©2004 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.
Music courtesy of Jocelyn McKissick, Guy Carawan, Moses Moon, ©1997Smithsonian Folkways Records. Images courtesy of Charmian Reading, WVTM, and CBS.
Drawing from the reservoir of traditional African American songs, music provided a constant backdrop to the Civil Rights movement. Some songs were spirituals dating back to the era of slavery, others were songs taken from church traditions, and some were composed for specific events during the movement. Very few relied on accompanying instruments, other than clapping, but the common denominator in all of the music sung during the Civil Rights movement was the theme of freedom.
Freedom songs were often sung as a motivating force during group demonstrations, mass meetings, and church services. Most of the singing was congregational, or communal, begun by a leader who was then joined by others who "grew" the song. Sometimes the leader issued a call, and the group would respond, often rotating leaders for different verses. Harmonies, rolling bass, and dissonance all gave the feeling of surging forward.
Songs like "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome" facilitated unity, lifted spirits, and prepared people for direct action. At mass meetings held to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, African Americans came together in song. As they were loaded into police wagons and crowded into jail cells during the sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s, civil rights demonstrators communicated with one another through music.
Frederick Leonard, who was arrested and jailed for participating in the Freedom Rides of 1961, remembers prison guards telling the black prisoners to stop singing. Guards threatened that if they didn't stop singing, their mattresses would be taken away, leaving a hard, cold floor to sleep on. The black prisoners continued singing, even after the mattresses were removed.