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Songs and music have been a part of any movement in the social and political realms. In essence, music and civil rights movements have been inseparable in history. Apparently, the efficacy of music in civil rights movements has been felt for years. It dates back in the 1950s and 1960s in the history of the United States. Singing and music contributed to a very significant process of mobilizing, inspiring and giving voice to these civil rights movements (Ward 12-24). One of the civil rights activists, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the songs of freedom were playing a very vital and strong role in their struggle. It is undeniable that the songs produced a significant impact and they had a force that was needed to propel the dreams and ambitions of the civil rights groups. It was seen as a source of courage and perceived as a unifying factor. Essentially, music has been useful in keeping hope and faith alive, both at the present time and in the future and most importantly during the trying moments of any person or group of individuals.
Very few things invoke purposefulness and passion of the civil rights movement of the South as powerfully as the songs of freedom and music that offered an inspiring accompaniment to the equality and racial justice campaign in the region in the late 1950s and in early 1960s. The songs passed on the moral necessity of the struggle for freedom, while helping and expressing courage of the ordinary individuals who were at the core of the matter. The music brought up the potential in the marchers. The songs really extensively expressed the nature and agenda of the civil rights movement as well as the revolution in mass black consciousness upon which it was founded.
The evolution of music during the struggle for freedom of the African Americans is a reflection of the evolution itself. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to music as the soul of these civil rights movements (Ward 12-24). This is the weight with which music was accorded in the civil rights activities. A civil rights movement without music would be comparable to a body without a soul. That means there would not be life. To bring life into the civil rights movement, the inclusion of music in the struggles was imperative. Music was the fabric that held the activists of the civil rights movement together. The songs carried with them the hope and determination of the members of the activist groups. Music was entirely used as a way through which the people would be liberated. It was the only way they could get the synergy to overcome the challenges and flourish amidst the dark times in which they lived.
One of the songs that had its origin in the Highlander Folk School, “We Shall Overcome” during the 1940s struggles of labor ended up being the informal anthem of the movement. This song evoked vitality and strong emotion across the south where most of the blacks lived. It rejuvenated courage, calm and confidence in the search for freedom in their struggles. Such a song was heard by a great number of people. Music was a unifying factor. Songs of freedom sang by groups made one voice. Behind the Hinds County prison bars in Mississippi, music left hope in the lives of those who believed in change. In Albany, Georgia, women going to work found music very helpful. Even at a time when student activists were dragged to jail, they could not refrain from singing (Carawan 11). It generated power that was beyond description. It was an amazing secret that worked magic in the civil rights movement.
Professional singers of the time like Harry Belafonte and Mahalia Jackson were from the beginning great supporters of the reform efforts that were added by the civil rights movement. All the same, the most famous music of the time was group singing. Music made a lot of sense during that time. There were a lot of things to sing about. People in the civil rights movement could sing about sexual liberation, freedom and matters concerning love as well as protest against issues revolving around war in singing. Community-based campaign was headed by leaders of the church chanting songs of hope and anticipation. The Montgomery bus boycott music in 1955-1956 comprised of Methodist and Baptist hymns and Negro spirituals. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned in his chronicle about the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, that those traditional songs were very touching and brought into remembrance the suffering history of the Negroes.
Contrary, starting with the 1960 sit-in movements, African American students all through the South started to take leadership roles in the larger movement. The music in the campaigns led by the activists amongst students moved beyond conventional church music. The younger activists in the civil rights movements constructed new lyrics which ultimately gave new life to the main conventional music (Wilson 1-22). Freedom ride songs of 1961 played a very important role in holding up the morale of the individuals who served in Mississippi Hinds County Jail during that time. People were encouraged to sing freedom songs in the quest for racial equity. Gospel songs and old folk songs were given new wordings focusing on freedom and other crucial civil rights. It was the first time the Hinds County jail rocked with singing and music that could not be restrained based on freedom and the spirit of brotherhood.
The remonstrance in Albany, Georgia was a proof of a very crucial training base of learning the mobilizing techniques for the ever dormant African American group of inhabiting the South. May be of greatest significance, the people became much more cognizant of the cultural perspectives of the African American struggle, hastily realizing the worth and value that music put in passing on the southern movement ideas and in an effort to augment support. The movement in Georgia was described as a singing movement because music formed a major part of its revolutionary effort (Ward 12-24).
All this happened in the 1950s and 60s where the African Americans struggled to gain their civil rights (Wilson 1-22). It was a defining moment for the African Americans and it is amazing how music contributed to the achievement of the much anticipated rights. The African Americans were in a dire need of being treated like the rest of Americans. They could not eat in the restaurant with non-black people or even stay in hotels with other citizens. Their quest for equal treatment was realized through the civil rights movements that gained power and energy from music. Therefore, songs became a very crucial part of what they planned to do in the civil rights movement.
