Skip to main content

Collection Civil Rights History Project

Music in the Civil Rights Movement

African American spirituals, gospel, and folk music all played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. Singers and musicians collaborated with ethnomusicologists and song collectors to disseminate songs to activists, both at large meetings and through publications. They sang these songs for multiple purposes: to motivate them through long marches, for psychological strength against harassment and brutality, and sometimes to simply pass the time when waiting for something to happen.

In their interview with the Civil Rights History Project, folksingers Guy and Candie Carawan sing the songs "Tree of Life," "Eyes on the Prize," and "We Shall Overcome." The Carawans worked at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where activists from around the country came to be trained in nonviolent philosophy and learned the songs of the movement. She explains, “There were songs for every mood.  You know, there were the very jubilant songs.  There were the very sad songs when someone was killed.  You know, there were the songs you used at parties.  There was all the humor where you picked fun at people, the satire.”

Activist and folk singer Pete Seeger also remembers how important music was to the Civil Rights Movement in his interview. He performed many concerts to raise money for civil rights organizations, and helped spread the song “We Shall Overcome” to civil rights workers  at the Highlander Folk School. In 1964 he came to Jackson, Mississippi, to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. While he was there, three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney went missing. He remembers, “I was in singing to about two hundred people in a church when they gave me a piece of paper that said, ‘They’ve found the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.’  And I made this announcement.  There was no shouting.  There was no anger.  I saw lips moving in prayer.  And I think I sang this song that Fred Hellerman made up, ‘O healing river, send down your waters.  Send down your waters upon this land’ … It’s a beautiful song.”

Jamila Jones grew up in Alabama and sang professionally as a teenager with the Montgomery Gospel Trio and the Harambee Singers. In 1958, she came to the Highlander Folk School for nonviolent activist training. As Jones recalls in her interview, Highlander was raided by the police, who shut off all the lights in the building. She found the strength to sing out into the darkness, adding a new verse, “We are not afraid,” to the song, “We Shall Overcome.” Jones explains, “And we got louder and louder with singing that verse, until one of the policemen came and he said to me, “If you have to sing,” and he was actually shaking, “do you have to sing so loud?”  And I could not believe it.  Here these people had all the guns, the billy clubs, the power, we thought. And he was asking me, with a shake, if I would not sing so loud.  And it was that time that I really understood the power of our music.”

For more about music in the Civil Rights Movement, read these two Folklife Today blog posts on “Tracing the Long Journey of “We Shall Overcome” and “Photographs of the Southern Freedom Movement in the Alan Lomax Collection.”

 Back to top