Civil Rights and Hymns

Matthew Shoemaker

Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth

Honor English Composition 1017

19 November 2011

Hymns of the Civil Rights Church

It should be no surprise that Church hymns played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement. The Church itself provided a framework for the movement. It was a place where communities could come together and organize, where the messages of the Civil Rights movement could spread. The Church was an organizational resource as well as a unifying factor that providing both protection and spiritual nourishment. The social framework of the Church and the unifying identity of faith lent great weight to the movement. Not only would their desire for freedom bring them together, but their belief in God as well.(Calhoun-Brown, 169)

The Church and the hymns sung in the movement also help reinforce the non-violent message of the Civil Rights movement. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr had become a proponent of non-violent social change after learning about the life of Mohandas Gandhi, and how the Indian nationalist had used his non-violent ethics to speak out against British rule. Gandhi’s philosophy and successful use of nonviolence was crucial in convincing King that a non-violent route to liberty could be achieved.(D’Souza)

Because of the heavy Church involvement many of these songs were Church songs, often with lyrics that had been altered to make the song more appropriate to the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King commented that the songs of the protest movement also brought people together by emphasizing strength in unity and solidarity, that people are not alone and isolated in their struggle for rights.(Denisoff, 583)

“We Shall Overcome” is one of the most famous songs of the Civil Rights movement and by the time of the 50s and 60s had already seen use as a protest song, decades before the movement even began. The song came to the Civil Rights movement during a Nashville sit-in and had been brought there by Guy Carawan, who came from the Highlander Folk Center in Mount Eagle, Tennessee. But the song was not originally from there, either. It had been brought to the Highlander Center by white tobacco workers in the 1940s who were on strike and had come Mount Eagle from Charleston, South Carolina for a workshop in union organizing.(Reagan, 116) Zilphia Horton, the director of music at the Highland Folk Center learned the song from the tobacco workers and added it to her programs. Even the white tobacco workers learned the song from someone else: the African American workers who had been singing it in their local union picket lines. She went on to teach the song to many others, to include folk singer Pete Seeger. (Reagan, 117)

The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. Much of Johnson’s early poetry focused on the plight of the blacks under slavery, and sought to bring to the reader the pain under which blacks labored, and hopes under which they could have better lives.(Long, 374) The poem was first publicly performed on February 12, 1900 as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and was later set to music by Johnson’s brother. Even though it was written in 1900, the poem wouldn’t see publication until 1935. Eventually, the song experienced a rebirth during the Civil Rights movement and became a vision of hope for the future for many African Americans. The song version of Johnson’s poem became so popular is was eventually known as the “Black National Anthem.”(Long, 378) It’s popularity was such that during the 1970s at public events with a large African American population in attendance the song would be sung after the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“Oh Freedom” has long been a part of African American spirituals, dating back to times of slavery when the slaves would sing the song in hopes of a brighter future. The song came back into use during the Civil Rights movement. Some versions of the song contained the line “No more tommin'” reference to the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Tommin'” referred to the character of Uncle Tom in the book, and was indicative of a submissive behavior some blacks showed toward whites. The song was famously sung multiple times during the 1963 March on Washington. Once, by Odetta Holmes during the March, and then by Joan Boaz to begin the day’s events on August 28, 1963, preceding Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the same day. (“History of “Oh, Freedom””)

Any discussion of the music sung during the Civil Rights era would be incomplete without a mention of Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie had spent her life as an uneducated sharecropper in rural Mississippi who grew up with the desire for liberation and became highly involved in Civil Rights in August 1962 when workers came to her town encouraging African Americans to register to vote. Despite the known repercussions for attempting to register she was one of the first to volunteer.(Hamlet, 560) For even attempting to do so, she was fired from her job of 18 years and just over a week later bullets were fired into a house she was inside. A literacy test was required to be able to register, and Fannie hadn’t passed on her first visit. Yet despite having already been shot at and fired she returned every 30 days she was allowed to take the test until she passed in January of 1963.

Fannie’s standing up for her rights had dark repercussions for her family. Hamer, her husband, and her daughter were constantly the target of intimidation tactics. Her husband and daughter suffered arrests and were fired from their jobs as well. The Hamer’s received a $9000 water bill, a bill that was blatantly fraudulent as the Hamer’s house had no running water. But the worst would come in June of 1963.(Hamlet, 564)

On the 8th of June Fannie and another female worker were returning home to Mississippi from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina when they were arrested in Winona. They were taken to a jail and put in a cell that contained two black prisoners. The white policemen provided the prisoners with a blackjack, and ordered them both to beat Fannie until each of them had become exhausted. The injuries Fannie suffered left her with a permanently damaged kidney and a clot in her left eye. Despite the threats and intimidation Mrs. Hamer continued to work in the Civil Rights movement, undeterred even by brutal violence.(Hamlet, 565)

Fannie Lou Hamer

Mrs. Hamer’s great talent was not only in the impassioned, poignant speeches she gave, but also in her powerful, moving contralto voice. The first time she used her talent was to calm a bus full of people who were returning home after attempting to register to vote and had been stopped by the local authorities. The riders on the bus had become afraid, not knowing what was going to happen to them. Fannie Lou led the group in song to lift their spirit and keep them calm. It was her singing during gathering that helped make “This Little Light of Mine” one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement, and the song is often associated with her.(Hamlet, 564)

The Civil Rights movement was not just a movement of marches, speeches, hate, and violent incidents, but also one of music, song, and hope. Music was sung in the Church services that the Civil Rights leaders spoke at, music was sung during the marches, and music was sung at the funerals of those slain at the hands of whites who resisted the change. The music sung for freedom and rights came to mark the movement, a movement that was won through it’s voice and it’s song.

Works Cited

Long, Richard A. “A Weapon of My Song: The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson” Phylon Vol. 32, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1971), pp. 374-382 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Calhoun-Brown, Allison. “Upon This Rock: The Black Church, Nonviolence, and the Civil Rights Movement” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 168-174 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Denisoff, R. Serge. “Songs of Persuasion: A Sociological Analysis of Urban Propaganda Songs” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 79, No. 314 (Oct. – Dec., 1966), pp. 581-589 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “Let the Church Sing “Freedom”” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, (1987), pp. 105-118 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Denisoff, R. Serge. “Protest Songs: Those on the Top Forty and Those of the Streets” American Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 807-823 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Hamlet, Janice D. “Fannie Lou Hamer: The Unquenchable Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 26, No. 5, Special Issue: The Voices of African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement (May, 1996), pp. 560-576 JSTOR Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

“History of “Oh, Freedom”” About, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

D’Souza, Placido P. “COMMEMORATING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. / Gandhi’s influence on King”, January 20, 2003. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Peppler, Jim. Woman singing before an audience at Hall Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. 1966. Photograph. ADAH Digital Archives. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Peppler, Jim. Fannie Lou Hamer participating in the “March Against Fear” through Mississippi, begun by James Meredith. 1966. Photograph. ADAH Digital Archives. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.


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