On January 15th we celebrate the Birthday of one of the most influential non-violent civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. The non-violent activism Martin Luther King Jr. spear-headed in the mid 50’s, and 60’s played a large role in ending legal segregation of African American citizens in the South. Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement was a nonviolent one, relying on marches, boycotts, and large conventions; but one of the most important weapons in Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent movement was music.
“The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle. They give 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”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
The movement pulled from African American Spirituals, Gospel music and singers, blues, and folk music. The most important anthems of the Civil Rights movement, ones like ‘We Shall Overcome’, or ‘This Little Light of Mine’, were ones that could be easily taught, and sung a capella at marches with little instrumental background. This is why singers are often regarded as the voices of the civil rights movement. Music was the ultimate non-violent weapon that unified an entire movement.
Today’s post is a celebration of the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., and his impactful work during the Civil Rights Movement via music, and musicians who helped change America forever.
Nina Simone was a civil rights activist and singer born in 1933. Sometimes known as the voice of the Civil Rights movement, Simone sang the famous ballad ‘Strange Fruit’, a haunting account of the hangings of black citizens under Jim-Crow law in the south. Kanye West would later go on to sample Simone singing ‘Strange Fruit’ on his track ‘Blood on The Leaves’. Nina Simone also sang songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, songs created in rebuttal to events happening around her at that time. Other prolific singers of the Civil Rights Movement, Such as Billie Holiday, also covered ‘Strange Fruit’.
Mahalia Jackson, the deemed ‘Queen of gospel’, was born in 1911. In an NPR interview, Jesse Jackson, fellow Civil Rights Activist, states that “Her voice became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”, and goes on to reminisce about how she often attended marches with King, and sang in the worst areas of southern segregation. This beautiful, soulful gospel singer sang hits like ‘How I Got Over’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, and ‘Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho’.
The Freedom Singers were a group of students that emerged from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This group went to colleges, universities, high schools, conferences, and small meetings, to spread and teach civil rights anthems like ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘This Little Light of Mine’, and ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’. These anthems of the civil rights movement were widely known, and used as symbols of unity at marches, and big conferences.
Bob Dylan, a young folk singer of the 60’s, was turned politically active by his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, who was daughter of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) volunteers. Dylan’s song ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is one of his most impactful civil rights anthems. Starting with the poignant line ‘How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man”. Dylan was not the only folk singer that took an interest in the importance of King’s Civil Rights Movement, folk group Peter, Paul and Mary also performed their civil rights anthem ‘If I had A Hammer’ at Civil Rights rallies.
Today we not only celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., we also celebrate all those courageous individuals that fought for themselves, and each other, in one of the most influential movements in all of America’s history.