The Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Essential Question

How did popular music reflect the values of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and help the movement convey its message?


There is no American social movement of the 20th or 21st century more closely connected to music than the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Protesters, some in prison, sang freedom songs to keep their spirits up. Folksingers, black and white alike, wrote songs about the paradoxes and pains not just of the Jim Crow South, but of the racism that had long troubled American life.

Perhaps no song was more closely associated with the Civil Rights movement than “We Shall Overcome.” Based on a 19th-century African-American Gospel song, “We Shall Overcome” was picked up by the labor movement in the 1940s, during which time the folksinger/activist Pete Seeger first came across it. Seeger then helped popularize the song in the early phase of the Civil Rights movement, when it quickly became a ubiquitous sing-along anthem that crowds of activists embraced, often swaying side to side, arm in arm. Joan Baez performed it at the 1963 March on Washington; President Lyndon Johnson quoted it in his speech to Congress proposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Songs reflecting the themes of the Civil Rights movement were not limited to Folk – the genre commonly associated with American protest songs – but could be found in all types of popular music. The Jazz revolution of the 1960s was affected by the Civil Rights movement. A number of Blues songs compared the oppression of southern blacks in the early 1960s to the racial injustices earlier in the century and before. By the end of the decade, even Motown Records was releasing records by artists ready to speak out against American racism.

In this lesson, students will examine the history and popularity of “We Shall Overcome” and investigate six additional songs from different musical genres that reveal the impact of the Civil Rights movement. These are: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a poignant Blues song depicting the horrors of lynching; Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” a Folk song about protests after the integration of the University of Mississippi; John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” an instrumental Jazz recording made in response to the September 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four African-American girls; Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” a response to the same church bombing as well as the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi; Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” a Soul song written after Cooke’s arrest for attempting to check in to a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana; and Odetta’s “Oh Freedom,” a spiritual that Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • The role of music as a motivating force in the Civil Rights movement
    • The history of “We Shall Overcome” and its central importance to the Civil Rights movement
    • The ways in which popular songs of different musical genres reflected the values and beliefs of the Civil Rights movement
    • The effectiveness of music in spreading the message of the Civil Rights movement
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze the lyrics of popular music for meaning
    • Analyze instrumental music for meaning and attitude
    • Make connections between popular music and historical events
    • Evaluate the role and effectiveness of music as a tool of political protest
    • Common Core: Students will investigate text, audio and video to analyze the role of music in the Civil Rights movement (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 2; CCSS Writing 9; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2; CCSS Language 4)