Freedom Songs

Freedom songs are a corpus of songs that were used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and afterward as a unifying force in the African American struggle for freedom and human rights. The use of music in the fight for freedom was evidenced throughout the history of Africans in the Americas, particularly in the songs known as spirituals. But as a specific group of songs, freedom songs refer to the songs that were sung at sit-ins, mass meetings, prayer vigils, protest marches, boycotts, rallies, freedom rides, picket lines, courthouses, and jails. The first documented and identified body of freedom songs came from the student sit-in organizers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Freedom songs are songs of protest and selfassertion, inspiration and encouragement. Through the freedom songs, disenfranchised African Americans have been able to respond courageously to injustices and comment boldly on events in their struggle for civil rights. In essence, the freedom songs were tools for survival that drew together people of differing backgrounds and experiences in a centralized struggle for human rights.
The majority of the freedom songs were adapted from the wellspring of African American musical styles that were rooted in African cultural traditions. Most of the songs and styles of singing were based on spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns. The original meanings of the older spirituals, messages of justice and liberation, were relevant to the latest circumstances. In many of the older texts, pronouns were changed from first-person singular to first-person plural, fostering the sense of community and group solidarity. The repertoire of songs was expanded to include many popular African American musical forms and singing techniques of the 1960s (e.g., rhythm and blues). Melodies were retained, song texts were modified, and old and new styles were blended to create the freedom songs that captured the verve and potency of the movement.

The Meaning and History of Songs of Protest

The singing of a particular freedom song usually lasted for extended periods during sit-ins and marches. As a result, new verses were composed not only to fill up the time but also to express the complexity of the dissent and protest against oppression. At some times, individuals inspired by an event or a testimony composed new verses, and at other times, verses evolved spontaneously out of the group experience. The counteractions of song and protest resulted in a new energy that propelled the group into further committed resistance. The freedom songs that surfaced in the midst of protest can be divided into two basic categories: group participation songs and professionally composed songs.
The group participation songs were often versions of existing songs that were improvised, with the help of a song leader, by groups engaged in civil rights activities. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in a community, local song leaders would join in the crusade. The song leaders performed in a variety of styles as they learned the songs of the organizers, added to them, and sorted through songs in the traditional repertoire to find songs that encapsulated the feelings of the current struggle and the local sentiment. At mass meetings in rural counties of Southwest Georgia, for example, song leaders used the lining-out hymns and call-and-response songs of that area as the basic repertoire. Sometimes the older songs were sung without change, and sometimes words were changed to identify and authenticate a specific local incident or event. An ideal mass meeting would combine songs from the standard freedom song repertoire, unchanged in song form and text, with songs modified and updated by recent events.
Strong song leaders in different regions would band together to develop “freedom choirs.” These groups of musicians not only led the group participation songs at mass meetings and other activities but also performed their professionally composed songs as they traveled across the country in support of civil rights issues. Freedom choirs included the Montgomery Gospel Trio, the Selma Freedom Choir, the Nashville Quartet (the American Baptist Theological Seminar Quartet), the Birmingham Choir (Carlton Reese's Gospel Freedom Choir of the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights), Guy Carawan and the Freedom Singers, the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers, and the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) Singers. The performances of these ensembles brought attention to the movement, and the freedom songs gained increased importance as a means of conveying the nature and intensity of the struggle to audiences outside of the setting of civil rights movement activity. Some of these groups used money raised from their performances to pay the bail for the release of imprisoned freedom fighters throughout the South. Other song leaders, such as Fannie Lou Hamer from Ruleville, Mississippi, individually carried the freedom song tradition to mass meetings and marches across the state of Mississippi, and later throughout the South and the nation.
Some of the freedom songs of the civil rights movement have a long history of being used as African American protest songs. The song Old Freedom dates back to the enslavement period and, with changes in the song text, was used as a marching song by protesters in the 1906 Atlanta race rebellions. It was again used in the 1930s by organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union; found its way to the sit-ins, mass meetings, and freedom rides of the civil rights movement; and was sung frequently at SNCC conferences.
We Shall Overcome is one of the most popular of the freedom songs, and it became the theme song for the nonviolent constituency of the civil rights movement. Adapted from a combination of the melody of an older hymn called I'll Be Alright and the text of I'll Overcome Some Day, an older gospel song composed by Charles Tindley, We Shall Overcome was first used by the Food and Tobacco Workers Union in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1940s. During that period, Zilphia Horton, Director of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, introduced it to union gatherings all across the South. We Shall Overcome has been sung at great mass rallies by thousands of voices around the world and in many languages.
Four major collections of freedom songs have been published: The SNCC songbook, We Shall Overcome (1963); Freedom is a Constant Struggle (1968); Songs of the Spirit Movement (1968); and the NAACP songbook, Lift Ev'ry Voice (1972).
The freedom songs played a vital role in the civil rights struggle and gave people renewed courage and a sense of unity. The serious study of the freedom songs provides a historical account of events, the various responses to oppression, the array of protest strategies, and personal reflections and testimonials of the civil rights movement, an important epoch in the history of African American people.



  • freedom songs
  • sit ins
  • choirs
  • freedom
  • civil rights movement
  • civil rights
  • singing


Further Reading

  • Carawan, Guy. (1990). Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Song. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out. This is a history of the music in the movement.
  • Reagon, Bernice Johnson. (1980). Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960–1966 [Booklet]. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Written by one of the great performers of civil rights songs, this booklet contains important information on the voices of the movement.
  • Sanger, Kerran L. (1995). When the Spirit Says Sing! The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement (Garland Studies in American Popular History and Culture). New York: Garland. This is a good study of the way songs were used in the movement.
  • Spencer, Jon Michael. (1990). Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Spencer's work is an exploration of sacred music used for secular purposes.