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

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Matthew Wade sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his new CD, “Diamond from Coal,” his fourth album with his band, My Silent Bravery.