I have had the honor of directing the MLK Coalition Choir in Madison for the past 30 years. During that time, we have performed songs that exemplify the spirit of the civil rights movement, reflect Dr. King’s vision and, quite simply, stir souls.
It has been said that “We Shall Overcome” and other protest songs provided the soundtrack to the civil rights movement.
But how can simple melodies and lyrics have such power? What is the story behind these songs and why, even in 2023, do they endure?
I found a good explanation from the folks at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford. They explained: “The evolution of music in the Black freedom struggle reflects the evolution of the movement itself.”
This musical progression history, set in the context of civil rights history, makes sense. The songs we associate with the civil rights movement today had their roots in the struggle well over a 100 years ago. The early spirituals were sung by enslaved people who understood and lived the struggle. Limited in their ability to congregate and plan, they often gave the lyrics hidden meanings that could be easily interpreted into covert action. Such songs include, “Follow The Drinking Gourd”, “Wade In The Water” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
The songs were used to motivate and give hope to a people who looked forward to better days. They were used to inspire a vision and sense of belonging. And because these songs were steeped in religious tradition, both the melodies and the lyrics were well known among the church-going community, providing a communal source of belonging.
This sense of familiarity and belonging is critical to the songs’ success. In the 1960’s, young leaders of the civil rights movement built upon this legacy. Civil rights activists used the familiar and moving spirituals melodies, but applied fresh, new, socially-relevant lyrics to the melodies.
Additionally, while several key professional African American singers popularized the new songs, it was the communal, group singing that gave them power – singing arm-in-arm, side-by-side – and uniting those who sang in a mission and movement much larger than any one individual.
One good example of the evolution of an old song to new is the iconic “We Shall Overcome.”
As explained in a recent post by The Kennedy Center, the story behind the song’s popularity is legendary: “On Sept. 2, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visited Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Part of the school’s mission was to help prepare civil rights workers to challenge unjust laws and racist policies that discriminated against African Americans. The school also made a point of bringing Black and white people together to share experiences and to learn from each other. It was a dangerous idea. At a time when southern laws kept Black and white people segregated (or separate), some white racists terrorized African Americans with deadly violence.”
King delivered the main speech that day, honoring the school’s 25th anniversary. As part of the meeting, folk singer Pete Seeger got up with his banjo. He plucked out a song he had learned at Highlander and led the audience in singing it. Later that day, King found himself humming the tune in the car. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” he said to his companions.
That song was “We Shall Overcome.” It soon became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It offered courage, comfort, and hope as protesters confronted prejudice and hate in the battle for equal rights for African Americans.
“We Shall Overcome” has a long history with input from many people and places. Part of the melody seems to be related to two European songs from the 1700s, “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners” and “O Sanctissima.” Enslaved Black people in the U.S. mixed and matched similar tunes in the songs “I’ll Be All Right” and “No More Auction Block for Me.”
After 1900, it seems the lyrics of another gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday” by the Methodist minister and composer Rev. Dr. Charles Tindley were added to the musical mix — though the music was very different. Around 1945, gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris apparently put together the essential pieces of the now-famous words and melody.
They continue: “We’ll Overcome” first appeared as a protest song during a 1945 to 1946 labor strike against American Tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina. African American women strikers seeking a pay raise to 30 cents an hour sang as they picketed. “I Will Overcome” was a favorite song of Lucille Simmons, one of the strikers. But she gave the song a powerful sense of solidarity by changing the “I” into “We” as they sang together. Other lyrics were improvised for pro-union purposes, including “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight.”
This “simple” song has moved nations and continues to evolve.
So, what are the “new: civil rights songs of today? Is it hip hop? R&B empowerment songs?
Or could it now be the use of social media — with its memes and hashtags – as a modern-day tool equivalent to expand and mobilize the movement?
We may not yet know the answer, but we cannot deny the role and sense of belonging, unity and power these songs and the powerful emotions they evoke have and continue to play in the community. We do that when all are free and the struggle is over, we will be able to confidently sing “My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty; Of Thee We Sing!