African Americans would be positioned to enter that new arrangement on equal terms. Du Bois’ argument found echoes in the 1960s writing of Stokely Carmichael (“Toward Black Liberation”) and Malcolm X (“The Ballot or the Bullet”).
Any brief discussion of historical literature on the Civil Rights Movement is bound to be incomplete. The books offered—a biography, a study of the black freedom struggle in Memphis, a brief study of the Brown decision, and a debate over the unfolding of the movement—were selected for their accessibility variety, and usefulness to teaching, as well as the soundness of their scholarship.
Walter White: Mr. NAACP, by Kenneth Robert Janken, is a biography of one of the most well known civil rights figure of the first half of the twentieth century. White made a name for himself as the NAACP’s risk-taking investigator of lynchings, riots, and other racial violence in the years after World War I. He was a formidable persuader and was influential in the halls of power, counting Eleanor Roosevelt, senators, representatives, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, union leaders, Hollywood moguls, and diplomats among his circle of friends. His style of work depended upon rallying enlightened elites, and he favored a placing effort into developing a civil rights bureaucracy over local and mass-oriented organizations. Walter White was an expert in the practice of “brokerage politics”: During decades when the majority of African Americans were legally disfranchised, White led the organization that gave them an effective voice, representing them and interpreting their demands and desires (as he understood them) to those in power. Two examples of this were highlighted in the first part of this essay: the anti-lynching crusade, and the lobbying of President Truman, which resulted in To Secure These Rights. A third example is his essential role in producing Marian Anderson’s iconic 1939 Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which drew the avid support of President Roosevelt and members of his administration, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. His style of leadership was, before the emergence of direct mass action in the years after White’s death in 1955, the dominant one in the Civil Rights Movement.
There are many excellent books that study the development of the Civil Rights Movement in one locality or state. An excellent addition to the collection of local studies is Battling the Plantation Mentality, by Laurie B. Green, which focuses on Memphis and the surrounding rural areas of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi between the late 1930s and 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated there. Like the best of the local studies, this book presents an expanded definition of civil rights that encompasses not only desegregation of public facilities and the attainment of legal rights but also economic and political equality. Central to this were efforts by African Americans to define themselves and shake off the cultural impositions and mores of Jim Crow. During WWII, unionized black men went on strike in the defense industry to upgrade their job classifications. Part of their grievances revolved around wages and working conditions, but black workers took issue, too, with employers’ and the government’s reasoning that only low status jobs were open to blacks because they were less intelligent and capable. In 1955, six black female employees at a white-owned restaurant objected to the owner’s new method of attracting customers as degrading and redolent of the plantation: placing one of them outside dressed as a mammy doll to ring a dinner bell. When the workers tried to walk off the job, the owner had them arrested, which gave rise to local protest. In 1960, black Memphis activists helped support black sharecroppers in surrounding counties who were evicted from their homes when they initiated voter registration drives. The 1968 sanitation workers strike mushroomed into a mass community protest both because of wage issues And the strikers’ determination to break the perception of their being dependent, epitomized in their slogan “I Am a Man.” This book also shows that not everyone was able to cast off the plantation mentality, as black workers and energetic students at LeMoyne College confronted established black leaders whose positions and status depended on white elites’ sufferance.
Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Waldo E. Martin, Jr., contains an insightful 40-page essay that places both the NAACP’s legal strategy and 1954 Brown decision in multiple contexts, including alternate approaches to incorporating African American citizens into the American nation, and the impact of World War II and the Cold War on the road to Brown. The accompanying documents affirm the longstanding black freedom struggle, including demands for integrated schools in Boston in 1849, continuing with protests against the separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, and important items from the NAACP’s cases leading up to Brown. The documents are prefaced by detailed head notes and provocative discussion questions.
Debating the Civil Rights Movement, by Steven F. Lawson and Charles Payne, is likewise focused on instruction and discussion. This essay has largely focused on the development of the Civil Rights Movement from the standpoint of African American resistance to segregation and the formation organizations to fight for racial, economic, social, and political equality. One area it does not explore is how the federal government helped to shape the movement. Steven Lawson traces the federal response to African Americans’ demands for civil rights and concludes that it was legislation, judicial decisions, and executive actions between 1945 and 1968 that was most responsible for the nation’s advance toward racial equality. Charles Payne vigorously disagrees, focusing instead on the protracted grassroots organizing as the motive force for whatever incomplete change occurred during those years. Each essay runs about forty pages, followed by smart selections of documents that support their cases.
