10 Greatest Songs of the Civil Rights Movement

Updated on April 5, 2018
RonElFran profile image

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965
Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 | Source

In 1950 African Americans were treated, throughout much of the nation, as a despised underclass. They could legally be restricted to working in only the most menial occupations, to living in only the most rundown neighborhoods, and to sending their children to only the most inadequate schools. In the South, an attempt to sit in the front of a bus, or eat a sandwich at a Woolworth lunch counter downtown, would immediately get any black person who tried it thrown in jail.

But in the aftermath of World War 2, a time during which blacks proved themselves just as capable as any other Americans of building tanks and airplanes in war plants, and of effectively using such weapons to defeat the nation’s enemies on the battlefield, African Americans began to reach a consensus that they would no longer allow themselves to be subjected to such unjust and intolerable treatment based on the color of their skin. Across the nation the determination to fight for equal rights grew until its momentum became unstoppable.

The Battle for Civil Rights

But as determined as African Americans were to gain all the rights that had been so unfairly denied them throughout their history in this country, many whites, especially in the South, were just as determined to keep to keep blacks in their subservient "place.” And these antagonists would literally stop at nothing to ensure that black people in America could never gain legal, social, and economic parity with whites. If African Americans wanted their freedom, they would have to fight for it.

And fight for it they did! Their determination to overcome all opposition in the struggle for full equality resulted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, which would eventually revolutionize life in the United States for blacks and whites alike.

The Music of the Movement

From the early days of the civil rights movement, most of the organizing was done through churches. It's no accident that the most influential leaders were preachers such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

The black church provided both an organizing center and, more importantly, a common culture that allowed people from different generations, backgrounds, and parts of the country to come together around a common vision. And a crucial foundation of that shared culture was the music of the church. As Cordell Reagon, a founding member of The Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), put it: "Music was what held the movement together." And Theresa Perry, a professor in the departments of Africana Studies and Education at Simmons College, declared in the book Teaching Malcolm X that the music of the civil rights movement "is some of the most powerful music in the history of humanity."

It is some of the most powerful music in the history of humanity

— Dr. Theresa Perry

The music that had the greatest reach and impact among participants in civil rights activities arose from three major sources, all intimately connected to the black church experience.

Type of Song
Description
Example
Slave songs and spirituals
Songs that arose spontaneously out of the slavery experience
Oh Freedom
Aspirational songs
Songs written specifically to encourage the aspirations of African Americans as a race
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Church songs
Songs used in the worship of the church, but with lyrics changed to reflect a civil rights focus
Go Tell It on the Mountain

What follows is my list of the ten songs (with lyrics) that I believe had the greatest impact on the civil rights movement. Although they are listed from #10 down to #1, they are not really ranked in order of importance (with the exception of #1, which I believe was, and remains, the most significant of all). Each, in its own way, made a critical contribution to the success of the movement.

10. Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poem in 1900. It was recited by 500 school children during that year’s Lincoln’s birthday celebration in Jacksonville, Florida. The poem was set to music in 1905 by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and by 1919 was adopted by the NAACP as its official song. Widely sung in both churches and schools, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was eventually almost universally acclaimed as “the Negro National Anthem.”

In light of that fact, notice how in the following video, the audience spontaneously rises to their feet when the song begins.

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of liberty; Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand, True to our God, true to our native land.

The third verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was recited by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery during the benediction at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

9. Oh Freedom

"Oh Freedom" is thought to have been written around the time the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect on January 1, 1863, and is reported to have been sung by black soldiers during the Civil War. But according to legend, it has an even longer and more poignant history.

The inspiration for the song is said to have been an 1803 incident in which Igbo (or Ibo) tribesmen were captured in Africa and brought to America. When the ship unloaded them at Dunbar Creek on St. Simon's Island in Georgia, they realized that they were about to be sold into slavery. Instead of accepting that fate, they decided that they would rather be dead than live as slaves, and drowned themselves in the creek.

Essential lyrics:

Oh, freedom; Oh, freedom; Oh, freedom over me
And before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

No more weepin'; No more weepin'; No more weepin' over me...

8. Eyes on the Prize

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was, in a very real sense, the starting point of the civil rights movement. From December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956 blacks in Montgomery, Alabama refused to ride public transportation as a protest against segregation and second class treatment on city buses. The boycott was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to get up out of her seat on a bus so that a white man could sit down in her place.

The organizer of the boycott was the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) which, by electing a young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as its president, catapulted him to the forefront of the national struggle for civil rights.

One of the songs sung over and over during mass meetings to help keep the black community encouraged as they walked to work on tired feet for over a year was “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” It was based on the Gospel hymn “Keep Your Hands on the Plow” with the lyrics modified to make it a civil rights anthem.

The importance of such songs to the success of the boycott cannot be overstated. In fact, according to E. D. Nixon who was one of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, “A whole lot of people came to the MIA meetings for no other reason than just to hear the music.”

After 381 days of the black community refusing to ride city buses, Montgomery finally gave in and integrated its bus system.

