Do You Hear the People Sing?: How Music Impacted the Civil Rights Movement
Music was very influential in the Civil Rights Era because it spread hope, communicated feelings, and inspired the protesters. This led to sit-ins, filling up the jails, Freedom Rides, and even a major change in society. During the protests, people sang the songs to spread hope through the crowd and keep the protests peaceful. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” were popular songs to sing during the protests.
Music was the light of hope and kept people strong. It was a source of inspiration and expression. People sang it to keep religion in their lives. It can personify emotions in life and “when words fail, music speaks.” The Jim Crow Era was a time of segregation, violence, and suffering for Negros, but it inspired music that was very influential in the Civil Rights Movement. The song “Strange Fruit”, most famous for its performance by Billie Holiday was originally a poem by American writer Abel Meeropool, who later set the poem to music.
The lyrics express Meeropool’s horror at public lynchings. Another example is the song “Jim Crow Blues” by American folk singer Huddie W. Leadbetter, better known by his stage name, LeadBelly. The song was written as a protest song in the 1930’s. The lyrics tell how LeadBelly wanted to send people south to “break up Jim Crow”.
The Jim Crow Laws were laws that prevented minorities from having the same basic rights as whites. Musical influences came from many sources. Some were songs that were passed down from generation to generation, while others came from spirituals, which were created by enslaved Negros who, usually unable to attend church, needed a way to keep their faith strong. The African-Americans related to the Bible story in Exodus, where the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. The song “Go Down, Moses” was especially popular because it compared the Negros to the Israelites in Egypt, which made them feel closer to God. The slaves would sing these religious songs while working.
Influences also came from radio stations, which would introduce people to music. Protest songs played a huge part in the Civil Rights Movement. Sit-Ins, which were started in 1960 by four African American students, were heavily influenced by music. Music gave the students courage and reminded them what peaceful protest meant. Protest songs were also very prominent when black students planned to “Fill the Jails”.
On February 27th, 1960, white authorities started to beat the students at the sit-ins. The students did not fight back, but were arrested and charged for disorderly conduct. The demonstrators knew that they would be arrested, so they planned it. When the first wave of demonstrators was arrested, more demonstrators would be sent in to take their place, thus filling up the jails. In the jails, the police had the boys and girls separated, so the girls would sing out a verse in a song and then the boys would reply with the next verse.
The same concept of peaceful protest was used in the Freedom Rides. Freedom Riders would sing on the Rides to stay strong and peaceful. It is clear that music was a major part of the Civil Rights Movement. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald worked together to end segregation in nightclubs. The Mocambo nightclub was segregated for performers until 1955 when Fitzgerald and Monroe worked together to let Negro artists perform.
Marilyn Monroe threatened to boycott the club, which would significantly decrease the number of visitors, if they wouldn’t let Ella sing. There are many songs that are considered “anthems” of the Civil Rights Movement, but the most well-known song is “We Shall Overcome”. Its lyrics spread hope throughout the groups of protesters and kept the protests peaceful. It gave them a way to express their feelings. It is widely believed that the song comes from the Negro spiritual “I’ll Overcome Someday” and was revised to fit their situation.
It was one of, if not the, most popular protest song of the Civil Rights Movement. It was sung during church, rallies, marches, and other protests. It is widely known today and is still very popular. Music had a huge impact on the Movement by being a good thing during bad times. It communicated feelings, inspired the protesters, and spread hope throughout the people of America who were being denied their basic rights as a citizen.
Music was the soul of the movement. It was how the slaves could keep their faith alive, it was a beacon of hope during the Civil Rights Movement, it showed how people felt. It broadcasted the pain, happiness, and anger. It showed how they hurt, how they reacted, and it was the beam of light that cut through the darkness of the Jim Crow Era.