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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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 Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.