Freedom Songs and the Civil Rights Movement

April 25, 2010

The freedom songs, lifted from the African American spirituals songs, helped to inspire and transform ordinary black people and their multiracial allies into a moral and social force, commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. This movement, aided by the freedom songs, changed the structure and character of American society that may never be equaled in importance. Moreover, the freedom songs were a unifying element in the Civil Rights Movement, emphatically reminding people of what they are fighting for, while providing inspiration and hope.

Historical Overview

The spirituals are a part of African American vernacular. As described in the Norton Anthology African American Literature, the black vernacular “refers to the church songs, blues, ballads, sermons, stories, and, in our own era rap songs that are part of the oral, not primarily literate (or written down) tradition of black expression. What distinguishes this body of work is its in-group and, at times, secretive defensive, and aggressive character.”

The spirituals, religious songs sung by African Americans since the earliest days of slavery. However, many have noted that the division between secular and sacred was not as definite as the designation spirituals would suggest. For enslaved African Americans music about God and the Bible was sung during work time, play time, and rest time as well as on Sundays at praise meetings. As historian Lawrence Levine observes, during the period of enslavement, African Americans the “concept of the sacred signified a strong will to incorporate within this world all the elements of the divine.”

That the songs were not just sung in ritual worship but throughout the day meant that they served as powerful shields against the values of the white slaveholders and their killing definitions of black humanity. In addition to reinforcing their self-worth and humanity as children of God, the spirituals offered African Americans much-needed psychic escape from the workaday world of slavery’s restrictions and cruelties. To be sure, “this world is not my home” was a steady theme in the spirituals, one that offered its “singer/hearers visions of a peaceful, loving realm beyond the one in which they labored.” In such a vision of justice and peace resided both a healthful impulse to escape the sorrowful world and an implied criticism of life’s earthly overwork, injustice, and violence.

Most of the spiritual were not about easeful King Jesus at all, however, but about the Old Testament God and His heroes and prophets. Moses, Job, Daniel, Samson, and Ezekiel are celebrated in scores of spirituals along with the Chosen People protected by their furiously watchful God. According to the poet and critic Sterling A. Brown, “Fairly easy allegories identified Egypt-land with the South, Pharaoh with the masters, and the Israelites with themselves and Moses with their leader.”  Not surprisingly, some of the songs offered not just psychic escapes and veiled criticisms but a call for this-worldly attentiveness and direct action, i.e., Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel/ Any why not every man?

Civil Rights Movement

The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of the black spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement. The historian/activist/singer Bernice Johnson Reagon recalls the way in which singing evolved as an important tool during the Civil Rights Movement:

Most of the singing of the civil rights movement was congregational; it was sung unrehearsed in the tradition of the Afro-American folk church . . . The core song repertoire was formed from the reservoir of Afro-American traditional song performed in the older style of singing. This music base was expanded to include most of the popular Afro-American music forms and singing techniques of the period. From this reservoir, activist song leaders made a new music for a changed time. Lyrics were transformed, traditional melodies were adapted and procedures associated with old forms were blended with new forms to create freedom songs capable of expressing the force and intent of the movement.

The singing of freedom songs were prompted by the situation and circumstance in which the freedom fights found themselves. As indicated below, they freedom fighters would Sometimes, when jailed they would sing to let the jailer know that jail would not break their spirit so they would sing, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me roun’. Or when marching they would break into a spiritual, modifying a word to speak to the situation at hand: “Over my head, I see Jesus in the air was changed to, Over my head, I see freedom in the air.”

From Black Spiritual to Civil Rights Movement Freedom Song: Illustrative Examples

Original Black Spiritual Civil Rights Movement Freedom Song
Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus . . . Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom . . .
Don’t you let nobody turn you roun’ . . . Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me roun’ . . .
Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born. . . . Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. . . .
I shall not, I shall not be moved . . . We shall not, we shall not be moved . . .
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. . . . Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on . . .
Over my head, I see Jesus in the air . . . Over my head, I see freedom in the air . . .
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . . This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . .
Been in the storm so long . . . Been in the storm so long . . .
Oh freedom . . . Oh freedom . . .

Classical Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Out of the many spirituals and freedom songs, the five songs listed below were the most frequently sung by civil rights freedom fighters. These songs articulate the vision movement and unyielding spirit of a people who as Constance Rourke refers to as “emblems for a pioneer people who require resilience as a prime trait.”

We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome was originally called “I Shall Overcome,” but when Pete Seeger learned it from Zilphia Horton and started spreading it around, the “I” became “We.” This song has since been sung during virtually every struggle where people have stood up for their rights, but it was particularly inspirational during the civil rights movement. We Shall Overcome was the most iconic songs of the Civil Rights Movement. This song inspired black men and women to stand firm against a barrage of police dogs and fire hoses. Music Critic Dave Marsh wrote the liner notes to Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions that it is “the most important political protest song of all-time, sung around the world wherever people fight for justice and equality.”

Oh Freedom

Oh Freedom has very deep roots with the African-American community, as it was sung by African American envisioning a time when there would be an end to slavery. Oh Freedom became one of the popular songs of the movement. When Odetta performed Oh Freedom at the 1963 March on Washington, it became a call to all to rise up. “Before I’d be a slave/ I’d be buried in my grave” was a sentiment echoed throughout America.

I Shall Not Be Moved

I Shall Not Be Moved was adapted to anthemic status during the antebellum liberation movement, and again during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Like many of the period’s great freedom songs, it sings of the refusal to bow to the powers that be, and the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

This Little Light of Mine

This Little Light of Mine talks about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. Its refrain sings of the light in each individual and how, whether standing up alone or joining together, each little bit of light can break the darkness. The song has since been applied to many struggles, but was one of the anthems of the civil rights movement at the time.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize was another song strongly associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Originally it was a variation of the song Gospel Plow. This song talks about enduring any struggle for the sake of the ultimate objective: freedom. Moreover, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize carried special meaning to many of those in the Civil Rights Movement. Despite being beaten, jailed, and ridiculed, they stood strong and unwavering, keeping their eyes on the prize of freedom.

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