The music of the Civil Rights movement is among the most recognized in American history. Erik Wallenberg examines the specific role it played in the movement's early days.

On the evening of December 5, 1955, the black community in Montgomery Alabama gathered in the Holt Street Baptist Church to take stock of the first day of their bus boycott. Members of the Women’s Political Council and the Montgomery Improvement Association gathered and heard for the first time from one of the city’s new pastors, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King spoke his voice shook with an ethos that would shape the early movement. “The only weapon we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”

However, the people gathered that night had another weapon in their possession -- the music they played and the songs they sang for freedom. Reverend Ralph Abernathy remembers the enthusiasm for the songs that night, explaining that “it took fifteen minutes before the people would sit down and be quiet so we could begin the meeting.” This enthusiasm for singing freedom songs was a crucial factor in organizing many individual struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and for projecting the movement to a national audience.

PictureMany historians place the strength of the Civil Rights movement in its nonviolent character. I argue that music played a unique role in that nonviolent struggle.  It was another factor holding the movement together and shaping it every time a song was sung, especially in its early years. The music’s importance lay in the everyday people who created it, pulling from their culture and history, and using it to create and shape the spaces they occupied and the spaces of their struggles.

What the Music Does
Usually these songs were sung at the openings and closings of meetings, as well as on marches and demonstrations. Music was used for many purposes -- to convey ideas as a speech does, as a signifier for changed circumstances, to give resolve to activists in the face of violence, and importantly as a show of power itself.

One movement participant remembers the effect of the black Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer singing: “When Mrs. Hamer finishes singing a few freedom songs one is aware that he has truly heard a fine political speech, stripped of the usual rhetoric and filled with the anger and determination of the civil rights movement.” This speech-giving through song is important to how ideas are passed on and discussed. These songs of struggle were developing as tools to involve, rather than awe, the listener.

Bernice Johnson Reagon recalls her first moments in the struggle for Black freedom, and they are bound up with music. In the Union Baptist Church in 1961 at Albany State College in Georgia, Reagon had just come in from a march in protest of the arrest of two SNCC members. Their crime was integrating an interstate bus in protest, even as national legislation outlawed segregation on these buses. Upon entering the church after her first march for freedom, the pastor asked Reagon to sing something for the people. She recalls the words flowing out of her, changing existing lyrics to ones that she though fit the moment more clearly:

"Over my head I see freedom in the air
Over my head I see freedom in the air
Over my head I see freedom in the air
There must be a God somewhere"

This came from the original spiritual that everyone present would have been familiar with:

"Over my head I see trouble in the air"

This change from “trouble” to “freedom” indicates a shift in power that is captured in a song sung by and repeated by all. They had just marched in the face of white racism, fearing returning to campus, but knowing the ground below them was shifting. This was a taste of freedom, not trouble. Reagon recalls, “It was the first time my living had changed a story even as it came out of my body. Freedom!” This kind of transformation through action but shared and absorbed by all through song, is one way music shaped the movement. It gave it a voice and a power in telling that ordinary speeches could not always capture.

Reagon describes her early days in the movement by writing, “All of the established academic categories in which I had been educated regarding culture fell apart during this period, revealing culture to be not luxury, not leisure, not entertainment, but the lifeblood of the community. My culture, my traditions came alive for me as they shaped the context of the Civil Rights movement.” This moves us from telling stories to making an argument on the spot, to making a speech through song, and to gathering people behind a message.

Perhaps even more telling of what music can do is the resolve activists can gain from singing together. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.’ It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, help us march together.” Here we see that music can give a group of activists courage and a sense of togetherness to move forward into action. Music can take people from the realm of ideas into the realm of action.

Transforming Space

In this realm of action, those resisting are able to transform spaces of oppression into spaces of resistance. Movement singing was largely based on congregational singing, which is not rehearsed but learned in the moment, and is flexible and can respond instantly to the needs of an assembled group. A song-leader raises a song, receives a response from the congregation, and, in turn, the song leader responds. Slave communities would sing to announce their existence, a radical idea when black people were not supposed to be noticed or acknowledged at all. Singing in this case gave a voice to those who had been shut out of society. This communal singing is a way to “reclaim the air, the space around you,” and “announc(e) that we are here and to take back the air” argues Reagon.

