Art & Politics

Songs and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A. (Various artists)

If you know little about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A. the videos here may be a good way to ‘open up’ the whole subject for you. It is a truly epic story of black people’s struggle for justice (over hundreds of years and still ongoing) within the U.S.A., the richest and (often claimed) most ‘developed’ country on earth.

Note : Some of the songs are accompanied by very powerful visuals – so you may need to prepare yourself for these.

Singing as a community activity is deeply rooted in the African cultures from which slaves were taken to the Americas. Men, women and children found themselves violently torn from their homes, villages and communities. They were imprisoned and transported across the Atlantic in horrific conditions. Those who survived this were then sold into an oppressive ‘white’ culture as slaves, as 'property'. Here they struggled to rebuild and maintain something of their own identities, as individuals, and as communities. Singing was one key to that.

Slave owners introduced (or forced upon) their slaves new belief systems, churches and christian religions. Some of these songs are therefore rooted in old religious songs and singing styles, e.g. Gospel songs. In their new forms as slave songs they are infused with oppression, with community solidarity, community values, and the commitment to justice and equality - however long it takes to achieve.

The struggle for Black people’s Civil Rights in the U.S.A. is, sadly, still a long way from overcoming racism, xenophobia and prejudice to achieve equality. There are countless indications that this struggle is far from over. In the USA today the movement 'Black Lives Matter' is very important in helping everyone to see and respond to the widespread, deep and structural racism which should shame the whole nation. For more information see their website (in our 'Links' section)

These civil rights songs are not in strict chronological order. Many of these songs have sold millions but none of them were passing ‘Pop’ hits. They all have an ongoing life, and have been recorded and performed thousands of times over several decades.

All these songs (and thousands of others) are part of the living Civil Rights heritage, helping to keep hope, strength, truth and integrity alive. These artists have certainly 'clarified, crystallised and communicated' in powerful ways. Their many versions remain as enduring artistic contributions to the struggle. At the bottom of this page we include three different versions of Sam Cooke's song 'Change Gonna Come" to illustrate how each generation and genre of music keeps returning to these songs, as essential pieces of art and culture.

These artists and their songs contribute to the continuous cultural flow needed to sustain people through struggles for civil and human rights, not just in the U.S.A. They have been an inspiration to other struggles around the world, across generations and geography.

Mavis Staples - “Eyes on the Prize”

Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1959)

Lyrics of "Strange Fruit" :

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Paul Robeson – "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (1933)

The Golden Gospel Singers - “Oh Freedom !”

Nina Simone – “Mississippi Goddam”

John Legend – "Woke Up This Morning"

This video includes footage from the funeral of Dr Martin Luther King, after his assassination in April 1968. In June James Earl Ray was arrested at London Heathrow airport, charged with murder, pleaded guilty in an American Court and was jailed for 99 years. He died in Jail, with many believing him to be a 'fall guy'. In a later civil case the Jury found that another man, Loyd Jowers & "others, including unspecified governmental agencies" had conspired to murder King.

Mahalia Jackson – "We Shall Overcome" (this version is late 1960s)

Aretha Franklin – "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – "People Get Ready" (1965)

The video for this song illustrates how universally relevant some of these songs are. Although written from an African-American viewpoint, the messages of this oppressed people transcend generations and geography, and have an enduring global impact.

Mavis Staples – "We Shall Not Be Moved" (this version 2008)

The Roots - “Can’t Turn Me Around” (2010)

Sam Cooke – "Change Gonna Come" (1964)

This illustrates the point that all of the songs in this section continue to be recorded and performed thousands of times and they continue to be very relevant because (sadly) over half a century later, the 'Change' has still not come.

Lauryn Hill – "Change Gonna Come" (2009)

Aretha Franklin – "Change Gonna Come"