The Power of Music and Civil Rights

Elizabeth Dale

Music has been used as a tool to inspire change for decades. A way to bring people together, educate, entertain, and bring awareness to injustices, music has served as a vehicle to inspired change and nowhere in history was this better demonstrated than during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the power of music during his opening address of the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival saying, “Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties – and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest of realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.” As the prolific leader of the civil rights movement, King utilized music throughout the movement as the soundscape for change, and the songs written during this time would, years later, come to define a generation.

MLK on Jazz

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Another prolific civil rights leader was the late Congressman Rep. John Lewis who said, “If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would’ve been like a bird without wings.” Lewis was one of the “big six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington and led the first three marches from Selma to Montgomery. Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 and served 17 terms for the House of Representatives. In 2015, the NAMM Foundation awarded Lewis with the SupportMusic Award as part of the NAMM Music Education Advocacy D.C. Fly-In.

One of the many goals within NAMM is documenting the history of the music products industry. The task falls under the stewardship of the NAMM Resource Center, which tirelessly collects these stories through its oral history collection. One unique areas of interest within the collection are stories from the civil rights movement, which consist of first-hand accounts of the protests, events, and music that defined the movement. Here are just a few of the interviews that are part of this larger collection to date.

Pete Seeger
Seeger popularized the song, “We Shall Overcome,” which became the accepted anthem of the civil rights movement. Seeger and activist Guy Carawan later introduced the song at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. Seeger has since claimed that he was responsible for changing the original lyric of “We will overcome” to “We shall overcome.” Also, Seeger was influential in organizing a benefit concert for the Highlander Folk School at Carnegie Hall concert that featured the Freedom Singers.

Pete Seeger

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Lena Horne
The actress, dancer, and singer was an instrumental civil rights activist throughout her life. During a World War II USO tour in 1945, Horne refused to play for segregated audiences where, according to Horne, German prisoners of war were seated in front of black servicemen during a World War II USO tour. Horne participated in the famed March on Washington, where she spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC, and the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1930s, she worked side-by-side with Former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in an attempt to pass anti-lynching laws. In 1983, Horne was awarded the Spingarn Medal, an award for outstanding achievement by an African American by the NAACP.

Lena Horne

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Tom Paxton
The singer-songwriter has been passionate about human, civil, and labor rights throughout his career. In 1964, Paxton took part in Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign to register as many black Americans to vote as possible. Paxton also was a frequent performer at civil rights rallies, and his song “Beau John” was penned after attending a Freedom Song Workshop in Atlanta. Inspired by the tragic murder of three civil rights activists that summer, Paxton wrote “Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.”

Tom Paxton

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As Dr. King closed out his address at the Berlin Jazz Festival, “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

NAMM invites you to see the current list of interviews associated with the civil rights movement in its collection at https://www.namm.org/category/term/civil-rights and to listen to an episode of NAMM Resource Center’s The Music History Project podcast dedicated to the civil rights movement at https://www.namm.org/library/blog/ep-16-music-civil-rights-movement.