by Arlene Dunn, December 2013
[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she is auditing at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]
Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.
Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.
After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests. The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy.
This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.
Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.” Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
1963 SNCC sit-in at Toddle House in Atlanta
Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions – the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement
Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.” Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service.
Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”
At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.” Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.
Birmingham (AL) fire department workers turning firehoses on civil rights demonstrators in 1963
In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:
(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.
Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them.
Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:
One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”
Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen
Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom
This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.
She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”
Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, We Shall Not be Moved, Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.
Demonstrators, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis singing Freedom Songs on the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965
We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.
The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.
Musical links to the past
The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well.
Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.
There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states:
The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.
This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement.
SNCC Freedom Singers: Chuck Neblett, Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, and Rutha Mae Harris
Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.
Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.
Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar. It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind … ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind … ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”
Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments,. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day.
I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:
I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.
Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”
Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.
The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.
On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”
The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965. The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone … today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.
I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all.
Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement. In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers, which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:
This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.
Composer/Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith
 A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org)
 Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs
 Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland.
6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
 Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals (http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/freedom/civil.cfm) Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: Slave Spirituals Revived, A multidisciplinary online curriculum by The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver, ©2004 Center for Teaching & Learning
 Ballad of America, http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm
 Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C
 Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012
Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:
Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL
Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965 http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/
Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org), A Pivotal Moment in the Civil Rights Movement website page (http://www.facinghistory.org/resources/units/a-pivotal-moment-civil-rights-move)
Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals (http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/freedom/civil.cfm) Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: Slave Spirituals Revived.
Ballad of America (www.ballardofamerica.com), Oh Freedom! Website page:http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/ohfreedom/index.htm
Davis, Rev. Gary, At Home and Church, 1962-67, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, ASIN: B0031DRW1S
Freedom Singers, The, We Shall Overcome, Vinyl Masters, ASIN: B00DVAWI2E
Freedom Song, Turner Home Entertainment, 2006, ASIN: B000BNTMBO.
Golden Gospel Singers, The, Capella Praise, Blue Flame, ASIN: B0000JUB974
McDowell, Fred, The Alan Lomax Recordings, Mississippi Records, ASIN: B0055HVDHM
Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around, Malaco Records, B000001KW0
Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DHL
Smith, Wadada Leo, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C
Staples, “Pops”, Peace To The Neighborhood, Virgin Records America Inc., ASIN: B0000S5883S
Freedom Singers, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, 2-CD set, Smithsonian Folkways, ASIN: B000001DJT
Lewis, John, March Book I (Graphic Novel form), Top Shelf Productions, 2013
Ransby, Barbara, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture), The University of North Carolina Press, 2005
Zinn, Howard, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1964