The Civil Rights movement produced a treasury of songs whose messages and musical quality continue to move audiences today. Here are the stories behind just three of these, all composed and notably performed by musicians of African-American descent:
1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing"
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is also known as the “Black American National Anthem.” The words, by poet and later NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, were set to music by the poet’s brother, John Rosamund Johnson. The brothers hoped the song would help heal the wounds inflicted on the African-American community by generations of brutality.
James Weldon Johnson also served as principal at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1900, students there gave the song its first public performance in observance of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
In 1919, it was adopted as the official song of the NAACP, and black church choirs across the South made it a staple of their repertoires. One person at the time described it as a “collective prayer.” By the 1930s and 40s, people hungry for freedom around the world were singing it, and it became an iconic song of the American Civil Rights movement.
Johnson and his brother went on to write hundreds of songs for Broadway theaters. His rich treasury of individual work includes the 1927 collection God’s Trombones, featuring resonant, hymn-like poems such as “The Creation,” which retells the bible creation story in resonant, contemporary language.
In recent years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has figured in Juneteenth celebrations, and has been covered by artists across the musical spectrum, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Melba Moore, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the now-famous Wattstax concert in 1972, soul singer Kim Weston sang it and brought the audience to its feet after they had sat in stony silence during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 2018, Beyoncé performed it at Coachella for a largely white audience, a remarkable moment that helped raise awareness of the song’s key place in history.
The fact that its lyrics alternate between being solemn with the knowledge of suffering and weariness, and being joyful with determination and hope for the future, is one reason it speaks to new generations.
2. “Freedom Highway"
“Freedom Highway” is a song written specifically for a moment in time, to honor the Civil Rights struggle as it unfolded. It commemorates the freedom marchers across the segregated South in the 1950s and 60s, particularly those who in 1965 marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery: “Marching freedom’s highway, I’m not gonna turn around.”
Roebuck “Pops” Staples, leader and patriarch of the gospel group The Staple Singers, recalled the creation of the song just weeks after that historic march, in which protesters—including now-Congressman John Lewis—were brutally beaten by state troopers and an armed and angry mob on “Bloody Sunday.” Because of that march, Staples said, “words were revealed and a song was composed.”
Staples made those remarks when introducing the song at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church on April 9, 1965. The church reverberated with the thundering righteousness of the song, which evokes the moral certainty of those involved in the fight for freedom and equality. The performance was recorded live and preserved for the future on an album reissued in 2015 as Freedom Highway Complete.
The Staple Singers were the “First Family of Gospel.” “Pops” and his children Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Mavis worked together beginning in the late 1940s, building a blues-inflected, folk-gospel style drawing on the rhythms of Pops’ Mississippi Delta youth and driven by Mavis’ powerful soul vocals. The singers became close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and commemorated him after his death with “A Long Walk to D.C.”
Pops died in 2000, Cleotha in 2013, and Yvonne in 2018. Pervis left the group as a young man, but Mavis has kept up a solo career. Now past her 80th birthday, she issued the 2019 album We Get By. Additionally, she remains a staunch activist who sees the situation in the world today is very similar to the 60s.
3. “We Shall Overcome”
The simple but powerful lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” speak not of oppression, but of hope: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.” To this day, the song is one of the most recognizable of all those that defined the Civil Rights movement.
It has become an anthem of peaceful protesters all over the world. It has been song in Soweto Township in apartheid South Africa, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and most recently by protesters in Hong Kong fighting for autonomy from China’s authoritarian government and in the United States at #BlackLivesMatter protests.
The origins of “We Shall Overcome” lie in a folk song (“I’ll be all right some day”) sung by American slaves. Its melody—both somber and soaring—is close to that of the spiritual “No More Auction Block.” In the hands of Methodist minister and gospel composer Charles Albert Tindley, himself the son of slaves, it became “I’ll Overcome Someday.” It was that version that became the basis for the one we know today.
Tobacco workers in the 1940s began using the song during labor protests, its first political usage. They sang, “We will win our rights someday.” Zilphia Horton, a Tennessee music director and labor supporter, began teaching it in workshops.
Folk singer Pete Seeger, sometimes erroneously credited as the song’s author, learned it from Horton. Seeger codified the title as “We Shall Overcome,” added new verses, and led it at numerous protests and rallies. In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heard Seeger perform it at one of Horton’s workshops.
On March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination, Dr. King used “We Shall Overcome” as the anchor and refrain of one of his most powerful speeches, saying, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”