Music played a central role during the civil rights movement in the 20th century. Be it protest songs on racism, injustice, and violence, or songs adapted from hymns, these offered hope and strength to participants and leading activists in their quest for justice and equality.
At the height of the movement in the 1950s and 60s in America, anyone who stood up for the rights of African Americans became a possible target for assassination.
White supremacists were usually behind these assassinations backed by racist authorities and the police. As we celebrate Black History Month, here are some of the songs that made the movement a success:
We Shall Overcome
This song was vibrant for the entire civil rights era and it is still sung by people seeking freedom and justice around the world. It has been called “the most powerful song of the 20th century.”
This Little Light of Mine
It was an anthem of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Seen as a song of personal empowerment, American voting and women’s rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, used it to encourage some members of the black community as they rode on their bus to attempt to register to vote.
We Shall Not Be Moved
It was the song of the labour movement of the early 20th century, signifying liberation and empowerment. The lyrics showed the importance of standing up for one’s rights and not kowtowing to any higher authority.
Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom
It was a theme song for voter registration drives among people in the 1960s.
An adaption of the gospel song “I Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Jesus,” it was introduced by Rev. Osby, a minister from Aurora, Illinois, in 1961 when over 250 Freedom Riders spent 40 days in the Hinds County, Mississippi jail.
Go Tell It On The Mountain
It is originally a Christmas Song for the African American but voting and women’s rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, used it to encourage thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters. At one point, Hamer and a group of African-Americans sang this song as they rode on a bus in their attempt to register to vote.
Lift Every Voice And Sing
Originally written as a poem in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, it was later set to music and by 1919, it was used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official song. Mostly sung in churches and schools, Lift Every Voice And Sing was also the Negro National Anthem.
It was a song of hope for slaves and was inspired by the Igbo tribesmen from Nigeria who chose to be dead than serve as slaves. Sang also by black soldiers during the Civil War, Oh Freedom became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, especially when Joan Baez provided her own rendition.
Eyes On The Prize
In the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which sought to end segregation and unfair treatment of blacks on city buses, this was the music that was sung during meetings to encourage black folks as they boycotted buses to walk on their feet for almost a year. It is said that those meetings attracted a lot of people who came just to hear the music.
We Are Soldiers In The Army
This song was also used to urge the black community on during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was written in 1956 by a gospel legend, Rev James Cleveland.
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
This was a popular song during the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham. It was the main song for the courageous black children who influenced the passing of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964 after skipping classes to protest segregation in downtown Birmingham.