News / Arts & Entertainment

Music Played Key Role in US Civil Rights Movement

Aretha Franklin performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Mar. 21, 2008.
Aretha Franklin performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Mar. 21, 2008.
Richard Paul
For all its unity of purpose, there were many divisions in the civil rights movement. One of the most stark divisions played out in the music that urged the movement forward.

 Richard Paul's report on Civil Rights Music
Richard Paul's report on Civil Rights Musici
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

When we think about the civil rights struggle in the United States, a tune called “Freedom Song” comes to mind.  It was the type of music you could expect to hear at the civil rights movement’s mass meetings and protest rallies.  
 
“It was usually based musically in the spiritual tradition," said Suzanne Smith, author of Dancing In The Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. "But the lyrics often reflected the exact situation that the activists were confronting at that moment. If they were arrested at a rally, they would often sing the songs in jail to keep their spirits up.”
 
A song called "Oh Prichett, Oh Kelly" that was written in the Albany, Georgia, jail refers to police chief Pritchett and Mayor Kelly.
 
“Singing together in a group helps to, I think remind people that they are not alone,” Smith said.
 
Most of the original fighters in the civil rights movement were based in the church, so their songs were a lot like church hymns.
 
The tunes were often hymn tunes and the style of singing conformed to the style of praying in the mainline African-American churches, often relying on call and response.
 
“The act of call and response creates the sense of community that is quite different than even just singing a song together as one," said Smith. "They would maybe be feeling defeated, or feeling afraid, and that call and response -- and that sense that they were in a room full of people all singing together -- gave them strength.”
 
But these iconic freedom songs did not remain the sole anthems of the civil rights movement. Even as people prepared for the March On Washington, the ground was shifting. There were new voices that, instead of praying for equality, were demanding respect.  
 
Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, a pop song with a deeper meaning, became very important in the civil rights movement.
 
“Activists would write about this. They would say, ‘Rhythm and blues is a weapon.  Listen to ‘Heat Wave,’ listen to ‘Nowhere to Run.’ This music is our tool against oppression,’” Smith said.
 
These new songs, many from the Detroit-based record company Motown, were different from the older freedom songs, both in content and the way they were listened to, according to Smith.
 
“The freedom songs were songs that were experienced as a collective, group experience," she said. "Motown songs were something that you might enjoy with other people, but were often on the radio or at a party and it was a more receptive experience rather than a participatory experience.”
 
The difference in musical style reflected a difference in approach by the old-line and newer civil rights activists. 
 
“The black militants were more wanting to move away from that black church tradition to a degree and move toward a more international view of militancy and revolution," Smith said. "And they saw popular music speaking to that.” 
 
The music of the civil rights era changed as the dissidents themselves changed. 

Also see: VOA's Special Page on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
 

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”