Kenneth R. Janken is Professor of African and Afro-American Studies and Director of Experiential Education, Office of Undergraduate Curricula at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP and Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual. He was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 2000-01.
Address comments or questions to Professor Janken through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”
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Janken, Kenneth R. “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide
Period 8: 1945-1980
“People Get Ready”: Music and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
Few sights or sounds conjure up the passion and purposefulness of the Southern Civil Rights Movement as powerfully as the freedom songs that provided a stirring musical accompaniment to the campaign for racial justice and equality in the region during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whether sung at mass meetings, on marches and sit-ins, or en route to some of the Jim Crow South’s most forbidding jails, or whether performed on stage or record by one of the musical ensembles formed by civil rights activists, these songs conveyed the moral urgency of the freedom struggle, while expressing and helping to sustain the courage of the extraordinary ordinary people who were at the heart of it. This essay suggests just a few of the musical forms that might profitably be used by teachers and students to explore the history of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and the revolution in mass black consciousness upon which it was based.
Perhaps the most celebrated of all the freedom songs is “We Shall Overcome.” The complex process by which this song was adopted as a kind of unofficial anthem for the movement reveals much about the improvisational and hybrid nature not just of African American musical culture, but also of the movement itself. The movement was endlessly creative and adaptive. For all of its spiritual energy, moral and constitutional authority, and valiant attempts at coherent strategic planning, it was ultimately much less concerned with dogmatic notions of ideological or tactical correctness than with trying to get the job of destroying segregation and disenfranchisement done. Historically, black music displayed many of the same priorities. To be sure, African American music has always favored certain musical techniques and devices (a preference for syncopated and danceable rhythms, for example). Nevertheless, the most influential and popular black musicians have rarely been so preoccupied with dubious notions of musical authenticity or purity to overlook a good tune, an effective arrangement, or a telling lyric, no matter what their provenance. Much like the movement, black music was creative, adaptive, and eclectic: It pressed into service any number of techniques and devices that might help to generate a potent and moving piece of “black” music.
“We Shall Overcome” offers a good illustration of this kind of cultural hybridism. The story of the song appears to begin with a nineteenth-century hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday.” In the interwar years, this hymn was recast as “We Shall Overcome” by Southern African American tobacco workers, who performed it for Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School—an important biracial training ground for activists interested in labor organizing and progressive democratic reform in the South. Horton, in turn, introduced the song to white folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger, who added various lines (“black and white together”) to create the version that Highlander’s musical director, Guy Carawan, promoted as a universal call for social justice and human rights in the late 1950s.
Around this time, other individuals also put their stamp on the song. For example, when Tennessee state police tried to forcibly close down Highlander in the summer of 1959, black high school student Mary Ethel Dozier added the verse, “We are not afraid.” Her contribution was a classic example of how freedom songs were often created, or recreated, in the very teeth of the ongoing struggle.
Until this point, despite various palpable “black” influences on the song’s development, “We Shall Overcome” was generally performed in a manner close to the Southern white folk tradition, with remnants of hymnody. That all changed during the civil rights campaign in Albany, Georgia in 1961 and 1962. In Albany, young black activists, led by Bernice Johnson Reagon and associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), took the basic structure of the song, syncopated the rhythms, and slowed the tempo down. This opened it up to spontaneous vocal punctuations from the singer-protestors, who gathered to sing it at mass meetings and at their demonstrations. In the process, Reagon and her colleagues redefined “We Shall Overcome” with call-and-response vocal patterns and improvisational possibilities derived from the black gospel-music tradition. It is this version of the song, endlessly refined to meet the demands of particular occasions in particular locales, that remains so evocative of the Civil Rights Movement’s early Southern efforts.
In terms of its stated goal of integrating public accommodations, the Albany campaign was something of a failure. Yet, in giving birth to the SNCC Freedom Singers, it could boast an important success. These singers, like their counterparts, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Singers, helped to spread the word of the movement far beyond the South through concert tours and recordings that included traditional black spirituals and folk songs as well as newly created freedom songs. We “called ourselves a singing newspaper,” Bernice Johnson Reagon recalled. SNCC’s communications director, Julian Bond, described the singers as the organization’s “public face.” In addition to raising useful cash for the perpetually impoverished SNCC, the Freedom Singers, according to Bond, reached out across racial and regional divides to show “an audience of our peers on white college campuses around the country who we are,” and therefore galvanize student support for the movement.
