Music and singing played a crucial role in inspiring, mobilizing, and giving voice to the civil rights movement. Many of the civil rights anthems that people marched to in the ’60s have retained their relevance, such as “We Shall Overcome”. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to the freedom songs as “the soul of the movement.” In his book “Why We Can’t Wait”, King wrote: “… sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.”

The 1960s Freedom Riders’ songs ꟷ both old folk and gospel hymns ꟷ played an important role in lifting morale for those serving time in jail. Freedom singing was a fundamental part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) community organizing tradition. When Sam Block went to Greenwood, Mississippi, to start SNCC’s first voter registration project in the Mississippi Delta, among the first things he did was teach local people freedom songs. The songs, often borrowed from traditional church songs, helped ease fears that locals had towards the movement.

There were songs for every mood. And there were songs that united. Here’s a look at a few of the most enduring civil rights songs, from the song known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”