Music During the Civil Rights Movement

Music During the Civil Rights Movement

A Force for Change

Music is a powerful force for motivation and is often used as a catalyst or promotion for change. It is commonplace to see bands and performers utilizing music as a means of bringing light to social issues today. In many ways, the Civil Rights Era would set the stage for music to become a centerpiece of protest and civil disobedience. The mainstreaming of music from this era would help to bring to light the plight of blacks in the US. Artists such as Sam Cooke with songs such as “Chain Gang” and “A Change is Gonna Come” would cross cultural boundaries and focus the attention of America on the inequalities of segregation and discrimination. This mainstream music, although more widely known, was not the only driver in civil rights. Much of this music was born out of church choirs and folk music which would lay the earliest foundations for the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights era was no exception to this rule as music would significantly impact civil rights progress by providing a driving force in mobilizing and unifying supporters. 

The Civil Rights Era 

Roughly the years of 1954 through 1968, cover the Civil Rights Era. This era was characterized by organized and unorganized campaigns and protests designed to bring about changes in laws that enforced inequality in America— most notably for African Americans. These campaigns often took the form of protest marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and public gatherings. As a means of unifying and focusing attention on the movement and motivating protesters, music became a vital force.

From the beginning, the civil rights movement was impacted by the power of music. In the early stages of the movement churches which were a unifying force for protesters, would lead events with singing and choir music. Religious group music was a prominent fixture at most civil rights events and protests. Dr. Martin Luther King discusses in detail how the community-based campaigns, such as the Montgomery bus boycott from 1955 to 1956, were motivated and inspired by church leaders who led the protesters with Baptist and Methodist hymns (King, 1958). Dr. King states that ‘‘One could not help but be moved by these traditional songs, which brought to mind the long history of the Negro’s suffering’’ (King, 1958).

The music that emerged in the earliest years of the Civil Rights Movement was spiritual hymns and choir style music. The New York Times discussed the power of this music and its impact on the individuals in the movement. ‘‘They [songs] give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours’’ (Shelton, 1962). These early hymns and songs were the force for mobilizing and maintaining courage through the most difficult civil rights events (Shelton, 1962). The gospel and spiritual hymns boosted the morale of protesters facing violence and hostility in southern states (Shelton, 1962). This music was an intrinsic part of all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement as it was used at meetings, prayer vigils, Freedom Rides, in jails, and other events (Shelton, 1962). Shelton reports that there different songs used for different events such as sit-in songs and protest songs (Shelton, 1962). This source shows the complexity of music in its role in Civil Rights as Gospel might be used for increasing courage while Negro Spirituals might be used to reflect the suffering of blacks.

As a result of the news and press coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, many music artists would become involved in the movement. Many music entertainers helped to lead the movement including Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez and many more. Their expression of support through music would galvanize the Civil Rights movement.

The artists of the Civil Rights Movement were highly diverse with both black and white artists providing music. It is important to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was not a singular movement with one leader, but was a collection of many different groups and movements that operated independently but with a unified purpose. This diversified the music and artists depending upon geography and other factors. For example, in the south early in the movement singers such as Pete Seeger would remake a spiritual named “I’ll Be Alright Someday” and would recreate it as “We Shall Overcome.” This song would be considered the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the South and would later be sung by many other artists. Similarly, artists such as Joan Baez would sing an old slave hymn called “Oh Freedom” the morning prior to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream Speech” in Washington DC. Baez’s rendition of this song along with the involvement of many different artists and groups was instrumental in creating media attention as well as providing white support for civil rights change.

The Civil Rights Movement was further given power through media outlets such as the Ed Sullivan show which provided a means for black artists to enter mainstream American society as well as popular singers and groups to bring greater attention to the movement. The Civil Rights Movement was given most of its strength through the growth of mass media. As more and more Americans owned a television, the level of coverage of civil rights events expanded and was now able to penetrate a society which could now see firsthand the struggles taking place for equality. Television, more than radio, would enhance the impact of music on the civil rights movement by being a larger mass media outlet. In particular, shows like the Ed Sullivan Show would introduce Americans to performers such as the Supremes, Nat King Cole, Diana Ross, and many others (Bowles, 1980). Sullivan. Against opposition from Southern television producers, Ed Sullivan would launch and promote African American entertainers:

The most important thing…is that we’ve put on everything but bigotry. When the show first started in ’48, I had a meeting with the sponsors. There were some Southern dealers present and they asked if I intended to put on Negroes. I said yes. They said I shouldn’t, but I convinced them I wasn’t going to change my mind. And you know something? We’ve gone over very well in the South. Never had a bit of trouble (Bowles, 1980). 

Shows like Ed Sullivan would introduce all of America to the music of the Civil Rights Era. This would help to bring African Americans into the mainstream which ultimately helped to create a more cohesive movement. In many ways, music had already been impacting white America. In the 1950s, artists such as Chuck Berry were already crossing lines of culture with the advent of rock and roll music. Berry, who was nicknamed the Father of Rock and Roll, in many ways provided the blueprint for Civil Rights Artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and many others who were inspired by his style and music.

The mainstreaming of black culture through music and language was taking place in the early 1950s. The impact of this mainstreaming was first recognized in 1955 when researchers reported:

White America uses black dialect in commercials every day. Be observant, people. Don’t let nobody tell you that you are ignorant and that you don’t speak right. Be observant. They started off Channel7 Eyewitness news a few years ago with one word: whashappenin. So, what’s happening, America?”

From an anthropological point of view, across the convergence of culture was already taking place and with the expansion of media black music and other aspects of black culture could be shared with increasing frequency and this would allow for music to play an even more significant role in civil rights. The added strength of television would provide a clear channel of communication for music to impact civil rights.

The role of music in the Civil Rights Era tremendously impacted and changed American society permanently. This change can be seen today as it is commonplace to see music used at protests or for concerts to be held for social issues. By the 1980s, civil rights music had given way to black cultural music icons such as rap and soul which would be as mainstream as rock and roll or country.

Rap would bring to light the harsh reality of inner-city gangs, violence, ghettos, and poverty (History, 2009). The music would alter the way black Americans are perceived, both in good ways and in negative ways. Many of the rappers from this period would challenge white America by singing about racism, police violence, and government authority (History, 2009). In a broader sense, the shift in music is a testament to the success of the music of the civil rights era as it allowed future generations to adopt African American music and culture regardless of race or ethnicity. Perhaps this is the greatest change and legacy of Civil Rights Era music. 


Bowles, J. G. (1980). A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York: G. P. Putnam. History. (2009, March 18).

History of Rap Music. Retrieved from History of Things :

King, M. L. (1958). Stride Toward Freedom. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Merriam, A. P. (1955). American Anthropologist: Music in American Culture New Series. The U. S. A. as Anthropologists, 1173–1181.

Shelton, R. (1962, August 20). Songs a Weapon in Rights Battle. New York Times.

Photo of Mahalia Jackson in the Concertgebouw (April 1961) Archive


Triola Vincent. Sat, Jan 30, 2021. Music During the Civil Rights Movement Retrieved from

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