Members of the civil rights movements sang a number of old spiritual songs that the black slaves had written among other new songs of that time. There was a lot of danger and it was generally a scary sight as the civil rights movements advocated for their rights. Many people were subjected to physical attacks as they stood for their rights. Others were killed for their effort to liberate themselves and others. There was a lot of fright in the battle front. Despite all these occurrences, the people needed courage to move on. This is the point where music proved to be a good source of courage. Singing liberating songs with one another was a kind of comfort for the people and it provided calmness and confidence in the wake of another day in the battle for black freedom.
One of the most common songs sang during the civil rights movement was a composition made by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson born in Florida. This was the "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." A very important folksinger known as Joan Baez, a European American, donated most of her income from concerts to the civil rights movements among other causes (Wilson 1-22). Music was used to provoke thoughts and draw attention to issues of human rights when people were in their most dangerous and alarming conflict scenarios. Bob Dylan, a European American songwriter and singer joined people like Joan to support the movements for civil rights. Both Bob Dylan and Bob Seger touched on themes of political issues in an effort of voicing the predicament of the common man and symbolize the quest of the masses in their own motherland.
It would be a mistake to think that civil rights movement without music could have succeeded and yielded much more results than they achieved. A large group led by Martin Luther King, Jr. marched to Washington D.C to express their concerns for the rights that were infringed. This was the largest gathering ever to have been seen in Washington D.C. The gathering was at the Washington Monument and later moved on to the Lincoln Memorial. Joan Baez led the first song during that occasion as people kept on coming as the gathering sang the “Oh, Freedom” spiritual song (Juslin and Sloboda 23-36). Later on, Baez led in singing the “We Shall Overcome” song. Bob Dylan also came on board and sang his won composition entitled "Only a Pawn in Their Game," a sing that tackled the subject of the man answerable for the death of a civil rights worker.
Music filled a better part of the day. An important folk and gospel singer Odetta sang the "I'm on My Way" song to gather the people together in fulfilling a common mission of seeking freedom. Many more songs were sung and it appeared that music was the only tool through which the people’s grievance could be articulated. Music characterized the opening, the progression and the end of the function that day. As the day came to an end, the great opera singer, Marian Anderson sung the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” A lot of singing and music filled the air and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the closing remarks that day. The music had sunk deep in every person including King, who was seen addressing the crowd without making any reference to his notes towards the end of the speech. He spoke of a dream he had for the people of the land to live harmoniously.
Even though this was a great day for the civil rights movement, it did not supernaturally solve the issues that African Americans were dealing with. More violence emerged and there was much more bloodshed even before the civil rights goals were attained (Juslin and Sloboda 23-36). However, one important thing to note was the fact that music helped in making the congregation strong and it was the start of a gradual process of bringing on the anticipated change. This was one of the most important events in the civil rights movement history.
Music gathered support for a collective and forceful movement aimed at disbanding the social segregation and racial injustice. The people who took part in the civil rights movement engaged in non-violent approaches. They did not carry any weapon to cause havoc and neither did they have any intention of harming. It may not have been the best way to follow the goal, but they had their own way of doing things. Music was the only harmless weapon they had but it was very instrumental. Their songs were a method of protection. The music was used to brave their hearts. It helped them to march on through the dark moments in their lives.
Songs and music generally played a very imperative role in the civil rights movement. The members of the civil rights movement made use of music to prepare for to the battle. It triggered strength and courage of facing the greatest of all obstacles. These members of the civil rights movements needed to overcome segregation, hatred and racial injustices. Those who marched on in the civil rights movements held the non-violence concept very closely and thus, music came in handy as the only defense mechanism as they came together to unifying point. The non-violent marchers went through a lot of hosing, beating, shooting, burning and imprisonment without any defense. The only form of defense was by word of their mouths, which was in form of music and the courage they exuded in their plight (Hast, Cowdery and Scott 45). The people and the marchers who faced beating in the south during the time of the civil rights movement used music to lift up their spirits one more time and keep their focus on the things they desired.
The marching on to Washington belted out very powerful hymns that ignited the people’s spirit. He singing produced very timely music that propelled the heights of civil rights movements. The masses in the civil rights movement guarded themselves with the songs and the courage they got from singing. Music gave the people security in pursuit of their objectives and goals. Music made the marchers feel secure and confident which ultimately mounted support for them. As the people sung the hymns together, it became very difficult to ignore the movement and the participants. Music played a crucial role in winning the attention of the government and other targeted bodies in the civil rights movement. The music was very loud. It was very expressive and it really conveyed the message that was intended by the civil rights activists. The music moved masses and inspired many to see the sense and agenda of the civil rights movement. It authenticated the entire movement and process of seeking civil rights that were denied to the African Americans (Wilson 1-22). The singing mass, weaponless persons not stopped by insults and stares of dislike was influential enough to make others realize the same, collecting the brave together, non-violent persons pushing forward an important change.