On stage and on record, Cordell Reagon—another of the original SNCC Freedom Singers—would often act as a narrator, explaining how particular songs were created in the midst of particular local struggles. And it is precisely because the freedom songs were frequently improvised to reflect very specific issues, personalities, and events, as well as to convey the broader spirit, motivations, and goals of the movement, that they offer such fascinating, frontline insights into the lived history of the freedom struggle. For example, an outstanding song leader like Betty Mae Fikes reworked existing freedom songs to capture local details of the struggle in Selma, Alabama. In her version of “This Little Light of Mine,” Fikes defiantly told archetypal racist Southern law officers Jim Clark and Al Lingo—the antiheroes of Bloody Sunday in March 1965, when nonviolent marchers were brutally beaten and teargassed by state troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—that she and her colleagues intended to keep the light of freedom burning despite the brutality they faced in pursuit of voting rights. In her rendition of “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” Fikes inserted the name of her own Hudson High School into a list of segregated facilities in need of integration. This kind of customization gave a concrete local context to songs that were staples among activists, young and old, throughout the entire South.
While many classic freedom songs like “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize,” “Oh Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” were drenched in black sacred musical traditions, it is worth reiterating that many songs, like “We Shall Overcome,” were forged in dialogue with, not in isolation from, white hymnal and folk-music influences. At a time when integration and biracial cooperation were touchstones for the movement, this musical miscegenation — also apparent in early rock-and-roll music, which boasted black and white artists and black and white fans, and which drew on both black rhythm-and-blues and white country influences — symbolically reproduced the best hopes of many activists. Moreover, as befitted songs created largely by young African Americans who spent much of what little leisure time they had listening and dancing to the latest jazz, R&B, and soul hits, many freedom songs bore the imprint of the most popular black commercial music of the day. “Get Your Rights, Jack,” for example, cheerfully ripped off Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack,” while “Sit-In Showdown: The A&P Song,” created by Spellman University student Brenda Gibson, recreated the sounds of Charles’s “What D’I Say?” to commemorate the sit-in protests against the A&P store in Atlanta. Thanks to Cordell Reagon, Little Willie John’s “You Better Leave My Kitten Alone” could be heard throughout the southern Civil Rights Movement as “You Better Leave My Desegregation Alone.”
The freedom songs sung by activists on the frontlines of the civil rights struggle rightly hold an iconic place in any musical history of the Southern movement. Nevertheless, the other forms of popular music with which the freedom songs often intersected—blues, gospel, folk, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and soul—also offer useful insights into the entwined histories of the freedom struggle, black racial consciousness, and race relations. Indeed, it is important to recognize that African Americans were not the only ones singing about the movement in the 1950s and early 1960s. Any comprehensive soundtrack to the era’s racial protests might also include songs by white folk artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Ian, and Phil Ochs, all of whom sang of the indignities of segregation and the shame of the racism that mocked America’s best democratic ideals, while saluting efforts to redress racial inequalities. Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” for example, was a searing indictment of the state-sanctioned bigotry and indifference that produced the murderous rioting at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith desegregated the institution under armed guard in 1962. Folkies like Dylan produced earnest and often inspirational songs that helped to create a groundswell of public support for civil rights protests and reform, especially among young white college students.
Folk songs and freedom songs tended to be fairly open in their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. In considering what music was most intimately connected to, or evocative of, the civil rights era, it is tempting to focus purely on the lyrics of particular songs. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the changing sounds of black music during this period embodied the revitalized sense of black pride and raised racial consciousness upon which any organized struggle for racial justice built. For example, the soul music pioneered by artists such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and the Impressions in the late 1950s, and refined by the stars of Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis, among many others, in the 1960s, fused rhythm and blues, pop, and in the case of Southern soul, country music with the protean gospel influences that marked the style—irrespective of its lyrical content—as unmistakably and proudly African American. Put another way, James Brown’s funky poly-rhythms and uninhibited vocals in apparently apolitical dance songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” sang volumes about black pride, cultural creativity, and heritage long before he recorded the more lyrically explicit anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968.
