How Music Impacted The Civil Rights Movement

Here’s why melodies and harmonies became a tool of unity.

The Civil Rights Movement was a culmination of thought leaders and civilians coming together to fight for a greater change in equality and unity. Though many students are taught the basics about prominent faces in school, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks, music is the other unsung hero. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, the fight against discrimination continued even though the Civil War abolished slavery. Music was crucial in sustaining the Civil Rights Movement, providing a voice for the oppressed and inspiring collective action. In 1963, during the March on Washington, singer Mahalia Jackson initiated the infamous “I Have A Dream” speech after singing two spiritual gospel hymns. “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” Jackson said. 

In moments like those, music became a greater tool in the movement toward societal equity. “God has wrought many things out of oppression,” King says in his speech at the 1964 edition of the Berlin Jazz Festival. “He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create, and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.”

Read ‘Honoring Mahalia Jackson, The Gospel Singer Who Led Martin Luther King Jr. To Give His ‘I Have A Dream Speech’

Throughout the years of fighting for freedom and better treatment, some songs highlighted the various emotions going through the minds of citizens and public figures. From Gospel to Freedom songs, figures like Harry Belafonte, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke depicted the rawness of the Civil Rights Movement through solid vocals and powerful lyrics. 

Songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Inner City Blues,” and “Strange Fruit” serve as a historical time capsule. Music built community and trust for those worldwide to see the importance of unity against systemic oppression. “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music,” King says. “It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It had calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

During the Civil Rights Movement, there were many occasions when music influenced the outcome of protests and helped bring outreach to the community. The origin of Freedom Songs did not start in major studios with the biggest producers but in the hearts of local neighborhoods. These moments were recorded live during meetings at Churches with people who walked different life paths. Music became a tool of unity for those who wanted to see a shift and make an influence for a bigger purpose. 

As much as songs and melodies were used as tools for positivity and upliftment, they also painted the horrors of racism in its rawest form. “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday, will always be a pioneer song that embodies what lynchings and killings were doing in the community. “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” Holiday sings. “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Through haunting lyrics and still emotions, that moment became a call to action for those hindering the livelihood of Black people. Each day, it became harder to see the bright side at the end of the tunnel because of the deaths of generations happening through lynchings and murders in the community. The music became a wake-up call that changes needed to happen. 

Despite songs like “Strange Fruit” being dark and heavy, outsiders needed to see the raw and uncut feeling of Black people around the world, specifically in the South. Protest songs, folk ballads, and radio broadcasts maintained messages of hope and defiance. Each tune amplified the voices of those who wanted a better society. Music provided a platform for marginalized voices to be heard and their stories to be told, challenging prevailing narratives of inequality and injustice.

The impact of Civil Rights music lives on far beyond the borders of the United States as it continues to ignite a global conversation about human rights and social justice. Unfortunately, even though these songs serve as a musical time capsule, each lyric can still apply today as Zillennials still see the many injustices happening to Black people even in 2024. With social media as the centerpiece for this generation, the Civil Rights Movement serves as an example of how the next generation can continue to carry the torch and use creative expression to invoke change and be a reflection of the times. 

About the Author: Kenyatta Victoria is the lead writer for Essence GU, working on all things pop culture, politics, entertainment and business. Throughout her time at GU, she’s garnered devoted readers and specializes in the Zillennial point of view.

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