The civil rights movement was continuously adaptive and creative. For its entire spiritual energy, constitutional and moral authority, and courageous efforts at coherent premeditated planning, it was consequently much less concerned with the very dogmatic opinions of tactical and ideological correctness than with endeavoring to acquire the task of destroying disenfranchisement and segregation. Traditionally, African American music was used to display similar priorities. The African American music was very electrifying, creative and very adaptive (Wilson 1-22). Freedom songs and folk songs during this time apparently were fair in the commitment they made to the civil rights movement. By considering what music was most thoroughly linked to or may be evocative of, the era of the civil rights movement, it can be tempting to emphasize entirely on the lyrics that were contained in some specific songs (Juslin and Sloboda 23-36). That notwithstanding, it is imperative to realize that the changing music sounds of the civil rights activists during that time included the rejuvenated sense of the African American racial consciousness and pride upon which any harmonized struggle for racial justice was founded.
Music was crucial part of the process which made the people understand where they were coming from. It improved the quality of the process the African Americans underwent to get what they desired. Music was indeed a key determinant of the destination of the members of the civil rights movement. Music was a very important element in social movements because it gathered people together and gave them the shared identity. Music usually served as a socially acceptable communication channel in the civil rights movement where open criticism was not acceptable (Hast, Cowdery and Scott 45). The music incorporated symbols of oppression resistance which could not be recognized by the oppressors through any other means. Songs and music were the only option for the African Americans through which they could express their grievances. Even though slaves were not allowed to practice their own religion, music could not be restrained from them. This proves the importance of music. It is all that the African Americans among other minorities practiced in pursuit of their dreams.
These songs were drawn from oral traditions. They produced different levels of meaning depending on their composition and context. Civil rights movement greatly needed music support in articulating the demands and in addressing the challenges that were faced by the minority groups. The songs perfectly declared resistance to slavery among other social evils. They provided detailed instructions on modality of action and what was expected of them in the civil rights movement. Music reenacted emotional experience during that period within the activists and at the same time presented a connection of memory and emotion (Wilson 1-22). For many people getting wind of a familiar melody brought associated feelings and incidents from the past. Thus, music was a reminiscence tool that triggered emotions and feelings that helped the people overcome their fear and any form of retreat (Juslin and Sloboda 23-36). Music transmitted cultural knowledge that was important for people to have in order to liberate themselves.
Music helped in the rediscovery of the African American struggle for freedom. This was a history that was hidden by the white intellectuals for the sole purpose of controlling the cultural production of the past. While the members of the civil rights movement discovered their history through music, they redefined themselves. They realized their potential but got new energy in their move towards liberation. Music was very instrumental as an enlightening tool through which the activists came to know their rights. It was a very significant element in the redefinition process since the old songs included an oral past of the blacks’ struggles to be free in the United States. Moreover, the music was very crucial through the participants aired their protests, built their own community and established a vision of a political structure that was democratic. Music turned out to be a powerful approach to include all the masses in the struggle for civil rights in the face of aggressive repression through formal and informal groups.
The enlightenment that came along with music was the main drive for the change that was anticipated in the civil rights movement. The music positively transformed the civil rights activities for the better. Even after taking part in any civil activist actions, the music remained as memories to the entire period of fighting for the people’s rights. Many people could be wasted away but the music remained as a testimony of pre-historic occurrences. This passed on the feelings and the emotions from one generation to another. Music kept the hope of seeing a better day. The faith amongst the members of the civil rights movement lived even in the darkest times (Hast, Cowdery and Scott 45). At the sound of any music, individuals seemed to gather new strength and their quest for civil rights was given a major boost. The music kept hope alive and commitment in pursuing this noble cause was rejuvenated from time to time. There was unbounded hope in the future of the civil rights movements due to the music that was embedded in them.
Thus, the music in the civil rights movements made possible the preservation of courage and strength. What brought power to the music was that fact that there was no way it could be stolen from the people. There was no way that the authorities could beat it up. It was an intangible weapon that was accepted in the battle for civil rights amongst the African Americans. The music could not be broken down and neither could it be insulted. Such a perception point gave the music an upper hand in effectively addressing the challenges that were faced by the African Americans (Wilson 1-22). Music was and still is an abstract that could not be claimed by any one. It represented the views and needs of the masses at large. Many people were beaten up and insulted. However, they had music. Music was and still is invincible to all manner of physical attack. This is the reason why the marchers in the civil rights movements were in a position to sing and make use of music as a motivational tool and as a defense mechanism while they pursued their legitimate rights.