Essential lyrics:

Paul and Silas bound in jail, Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on

Paul and Silas began to shout, jail door opened and they walked out...
I got my hand on the gospel plow, wouldn't take nothing for my journey now...
The only thing we did wrong, stayed in the wilderness a day too long...
The only thing that we did right, was the day we started to fight...
We met jail and violence too, but God's love will see us through...
Only chain that we can stand, is the chain from hand to hand...

7. We Are Soldiers in the Army

Written in 1956 by a giant of Gospel music, Rev. James Cleveland, "We Are Soldiers In The Army" was another of the songs that were crucial in keeping up spirits during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The words were typically changed to from the original to replace "bloodstained banner" with "freedom banner" and "Gospel plow" with "freedom plow."

Essential lyrics:

We are Soldiers in the army, we've got to fight, although we have to cry
We've got to hold up the bloodstained banner, we've got to hold it up until we die
My mother was a soldier, she had her hand on the Gospel plow
But one day she got old, she couldn't fight anymore
She said "I'll stand here and fight on anyhow"

My father was a soldier...
I'm so glad that I'm a soldier...

6. Go Tell It on the Mountain

"Go Tell It on the Mountain" is an African American Christmas song that celebrates the birth of Jesus. It dates back to at least 1865. But when civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer began the difficult and extremely dangerous work of registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1962, the song quickly became one of her trademarks. In one characteristic incident, when Ms. Hamer and 17 others boarded a bus to go to the county seat in an attempt to register to vote, she kept the group encouraged by leading them in singing this song.

The dangers blacks faced if they tried to register to vote (and none of Ms. Hamer's group succeeded in being registered) is illustrated by the fact that on the way home the bus was stopped and the driver arrested. His crime? The policeman said the bus was the wrong color - it was "too yellow."

Essential lyrics:

Go tell it on the mountain; Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain; To let my people go

Paul and Silas bound in jail... Had nobody for to go their bail...

Paul and Silas began to shout... Jail door opened and they walked out...

Who's that yonder dressed in red?... Must be the children that Moses led...

Who's that yonder dressed in black?... Must be the hypocrites turning back...

I had a little book, he gave to me... And every page spelled victory...

It was normal for the lyrics of civil rights songs to be spontaneously adapted to fit the need of the moment. For example, when Alabama governor George Wallace proclaimed "segregation forever" and literally stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent blacks from attending the University of Alabama, a special verse of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" was sung:

You know I would not be Governor Wallace
I'll tell you the reason why
I'd be afraid my Lord might call me
And I would not be ready to die.

5. This Little Light of Mine

"This Little Light of Mine" is another of the songs Fannie Lou Hamer used to encourage her little group as they rode on their bus to attempt to register to vote.

When their efforts to register were blocked and the group returned home, Ms. Hamer was confronted by the owner of the plantation on which she had lived and worked for eighteen years. He told her to either take her name off the registrar’s book, or get out. Her reply showed Fannie Lou Hamer's determination to let her light shine. She refused to comply with the plantation owner's ultimatum, telling him, "I didn't go register for you sir, I did it for myself.”

Essential lyrics:

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Everywhere I go, Lord...
I've got the light of freedom...
Jesus gave to me, now...
Oh, shine, shine, shine, shine...
All in the jailhouse...

Like "Go Tell It On The Mountain," this song had its own Governor Wallace verse:

Tell Gov. Wallace, I'm going to let it shine...

4. Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom

This song is an adaptation 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 the summer of 1961 when more than 250 Freedom Riders spent 40 days in the Hinds County, Mississippi jail. "Woke Up This Morning" was a favorite that helped keep the group's spirits high, and it soon became a theme song for voter registration drives in the state.

Essential lyrics:

I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, hallelujah

3. Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around

Dr. Martin Luther King called Birmingham, Alabama "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." It was also probably the most hate-filled. Between 1945 and 1962 there were 50 race-related bombings, earning for the city the nickname "Bombingham." Then on a Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, members of the the Ku Klux Klan exploded a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls who were attending Sunday School.

The struggle for civil rights in Birmingham was intense. In the spring of 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized daily marches to protest segregation. When the marches began to falter because so many protesters had been jailed, the SCLC called out the school children. They, in their turn, were arrested by the hundreds. Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city's Commissioner of Public Safety, didn't hesitate to turn fire hoses and police dogs on the children. His tactics backfired, as a worldwide television audience was repulsed by nightly scenes of police viciousness toward children.

As the children gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church and went out to face the hoses and dogs, a favorite song they sang to keep their courage up was "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."

Essential lyrics:

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marchin' up to freedom land

Ain't gonna let no jailhouse turn me around...
Ain't gonna let segregation turn me around...
Ain't gonna let race hatred turn me around...
Ain't gonna let Mississippi turn me around...

2. We Shall Not Be Moved

"We Shall Not Be Moved" is adapted directly from the Gospel song, "I Shall Not Be Moved," with the lyrics reworked to refer to the struggle for freedom rather than the personal holiness the original song emphasized. It came into the civil rights movement by way of a labor organization, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). After black members of the racially integrated union introduced the song, the STFU changed "I" to "We" and adopted it as the union's official song.

