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Music Inspired Courage During Civil Rights Era

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 07 March 2012
A woman holding a songbook as she and her companions sing (AP Images)

A group headed for the March on Washington sings freedom songs before boarding the bus in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 28, 1963.

Washington — When nonviolent protesters staged sit-ins at segregated drugstore lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960, they sang freedom songs.

When 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, they joined gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in inspirational songs before and after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And when civil rights marchers trudged from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to demand voting rights for African Americans — in the face of extreme hostility and often violence — how did they strengthen their resolve? They sang.

“African-American music is the soundtrack of African-American history. There’s no way you can discuss African-American history without the soundtrack,” said E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University in Washington.

Miller spoke and answered questions during a digital video conference with participants in Asmara, Eritrea, March 6.

Music was a crucial element in the U.S. civil rights movement, as it is for social movements around the world, Miller said. It gives a voice to those who are exploited and oppressed, encourages unity, and gives people strength and hope.

“Behind much of the music of the civil rights movement is the belief that one’s struggle is on the side of truth” and is blessed, said Miller. “This belief gives the singer inner strength and courage.”

EVOLUTION OF THE MUSIC

The civil rights movement largely came from the African-American churches, which provided a place to meet, pray and sing, said Miller. Many civil rights leaders, such as King and Ralph Abernathy, were ministers.

The songs that sustained people initially were Negro spirituals and gospel music — religious songs that talked about salvation, hope, redemption and freedom. Then many of the old songs were given new meaning by changing the lyrics to reflect “social change and social struggle,” Miller said.

Not only religious music, but folk and pop songs were adapted by civil rights activists to spread their message. One example Miller cited was the transformation of “Hit the Road, Jack,” the song popularized by Ray Charles, into “Get Your Rights, Jack.”

The songs weren’t just about freedom, Miller said, but also about “equality, jobs and justice.” He pointed out that many protesters at the March on Washington “had signs that were asking about economic rights.”

Another theme of civil rights songs was resistance, Miller said. The song “We Shall Not Be Moved” is “confrontational, it’s defiant, it upholds a strong belief in nonviolence,” he said.

“Nonviolence is not passive,” he added. The new monument to King in Washington shows him standing with his arms folded in front of his chest. “I think it’s a very powerful image, because it shows the sense of the times,” Miller said. “It’s not a passive position. It is one of occupying space and being defiant.

“When you hear a song like 'We Shall Not Be Moved,' I think it underscores the image of someone like King standing like this.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Many of the civil rights activists of the 1960s were students and other young people who took responsibility for social change, Miller said.

“This is something that is very important to realize in your own lives,” he told his audience in Eritrea. “You’ve got to do some work while you’re young.”

Often it’s the artists who rally people to bring about social change, said Miller, who is a poet and writer. “If you are a musician, a poet, a painter, it is very important for you to see yourself as a leader in your community, a leader in your society. It may be important for you to compose the music, to paint the images so people will see the possibilities of freedom.”

“This is what music, this is what art, this is what poetry can do.”

In 2010, President Obama hosted “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement." Among the performers were The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, all of whom had sung at the March on Washington 47 years earlier.

Close-up of E. Ethelbert Miller (Courtesy of Justin D. Knight/Howard University)

E. Ethelbert Miller in his office at Howard University in Washington