By Winfred Mukami
“The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle.”
Martin Luther King Jr
At the heart of the civil rights movement in the 60’s, many of the greatest artists of this century like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Mavis Staples, composed songs which resonated with the movement’s purpose and the tragedies they had to endure.
These artists used African American folk songs, gospel and spirituals to compose these songs which later became anthems for the movement. The songs comprised of jubilation songs, mourning songs and songs to strengthen them.
When they marched, protested or held rallies against social injustices, Martin Luther King Jr and other great activists would sing along to these songs.
Here are some of the top ten songs used by the movement.
- Oh Freedom –Odetta
This song is widely associated with Odetta; it has its background in the ‘negro spirituals’ of the 1800’s and 1900’s. With lyrics like ‘Oh freedom, come and go with us; i’m on my way” this song helped to voice the purpose of the civil rights movement.
- Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone
This song was an anthem so direct and controversial that it was banned in several US Southern states. Nina Simone who was also a very active figure in the civil rights movement wrote this song after the murder of a civil rights activist by a Klu Klax Klansman member in Mississippi and the bombing of a church in Alabama.
Some of the notable lyrics of the song are: All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me”
- Say it Loud: I’m Black & I’m proud—James Brown
This funky song was about black power. With the infectious chorus “Say it loud, am black and I’m proud”. This song was uplifting to those who participated in the movement. The song called for pride in being black and for equality as well with lyrics like “We are as good as you, we are the same as you, we deserve the same treatment as you”
This song was written in reaction to the bombings of the 16th Street Baptist church in Alabama which led to the demise of four black girls. He incorporated Martin Luther’s funeral speech in the song which helped renew the determination to fight against racism and to continue the civil rights movement.
- Sweet Honey in the Rock — Eyes on the prize
This African American folk song became a favorite during the Civil Rights movement. Some of the lyrics to the song were “The only thing that we did was right, was the day we started to fight, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on”. The lyrics were adapted from an old gospel song “Gospel Pow”. The song encompassed everything African Americans were fighting for during the Civil Rights Movement; equality, freedom and an end to social injustices.
- The Roots—Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Run Me ‘Round
In a time when many protested against segregation of races in public places and discrimination laws, this song was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a song about freedom and the need to keep fighting.
“Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around, I’m gonna keep on a- walkin’ keep on a talkin’, marching down to freedom’s land”
- The Impressions—People Get Ready
This freedom song was written after the Civil Rights march in Washington. It had a hopeful tone that had a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions were inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream” and by the traditional gospel song “This Train is bound for Glory”
“People get ready, there’s a train comin”
- Bob Dylan—Times are Changing
This song became well associated with the Civil Rights movement. It was a song with a purpose which was sung during many protests.
The lyrics included words like “The order is rapidly fading, and the first one now will later be last”
- Sam Cooke—A Change is Gonna Come
This Civil Rights protest song is said to have been inspired by the Selma to Montgomery march which many referred to as ‘Bloody Sunday’ where Alabama state troopers beat down and gassed a number of people who were participating in a peaceful march for their voting rights.
- Pete Seeger—We Shall Overcome
The song was widely accepted as the movement’s unofficial anthem. Pete Seeger helped popularize the song by teaching it at rallies and protests. It was not only a protest song but a song of hope that the movement would overcome what they were fighting for someday.