In this video, the Freedom Singers perform the song at the 1963 March on Washington.

Essential lyrics:

We shall not we shall not be moved; We shall not we shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's standing by the water; We shall not be moved

1. We Shall Overcome

It's probably no surprise that my pick as the #1 song of the civil rights movement is "We Shall Overcome." It's the song that animated the entire civil rights era, and is still sung by people seeking their freedom around the world. The Library of Congress has called it "the most powerful song of the 20th century."

The melody of "We Shall Overcome" is based on the the slave song, "No More Auction Block for Me." Like "We Shall Not Be Moved," it came into the civil rights movement by way of a labor union. It was picked up by folk singer Pete Seeger and soon spread to union gatherings around the nation. In 1960 black students involved in the sit-in movement started singing it, and it quickly became the theme song of the entire civil rights movement.

Such was the power of this song that it eventually reached the White House itself. When President Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation on television on March 15, 1965 to urge passage of the voting rights act, he included this powerful statement:

It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

In the first video below, Dr. Martin Luther King speaks of the significance of "We Shall Overcome" to the struggle for freedom and dignity.

Essential lyrics:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand some day Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day

We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day

Poll

Which of these songs has had the greatest impact on you?

See results

© 2018 Ronald E Franklin

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    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks so much, Audrey. I'm sure many people will echo your choice of "We Shall Overcome." In these turbulent times, we all still have some overcoming to do.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 2 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      This is a stellar hub, written by a stellar writer. The list of songs tell the story in a direct way. My favorite is "We shall overcome". Your description of the way African Americans were treated in the 50's is deplorable. Governor Wallace was a horrible man. Everyone should read this article and I will do what I can to share it with others.

      Thank you so much!

      Blessings,

      Audrey

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Brian, It's great to hear from a veteran of the movement. Thanks for your service! And thanks for mentioning "They Say That Freedom Is A Constant Struggle." I hadn't heard it before, but I'm listening to it right now.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 2 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      When I was a Freedom School volunteer under SNCC leadership and attended mass meetings in MS, many of these were among my favorite freedom songs. Another favorite was They Say That Freedom Is A Constant Struggle. It still is.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Jo. I hope these songs bring back some good memories. As you say, their message is still very much relevant today.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      I came of age in the South during the 50s and 60s, Ron. Even though I am white, those years shaped my life in many ways. I've always rooted for the the underdog, so I always rooted for the protesters. That placed me at odds with many of my acquaintances. Still does at times.

      Thanks for reminding us of these wonderful, enduring songs.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Heidi. Yes, I think this is a good time to look back on all that was accomplished - and ahead on all that remains to be accomplished. This music is still very relevant today.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      So timely for the anniversary of Dr. King's death. I have a friend who participated in the Selma marches. What a time of trial and transformation. Thanks for sharing this tribute to the movement!

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Dora. If you're only on your second hearing of "Lift Every Voice" you still have a long way to go to catch up with me. I can't tell you how many times I've gone back to listen again to that powerful rendition since I started work on this article. After 118 years, it's just as relevant and inspiring today as when James Weldon Johnson wrote it.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, Peggy. Yes, music has a unique power to reach the heart and motivate people in ways words alone can't do. I think it's notable that even today "We Shall Overcome" remains a rallying cry sung by many people in many different languages around the world.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks much, Eric. The fact is that the civil rights movement could never have achieved what it did without the involvement of thousands of white people who understood that it was their fight, too.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Don, I think one of the most powerful qualities of the music is its ability to bypass the filters of preconceived prejudices and go straight to the heart.

    • RonElFran profile image
      Author

      Ronald E Franklin 2 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Thanks, right one. Regarding whether the music or the spoken word had a greater impact, I think both were such an integral part of the church-based culture that undergirded the movement that they can't be separated. Remove either, and the civil rights movement would never have become what it was.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Ron, I'm playing "Lift Every Voice" for the second time. What inspiration, so beautifully rendered! It will take me the week to get through all these impactful song. Thanks for showcasing these songs.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Songs definitely resonate with people regarding different causes and times. In the 1960s there were also many protest songs regarding the Vietnam War. That was a turbulent time in America. Thanks for showcasing those 10 songs related to the Civil Rights Movement.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Definitely another great work from one of my favorite writers. Believe it or not our real movement in Flagstaff Arizona started at the very end of the '60's. Something I suppose to do with the lack of much prejudice and bias. When they began to bus kids around we thought it was hilarious but a great way to make friends and a boost to whites competitiveness in sports. I think there were more whites than blacks in our peaceful marches down main street as it were.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 2 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I was only aware of the issues in an abstract and academic way. I fear that many of us on all sides hang on to predjudices out of ignorance more than anything else.

    • right1 profile image

      right one 2 months ago from Pale Blue Dot

      Great write-up indeed and the civil right movement deserves reverence.

      Am wondering which had more effect: fiery speeches or songs?

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