This claiming of space is important when people have no space that is safe from the power and repression of the state. When police enter a mass meeting of Black Civil Rights activists, the people start singing in order to “take back the air.” This process is one of the most important ways that civil rights activists stuck together to build resistance to a white power structure and to win a seemingly impossible victory.

“Songs as an expression of power and communal unity emerged as early as the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott” argues Reagon. The music was an expression of togetherness, a force connecting people that allowed them to decide what would come next. It was a force in opposition to violence, oppression, and repression. Music gave black activists the strength and courage to face the power of the state and the potential harm that might follow. During the 1955 bus boycott, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was invited to speak at one of the rallies held to support the community and bring them all together in the evenings. While the church was surrounded by the Ku Klux Klan and the local police, Jackson sang “I’ve Heard of a City Called Heaven” and “Move On Up a Little Higher.” Singing gospel songs appropriate for a church, but with another meaning for freedom in the immediate moment, was common practice for the Civil Rights Movement, and it connects this history to that of the era of slavery.

The dual nature of movement songs worked in the same way that the dual nature of slave songs did. There was no question for those gathered in the church, making a stand against racism in Montgomery, that a “City Called Heaven” was one they were trying to build right then and there. Coretta Scott King has recalled that at the nightly mass meetings held in church “maids, cooks, and janitors, those who had to use the bus, would be there singing and praying for hours before the program started.” People came early to the meetings to feel the power of the songs that helped build that community and that movement.

In much the same way, Reagon recounts a rally in a black church in Dawson, Georgia where, she writes, “I sat in a church and felt the chill that ran through a small gathering of blacks when the sheriff and his deputies walked in. They stood in the door, making sure everyone knew they were there. Then a song began. And the song made sure that the sheriff and his deputies knew we were there. We became visible, our image was enlarged, when the sound of the freedom songs filled all the space in that church.” This filling of space and making a statement to the authorities was an advance over the use of song as communication and building community. Now the black freedom movement was using song as their own nonviolent weapon.

Civil Rights activist Willie Peacock is quoted as saying “When you sing… you can all feel like you are part of one great soul…. When you have that kind of unity and that kind of communication, there is nothing the police can do to stop you.” It sounds like Peacock could have been talking about the same story Guy Carawan recalls from a weekend at Highlander Folk School in 1959. It’s a story that combines the use of music as a tool to build unity, show strength in the face of repression, and create a space that allows people to resist oppression. The adaptability and living and changing quality of song in the Civil Rights struggle was crucial in this affair. Speaking about “We Shall Overcome” Carawan recalled:

"It’s amazing what strength this song has. It’s just unbelievable sometimes how it can bring people together. One night in 1959, a group of about 60 of us had assembled at the Highlander School. If was the end of a workshop, and we were having punch and cake and seeing a movie. The local police and the sheriff bust in… Well, for an hour and a half they forced the people -- some of them students -- to sit in the dark while they went through rooms and searched suitcases and bags. Somebody started to hum 'We Shall Overcome' and someone else took it up. Then from a Negro girl -- a high school student [Mary Ethel Dozier] from Montgomery Alabama -- a new verse came into being. Sitting there in the dark, this girl began to sing, 'We are not afraid, we are not afraid today.'"

The creation of this new verse in the moment is a powerful statement of the multiple uses of freedom songs. This was not a planned protest. People were in their own space; a safe space for them. Yet these activists, and this particular high school student, used a song to stand up for her rights and the community answered and agreed that they would respond to police intimidation. Considering the congregational style of singing, we see that someone raises the tune by humming “We Shall Overcome” and then receives a response from a member of the “congregation” in the form of a new verse addressing the difficult situation the community finds itself in at the moment. The response to the new verse raised was positive, and everyone joins in and agrees to claim the space, to claim the air, and to announce their existence. It became possible to control their meeting hall through the process of song creation.


