My education about the civil-rights movement didn't come from a textbook; it was communicated in song.
Songs of the civil rights movement were the most effective weapon against injustice. Inwardly, they strengthened the individual's spiritual resolve to the cause; outwardly, the voices multiplied by the tens of thousands demonstrated that they were a force to reckon with. The lyricism in gospel songs was subversive outside the church, carrying coded messages challenging the immorality of Jim Crow laws and aimed to shame the consciousness of those who enforced them: How can one be Christian and demean African-Americans?
The songs were, and are, a collective memory, a way to document the culture and spirit that sustained the movement.
Take Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite hymn, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," which my grandmother taught us to sing.
King's personal love of the song — performed above by Mahalia Jackson — is more folklore than fact, and the mythos around it gained more traction with its inclusion in the Oscar-nominated film Selma. His love the song would make sense - "Precious Lord" is a staple of black Christian gospel music, usually performed by a soloist just before the pastor delivers 'the word' — and "Precious Lord" would have been a spiritual balm, something to soothe the soul in preparation for the spiritual challenge of civil rights work. Sharing the song was an opportunity for older generations to humanize Dr. King, to tell younger ones about his life as well as his words.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, part of the legendary Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers before founding one of the most beloved a cappella groups, Sweet Honey In The Rock, explains the role of songs in the movement in an interview:
“Freedom songs are documents created by a collective voice. Often when we think of masses of people we actually think of inarticulate people and we look for a speaker to let us know what is going on. During this Movement, the masses came singing and the songs they sang are essential documents. If you don't pay attention to the specificity of the songs they chose at a particular time, around a specific situation, you miss an opportunity to hear masses of people speak.”
The thing we forget in some ways is how crucial songs of faith and deliverance serve as fuel and shields to a weary but determined black community, putting their bodies on the line for civil rights.
To sing is to speak.
Music is a consciousness.
To sing is to embody somebodiness.
To sing in unison in a massive demonstration is to articulate the dream and desires of the people.
1. "This Little Light of Mine" - Sweet Honey In The Rock
"This Little Light of Mine," composed by Harry Dixon Loes in 1920, is a song of somebodiness. It is also the first song I learned to sing in church when I was a little girl. (I've heard archival recordings from marches, and I'm struck by how contagious and effervescent it is.) The percussive character of the song awakens every cell in your body, and when you hit the chorus Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it Shine, you can sense the song urging you upward and outward, a joyful rebuke cajoling you onward. (After all, you can't get too tired while marching.)
2. "Dancing in The Street" - Martha and The Vandellas
An unlikely protest jam, Martha and the Vandellas delivered a delicious answer to Motown's aversion to engage with the politics of the day with "Dancing in the Street," released in the sweltering summer of 1964. Some members of the civil rights movement felt that the tenor of traditional church music muted their passion and fire, so they began to embrace pop songs to communicate their frustration with the present, as well as their vision for the future. The musicality of that notion lives in this track. The blaring horns sound like an announcement, a proclamation of a new order:
Callin' out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?
3. "Eyes on the Prize" - Mavis Staples
I can still hear my father sing keep your eyes on the prize/hold on/hold on throughout the house in his earthy baritone on a bland, winter afternoon. It is 1990 and PBS is running a documentary series of the same name - he hasn't stopped singing for days. "Eyes on the Prize" has a history all its own - it is derived from three different songs - each singer selects a version and infuses life into the song, creating a new song with each rendition. When I inform my grandmother of my father’s curious habit, she and other members of our tiny church congregation break out in song at the beat drop: Paul and Silas bound in jail… I feel let in on a secret, the collective memory of a moment I wasn't around to witness. Let me paint a crude picture for you to understand how the alto and baritone voices of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" envelop you: the constant refrain hold on vibrates from your chest and surrounds your body. Imagine standing over a dungeon beneath your feet, soul bound to a chain, and as that vibration picks up, the chain shatters. This song feels like that; like a freedom call.
4. "Freedom" - Richie Havens
This is my favorite and only version of this song — there is no other — but I was born too late to see it in 1969. Richie Havens opened the historic 1969 Woodstock concert with this electric performance, appealing to freedom in an agonizing, raspy tone as if his whole life depended on it —as if all of our lives depended on him showing up and playing the hell out of it.
5. "Mississippi Goddamn" - Nina Simone
Nina Simone composed "Mississippi Goddamn" after learning of the death of four black girls killed in September 1963 after their church was bombed by a white supremacist. Simone, in a recorded interview from her album, Protest Anthology, says that the song “did more for me to get me out of myself more than any other song I had ever sung." Her phrasing is different from previous recordings I’ve heard of the song: It's playful, and stands in stark contrast to her lyrics and interaction with the audience. This song is the musical complement to King's 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," communicating the impatience with good people of conscience to confront their apathy and get on board.
6. "People Get Ready" - The Impressions
It's a family reunion in the middle of an ordinary summer and my aunts and uncles gather around the barbeque to reminisce about a yesterday I’ve only seen in Polaroids. They talk about boys on corners performing five part harmonies, hoping to capture the smooth melody of Curtis Mayfield's early songwriting feat, “People Get Ready”, which debuted in 1966 and effortlessly captures musicians and performers' growing commitment to social justice.
7. "Someday We’ll All Be Free" - Donny Hathaway (but also really the Aretha Franklin cover because good god almighty)
The horns pull me in every time, and by the time Hathaway sinks low on the verse Never mind your fears, I'm swooning. The song, released in 1973, is meant to uplift, a salve for a weary soul, and it tapped into the conscious longing of the black community for equality. And then there’s Franklin’s cover, recorded in 1992 for the soundtrack to Spike Lee's epic film Malcolm X. In that version, the Queen of Soul, accompanied by an orchestra and a gospel choir, transforms the song into a spiritual, a redemption song, a freedom song. She takes us to church.
Syreeta McFadden is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. She is a columnist for Feministing, contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station.