Civil Rights in Song (1): Eyes on the Prize


Given that one of the most important roots of the civil rights movement was in the black churches, and given the importance of gospel music to those churches, it’s hardly surprising that music provided a vibrant and very important sound track to that struggle. So, time for some civil rights songs: here, from the time itself, in the years leading up to the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

On that famous day, in 1963, when Martin Luther King spoke to the crowd in Washington, it was the gospel singer and civil rights campaigner, Mahalia Jackson, who shouted to to King to ‘tell them about the dream’. King listened, and so did the world.

Music played a major role that  day, as this New Yorker article explains:

Here she is, in the later ’60s, singing the civil rights anthem:

Among the star turns was the young Bob Dylan, who sang two songs from his forthcoming album.

And his then sometime lover, Joan Baez. Here, singing one of the songs she sang that day, but here in 1966:

Black musicians had confronted civil rights issues long before. Probably the greatest of all those songs was Strange Fruit, written by a teacher, Abel Meeropol, in 1937 as a poem, which he then set to music and performed with his wife, the singer Laura Duncan. The song confronts the lynchings that scarred the south for so long:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

1939, it was sung by the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, with whom it will be forever associated. Here she is, performing it in 1959:

The great Nina Simone was also indelibly identified with the cause (I will put up a section of this devoted to her alone). Here is her song Old Jim Crow. The Jim Crow laws were the ones that enforced segregation in the south:

Jazz was one of the 20th centuries great new art forms, and one which was black in its origins. By the ‘sixties, it was becoming artistically more daring. Furthermore, given that most of its great figures were African-American, it became politically engaged too. Orval Faubus was the governor of Arkansas who refused to allow the Little Rock Nine, nine black girls, to attend what was a whites only school. This was the response of the great. Interestingly, the original recorded version did not include the words: the record label, Columbia, would not allow them. Here is a later, and greater version:

In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, the 16th Street Baptist Church, a black church, was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Four African-American girls were killed. This was the great John Coltrane’s response:

Earlier that year, a white man, William Zantzinger, had killed a barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan wrote one of his greatest songs in response to that killing, and the subsequent trial:

Nowhere in the song does Dylan mention that Carroll was black, and Zantzinger was white, but we know.

Now is the time for your tears

All the above mattered, but they were hardly in the mainstream. Sam Cooke was. Cooke had started as the lead singer in a gospel group, The Soul Stirrers. However, from 1957 to 1964 he had a series of solo hits in the main Billboard singles chart, including a number of classics such as You Send Me, Wonderful World and Twistin’ the Night Away. Cooke was shot dead in a motel in 1964, and shortly after his song Shake was released. In those days vinyl 45 rpm records had two sides. The main song was on the A side. The B side of Shake saw Cooke moving, musically, closer to his gospel roots, but also forward to the new style of what would be known as soul music. It was also a political statement: A Change is Gonna Come.

Like Cooke, The Staples Singers started as a gospel group. In 1965, they still were, but civil rights were on their agenda, as were the traditions of the blues and the new rock and roll. Freedom Highway, written by Pop Staples himself, is about the murder of Emmett Till.

Like Sam Cooke, The Impressions had what was then called crossover success: getting a hit in the mainstream Billboard charts as well as the black R’n’B charts. In 1965, their main songwriter and leading man, Curtis Mayfield, wrote People Get Ready. It a song heavily influenced by gospel and what were then known as negro spirituals, something Mayfield acknowledged. The song’s hook gives us an image set deep into African-American culture:

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’

In the days of slavery, the underground railroad was the term used to describe the escape route slaves took to freedom in the north. The song was a crossover hit: civil rights were going mainstream. The song also became one of the unofficial anthems of the civil rights movement, at least according to Martin Luther King himself.

We’ll finish part one by going back to gospel. Like many a gospel song, the prize of heaven itself could also serve as a metaphor for another prize: freedom. Here is a modern version of the gospel classic, and signature song of the civil rights movement, Eye on the Prize, sung here by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Next time, the later ‘sixties, and early ’70s…

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