Craig Werner argues that the story of music, race, and the soul of America is “a story about how individual voices find their truest tone when they commune with others, how we come to terms with our limits, share our insights, (and) band together to try and change the world.” I would add to this, that the freedom songs of the early Civil Rights era draw on the best legacy of organizing for justice and building solidarity in a broad context of the black and white experiences in the struggle for racial, economic, and social justice.

Local people created a space in their struggles using music to gain confidence, power, and a voice. In this process they transformed the space around them; turning churches into spaces to organize; claiming jails as spaces for political speeches; and making armed police and vigilantes back down in realization that they could not control a movement that was showing their unity and power, all through song.

The joy and meaning of protest music is in participation and mobilization. Freedom songs only make sense if they are active, if they create solidarity, if they stop people from being afraid, if they express how a group of people feel, and if they transform spaces of oppression into spaces of resistance.

The social roots of the music of the Civil Rights movement and the culture of group singing has been buried under a pile of commodification and consumption. Group singing is largely absent in social movements today as music has become big business. But the creation of music in communities of activists still has the power to transform spaces of oppression into spaces of resistance. To do this, we will have to look at the history of music’s role in social movements, relearn lost traditions, and create new ones.

This article is based on a presentation given by the author at the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto and first published at

Views: 298

Comment by Kim Ruehl on September 20, 2012 at 4:27am

Thanks for posting this, Erik! Of course I have to add a word in for Zilphia Horton, who always seems to get overlooked in stories like this one. Probably because there's not much information about her out in the world. (I'm writing a book about this.) Anyway, Mrs. Horton was the force behind "We Will Overcome" for a good decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott - it's likely she taught the song to Rosa Parks in the fall of 1955, when Rosa told her fellow workshop attendees at Highlander that she wasn't sure what she could do for integration, but she knew she had to do something. At that point, Zilphia had been breathing fire into a freedom song movement across the south (from the Highlander hill and in her travels around the country) since 1935 - first with labor unions and then in the '40s she became increasingly focused on civil rights. Just wanted to add that part since it's missing. 

But, boy, I got to sit in that Highlander library with a room full of people and Dr. Reagon this fall as she told that story about "freedom in the air" to those attending the school's 80th anniversary. I was almost crying. That woman is a force. Glad she's still around in the world.

Comment by Erik Wallenberg on September 20, 2012 at 6:34am

Kim, thanks for the post. I'm looking forward to the book! I did actually do some minor research on Zilphia Horton's part in this. This is a shortened piece from a longer paper. The longer paper goes back further to when she was still alive. The best stuff I found was from Bernice Johnson Reagon where she charts the origins of "We Shall Overcome" to a Charleston, South Carolina tobacco workers union. Those union members taught the song to Zilphia when they came to Highlander on a retreat, one of the first interracial unions in the country. She of course in turn taught it to many others including Pete Seeger, who changed the words from "We WILL overcome," to "We SHALL overcome." At least that's the story BJR tells. If you haven't yet, check out her dissertation from Howard University, it's a gem!

Comment by Kim Ruehl on September 20, 2012 at 5:38pm
I haven't read her dissertation, but I'll definitely have to! That story is true, but it's only part of the story as far as I know (and of course there are many versions of the story). The song those women brought to Highlander was "I'll Be Alright Someday" and was an old hymn. Zilphia fixated on the verse about overcoming and pulled those women aside. Along with her sister Ermon Faye, they rewrote the song into three verses hinging on the phrase "We Will Overcome." There's some discrepancy over who made it into the triplet rhythm and who added the "shall" but the part about Pete changing the words is most told, for sure. Guy and Frank Hamilton also get some credit for it's evolution. Stuart Stotts wrote a great book about that song... Zilphia's sister Ermon never forgave Pete for the "shall," btw. She felt "will" was a much more powerful word. I could tell you stuff that's way more interesting than that story, for sure, but I'm keeping it for later. Thanks again! I'm always happy to see people talking about freedom songs here. I'd love to read the full article.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.