Music's influence in the Civil Rights Movement

The Freedom Songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle. They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Albany Movement
 Photos by Alyssa Bunting

Photos by Alyssa Bunting

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who radically [at the time] inspired a nation as an activist and triggered the Civil Right Movement with his words and beliefs.

After a week long of events and performances brought to us by Dream Week SA associated with Dr. King's legacy,  the city of San Antonio held it's annual march today that is recognized as one of the biggest in the country. At the end of the march, local and national musicians joined forces to unify different genres and celebrate in the influence music has had on social change in  small concert held in Pittman-Sullivan Park.

During the 1960s and throughout the entire Civil Right revolution, a genre of music emerged called ‘Freedom Songs’ or ‘Civil Right Anthems’ that were inspired by African American spirituals, gospel and folk.  

Music played a pivotal role during this time for many reasons. These songs contained meaning and since music has the ability to communicate unspeakable feelings, embodied many different emotions ranging anywhere from sadness to determination.

Many of those emotions were reflected today, as thousands gathered to march in unity as the same difficulties that were faced during the movement are still present in today's society. Many gathered donning 'Black Lives Matter' in various signs and apparel as new radical activists pay homage to the old over the same conflicts that to this day plague our country.

In an instance that hits close to home, many gathered today to remember and demand justice for Marquise Jones, an unarmed African American young adult who was gunned down by off duty SAPD officer Robert Encina (who was not indicted) in a Chacho's parking lot after a confrontation with the driver of the vehicle in which Jones was in. 


A photo posted by Agosto Garcia Cuellar (@agostocuellar) on

It was stated that Freedom Songs served as a medium for unity and togetherness among the Black community during the movement. They were also used politically to grab national attention and used during protests and demonstrations creating power and connecting the participants. Most importantly, they encouraged psychological strength against harassment and brutality.

In his 1964 book ‘Why We Can’t Wait’, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that music was “the soul of the movement. Activists sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome Black and white together, we shall overcome someday.’”

One song in particular served as the stapled sound of change called "We Shall Over Come." The song was born in the 1940s over labor struggles. 

Wyatt T. Walker, executive director of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said, "One cannot describe the the vitality and emotion this one song evokes across in the Southland. I have heard it sung in great mass meetings with a thousand voices singing as one; I've heard a half dozen sing it softly behind the bars of the Hinds County prison in Mississippi; I've heard old women singing it on the way to work in Albany, Georgia; I've heard the students singing it as they were being dragged away to jail. It generates power that is indescribable." 

In fact, many popular songs in this day and age had emerged as freedom songs, singing the longing for the cause. Examples can include one of Bob Dylan's most notable songs, 'Times Are a Changin'" which Dylan had written in 1964 was about the Civil Rights Movement stating, "the Civil Rights Movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time. "

Another example could be Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" that captures the gruesome essence of lynching caused by hostile racism and the opposition there was to the Civil Rights Movement. 

Aretha Franklin's rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was inspired by events that took place in the 1900s at a segregated school where the principal (James Weldon Johnson) wrote a poem to welcome guest speaker Booker T. Washington which was called “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” What started as a poem ended as a song when Johnson’s brother John Rosamond Johnson set it to music soon after. “Lift Every Voice And Sing” was labeled “The Black National Anthem” in 1919 by the NAACP and served as a liberty cry for abused African Americans everywhere.

Mahalia Jackson aka the "Queen of Gospel" (who actually mentored Aretha Franklin) played an important role to the Civil Right Movement. She had met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a National Baptist Convention and a few months later, he contacted her about singing at a Rally in Montgomery, Alabama to raise money for the bus boycott hoping she would inspire those getting discouraged by the boycott. Later, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Jackson performed "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned", before King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. Jackson said that she hoped her music could "break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country."

Today, we still find ourselves struggling with the issues Dr. King and many other fought against, and today we still find ourselves seeking motivation and inspiration from the music around us. "The Freedom Songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle." Dr. King had stated during the Albany Movement, "They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours."