paper will take a profound look at the lives and music of African-American artists who have made great contributions to
American society through the civil rights movement. In the years from the late
1950s to the early 1960s, the civil rights movement
changed the face of black communities across the country.
Throughout the years, the character of the black community was driven by a
shared appreciation and understanding of jazz, blues, and rhythm music.
Furthermore, the augmentation of racial discord politicized the
African-American community. Black music became a part of the movement with
blatant political melodies while continuing to implant itself as a significant aspect
in shaping the identity of black Americans. Black music sustained to galvanize
the public against racial discrimination.











The object of this research paper is to indulge in the connection
between music and liberation movements of the late 1950s and 1960s;
specifically, the civil rights movement. In these movements, an array of
popular music was produced. Popular music in this era is analyzed between the
outcry for collective political action and the urge of individuality. This
timeframe is intriguing because of the outbreak of many experimental, and
socially critical forms of music. From the late 50s to early 70s, saw a revived
interest in folk music, and the development of free jazz and rock. The
reemergence and creation of black music during this time was instrumental to
the movement, literally.

From a political perspective, this period is significant because of
its frigid animosity, where tensions determined by race, gender, sexuality, class,
age, and political beliefs became the pivotal themes for mass campaigns and
demonstrations. Particularly in the southern states, African-Americans had been
forced into centuries of violent discrimination, and were time after time
denied even the most basic civil rights. The civil rights movement divulged
demands that were imbedded in the displeased presence of black people in
American society. These privations included desegregation of public facilities,
pay equalization, employment quotas. and voting rights. The attachment of folk
music was used as political tool by the civil rights movement. An example, is
the Highlander Folk School, which helped to place black folk music, otherwise
known as spirituals, in the struggle for civil rights. However, in the mid-1960s
folk music converged with rock, which was originally a chiefly African-American blues founded idiom. Music would become aesthetically pleasing
to people and their struggles. These inclinations can be seen in many folk,
rock, and jazz musicians of this period, but particularly in the works of John
Coltrane and his development of jazz, through the materials of bebop.

The work of John Coltrane diverges from the others because of its consideration
for race relations in the music industry of the 50s and 60s. This would become awfully
problematic and exposed the political strains in the period. A robust backer of
the civil rights movement, Coltrane’s song “Alabama,”
written in response to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that murdered four
little girls, signified the fusing of his musical, cultural and political mindfulness.
The song stood as a model for the emerging black movement of the period because
of the notes and phrasing of Coltrane’s lines are based on the words Martin
Luther King spoke at the memorial service for the girls who died. Just as King’s speech increased in passion as he shifted his focus from the homicide
to the civil rights movement, Coltrane’s “Alabama” sheds its sorrowful
and cowed mood for a fizzing rush of energy, reinforcing the strength of mind
for justice:

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Sweet home Alabama
big wheels keep on turning
carry me home to see my kin
singing songs about the southland
I miss Alabamy once again
and I think it’s a sin, yes
well I heard mister young sing about her
well, I heard ole Neil put her down
well, I hope Neil young will remember
a southern man don’t need him around anyhow

Armstrong is by far one of the most renowned black musicians of all time.
However, he is often condemned for playing into an “Uncle Tom” stereotype while
performing for white audiences. Nonetheless, he embraced the bebop and jazz musical styles and became a cultural ambassador
for the U.S. during the Cold War, performing jazz all over the world. In 1929
he recorded, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue?,” a song from a
popular musical. The lyrics include the phrase:


My only sin

Is in my skin

What did I do

To be so black and blue?

In response to growing uproar churning about the desegregation of
public schools, Armstrong came to be justly critical of his country. In the
1957 Little Rock Crisis, during which the National Guard prevented nine black
students from entering a high school, Armstrong canceled a tour to the Soviet
Union, and said publicly, “the way they’re treating my people in the South, the
government can go to hell.”

The Highlander Folk School, started in 1932 by activists Myles Horton,
educator Don West, and Methodist minister James A. Drombrowski, resides in
Tennessee. The prominence of the Highlander Folk School to the civil rights
movement is undisputable. During the 50s, it played a dire role in the American
civil rights movement. It educated civil rights leader, Rosa Parks, prior
to her historic role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in addition to offering
training for many other movement activists, comprising members of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in the 1950s
which included reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who would become an essential leader
of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King would often say, “I am many
things to many people. But in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am
fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my
heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a
Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.” King learned
leadership roles from Highlander Folk School and would become the spearhead of
the Civil Rights Movement. King’s perspective of the civil rights movement was
that the effort was most fruitful when it functioned as a church-based effort. Repercussion
against the school’s participation with the civil rights movement led to the
school’s cessation in 1961 by way of the state of Tennessee. Staff would then
reorganize and move to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they chartered Highlander
under the name “Highlander Research and Education Center.”

Consequently, this paper builds on understandings of music’s role in
politics. The musical practices at Highlander have been well accredited. Two definitive
collections of freedom songs, “We Shall Overcome” and “Freedom is a
Constant Struggle” were documented here. We Shall Overcome is considered
a negro spiritual telling the hopes of the black community:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall
overcome some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome some day

The Lord will see us through, the Lord will see
us through, the lord will see us through some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

The Lord will see us some day

We’re on to victory, we’re on to victory, we’re on to victory some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We’re on to victory some day

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in
hand some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We’ll walk hand in hand some day

We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not
afraid today

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We are not afraid today

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall
make us free, the truth shall make us free some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

The truth shall make us free some day

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
we shall live in peace some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall live in peace some day


The struggle of those craving for better times can be felt through
these lyrics. This song became a key anthem of the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, many black people of American society feel as if they have not
overcome the racial disparity till this day. The history behind this song can
be traced back to Highlander Folk School. In October of 1945
in Charleston, South Carolina, members of the Food, Tobacco,
Agricultural, and Allied Workers union (FTA-CIO), who were African-American
females, began a five-month strike against the company. To preserve their emotional
state through the cold and wet winter, one of the strikers, a woman named
Lucille Simmons, led the gospel hymn, “We’ll
Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)” to end each day. Union organizer, Zilphia
Horton, who was the spouse of the co-founder of the Highlander Folk School
said she learned it from Simmons. Horton was Highlander’s music director from 1935–1956,
and it became her tradition to end group meetings each evening by leading this

Another song that outlines the trials of
black people in American society is “Freedom is a Constant Struggle,” which
does not embrace the hopeful atmosphere of the
civil rights movement and alternatively centers on the trials faced by African-Americans
in the South and call for it to end:

They say that freedom is a constant struggle
They say that freedom is a constant struggle
They say that freedom is a constant struggle
Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long
We must be free, we must be free

They say that freedom is a constant crying
They say that freedom is a constant crying
They say that freedom is a constant crying
Oh Lord, we’ve cried so long
We must be free, we must be free

They say that freedom is a constant sorrow
They say that freedom is a constant sorrow
They say that freedom is a constant sorrow
Oh Lord, we’ve sorrowed so long
We must be free, we must be free

They say that freedom is a constant moaning
They say that freedom is a constant moaning
They say that freedom is a constant moaning
Oh Lord, we’ve moaned so long
We must be free, we must be free

They say that freedom is a constant dying
They say that freedom is a constant dying
They say that freedom is a constant dying
Oh Lord, we’ve died so long
We must be free, we must be free

The upbringing from this song stems from the same town that I attended
high school in, McComb, Mississippi. The event of September 25, 1961 took the
actions of the black community of McComb to a stop. On this day, Herbert
Lee, a black farmer and father of nine children, was assassinated. Lee was shot
and killed by E. H. Hurst, a member of the Mississippi state legislature, for
his partaking in the black voter registration campaign. Hurst was never charged
for the crime. The killing of Lee sent the black community a strong message:
stand up for your rights and you may be killed. This was not the first time black
Americans had been given this message but was still a devastating blow to their
hopes that the movement had brought. The NAACP and SNCC realized
nothing would happen in Mississippi unless people devoted themselves knowing
they were prepared to die for social change. In the end, the revival of
the NAACP and the
introduction of the SNCC in McComb had registered only 12 new voters
and the town lingered deeply entrenched in the Jim Crow tradition. Nonetheless,
McComb had provided the black voter registration movement with an esteemed
testing ground. When the movement resumed in the summer of 1964, it brought
focus and intensity as the NAACP, SNCC,
and volunteers were ready to implant eternal changes.

The summer of 1964 hosted a presidential election. Thus, the SNCC decided
to return to McComb focus on the voter registration effort with more power and
establish freedom schools to teach reading and math to black children as
schools were still segregated. This became known as the Freedom Summer.
The white community in McComb welcomed the Freedom Summer with fear and panic.
The violence that heightened during the Freedom Summer of 1964 gave McComb
the reputation as the bombing capital of the world. The violence influenced
black churches to shut their doors to the movement, attendance of meetings
dwelled, and most people did not want to risk their well-being by traveling to
the courthouse to register to vote. Ultimately, the youth that attended the
McComb freedom school became the blaze of the movement. The youth were forced
to conduct classes in the backyard of the recently bombed freedom school
because no other black institution wanted to offer their facilities. Joyce
Brown, a sixteen-year-old freedom school student, conveyed the schoolchildren’s
concerns in a poem:

I asked for your
churches, and you turned me down,

But I’ll do my work if I
have to do it on the ground.

You will not speak for
fear of being heard,

So you crawl in your
shell and say

Do not disturb.

Brown’s poem was a turning point. The black community was motivated by
her words and offered facilities for over 100 youth enrolled in the school.
Churches re-opened their doors to movement meetings and attendance sky rocketed.
The Freedom Summer sparked the revival of the McComb voter registration
movement. The summer brought commitment, confidence, and strength to the black
community of McComb as the number of black registered voters increased. The Freedom
Summer forever transformed race relations and shaped the future of McComb,
Mississippi. Black Music had improved the lives of every member in McComb’s black
community during the civil rights movement.

To conclude on the involvement of black music in the civil rights movement
of this timeframe, I will speak on arguably the most prominent and influential
producer of black music of this time, Motown Records. Through the leadership of
Berry Gordy, Motown Records exposed us to many exemplary black artists who gave
us ageless music. From Motown Records came the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson is considered to be the first black superstar after
the civil rights movement, rising to fame in the 1970s. Born just four years
after segregation was outlawed, he signed to Motown in 1968, the same year
Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Detroit was turned to shambles. Still,
he was an artist with the potential to cause a crossover in a country
struggling with its impending integration. Although Jackson was never
politically involved he is deemed a product of the movement.

Michael Jackson’s name does not come to mind when one thinks of
black music. Thus, how did a black man become known as the King of Pop? The
argument is very similar to our discussion in class about the impact of
African-American jazz music in the 1950’s. This implies that Michael’s music
creates a catalyst that triggers a chain reaction that ultimately breaks down
racial barriers and unites people. As time went on Michael Jackson would grow
into a global icon, nearly 50 years after Louis Armstrong
refused to perform in Russia.

Michael Jackson, like many before him, consistently used music to challenge
the status quo and change the world. For example, his song “They don’t
care about us,”

Beat me, hate me

You can never break me

Will me, thrill me

You can never kill me

Jew me, sue me

Everybody do me

Kick me, kike me

Don’t you black o Some
things in life

They just don’t wanna see

But if Martin Luther was livin’

He wouldn’t let this be

Skin head, dead head

Everybody’s gone bad

Situation, segregation

Everybody allegation

In the suite, on the news

Everybody dog food

Kick me, strike me

Don’t you wrong or right me

All I wanna say is that

They don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is that

They don’t really care about us

Through these lyrics excerpted from his song, Michael Jackson
expresses his distaste for societies’ criticism and actions. Not only is this
an anthem for the movement towards gaining civil rights in America but also in
other nations. This shows Jackson’s global stardom as a black artist, something
which seemed unfathomable beforehand.

Till this day, people all over the globe are fighting for civil
rights. From the black lives matter movement in America due to police brutality
to the Muslims facing a ban due to Trump’s orders. As all of this is going on,
many people are standing up for their rights through protests. It is as if
history is repeating itself right in front of us. Many anthems are being
created throughout all of this, and I hope, through this researched review,
many more changes can be made for the better. 


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