Similarly, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s instrumental “Alabama,” inspired by the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham in September 1963, expressed a depth of grief and rage that no lyric could possibly intensify. The whole of the avant-garde or free jazz movement that claimed Coltrane, along with other prodigiously gifted musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Pharoah Sanders, as major influences was predicated on a self-conscious rejection of Western—interpreted as white—notions of musical correctness. Many of these musicians hoped to escape what they saw as the tyranny of white cultural expectations and standards by substituting a black aesthetic, which would give precedence to a different, uniquely African American standard of musical excellence. As such, their musical experimentation represented a more radical expression of the kind of discontent with the racial status quo that inspired the civil rights struggle, coupled with a determination to secure respect for distinctively African American values that would become a hallmark of the Black Power era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The accomplishments of these musicians help to illustrate the important point that the political and social significance of all black music, be it jazz, soul, or the freedom songs, was often encoded in its rhythms, timbres, harmonies, and melodies.
Yet another way in which black music evoked civil rights themes was through lyrics that, in comparison to lyrics in freedom songs and to some folk music, were less explicit about the struggle itself. In fact, lyrics about the civil rights struggle were relatively rare in commercially successful rhythm-and-blues and soul music until the second half of the 1960s. Before that, there was a good deal of innuendo.
One example of this kind of veiled commentary was Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land.” In this song, Berry offered a partial allegory of the 1961 freedom rides organized by CORE and continued by SNCC to protest the continued segregation of interstate transportation in the South. In “The Promised Land”—which is chock-full of souped-up, quasi-biblical imagery relating to the Exodus story, that most potent of all tales of escape to a better place—Berry’s hero follows much the same route through the South as the freedom riders, though he sensibly bypasses Rock Hill in South Carolina, which is where the riders first encountered militant white resistance to their integrated bus journey. In one verse, Berry invokes the worst violence experienced by the actual freedom riders, which occurred in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery, describing a journey that “had most trouble, / it turned into a struggle, / half-way across Alabam’.”
While Berry chooses to nod in the direction of the movement through allegory and allusion, many of Curtis Mayfield’s hit songs for his group, the Impressions, explicitly praise the black community’s dogged determination to “Keep On Pushing” for their rights. In the exquisite soul-spiritual, “People Get Ready” (another of the many rhythm-and-blues and soul songs that celebrated the freedom to travel or chronicled escape from some kind of oppressive situation), Mayfield urged his listeners to “get on board” the righteous struggle for racial justice. In “A Change is Gonna Come”—a self-penned song initially recorded for a benefit album to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—Sam Cooke used his remarkably supple voice and gospel sensibilities to protest racism and encourage faith in the possibilities for a more egalitarian world.
Nina Simone, a versatile musical genius who defied easy stylistic categorization by straddling jazz, blues, pop, classical, and gospel styles, recorded a succession of songs—perhaps most famously, the rollicking, darkly humorous “Mississippi Goddamn”—that excoriated the Jim-Crow South and celebrated the strength of the black community as it struggled against discrimination. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, literally dozens upon dozens of rhythm-and-blues and soul songs like these spoke to the growth of black pride, the distinctiveness of the African American experience, and the beauties of black culture, as well as to the specifics of the civil rights struggle. Together, they provided a witty, poignant, joyous, hummable, and eminently danceable musical soundtrack to an era when the spirit of the movement and the possibilities for a more equalitarian society captured the imagination of most black and many white Americans, even beyond those who were active participants in any formal movement activities.
While the undeniable and hard-won successes of the Civil Rights Movement in ridding the South of statutory segregation and disenfranchisement did not create a society free of racism or racial discrimination in which genuine equality of opportunity could flourish, the movement nevertheless did go hand in hand with the rejuvenated sense of black pride and empowerment encapsulated in a freedom song like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” It was certainly no coincidence that one of the most popular songs of the late 1960s was Aretha Franklin’s recording of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” In her version of the song, the “Queen of Soul” transformed what might have been a less sweeping plea for personal domestic respect into a universal demand for respect for black rights, achievements, and aspirations. Such sentiments had always animated the Civil Rights Movement. They would become even more prominent in the Black Power period, when songs like the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself” and Johnny Taylor’s “I Am Somebody” would capture the spirit of a new era in the struggle for racial justice.
Brian Ward is a professor in American Studies at Northumbria University, UK. His major publications include Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (1998), Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South (2004), and The 1960s: A Documentary Reader (2009). He is currently working on a book about the relationships between the American South and the world of British popular music.