- This lesson utilizes a variety of primary sources and multimedia components. Several Web resources provide access to sound recordings, images, video, and documents that will potentially give historical context to and enhance the lesson. The Activity Worksheets will make many of these activities and resources printable for classroom or at-home use.
- For more background concerning music in post-war America, consider the NEH-funded website Voices Across Time.
- A number of NPR resources and webpages provide useful background to the context of and artists involved in particular musical selections. Podcasts can prove beneficial for students' song lists and informative interviews. Several feature interesting discussions on Sam Cooke, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and general civil rights background.
- PBS’ American Experience site Eyes on the Prize hosts many song clips from various artists and periods of the civil rights movement.
- Instructors and students (under supervision of the instructor) should take advantage of accessible sources for song and video clips such as YouTube that provide additional music free of charge.
- The Smithsonian Folkways project will prove valuable for gathering relevant songs and also features streaming capabilities for song clips. the site has specific pages on songs of the Freedom Riders , music used by the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E), and other songs used by the civil rights movement . (Note that some charges may apply.)
- The PBS-sponsored Strange Fruit site’s timeline can provide useful context of American protest music throughout the years.
- For background on the Freedom Riders, consider using Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
- For primary sources, several EDSITEment-reviewed and NEH-sponsored websites contain excellent documents and images that will enrich your lesson. The National Archive’s DocsTeach hosts the Civil Rights Act (also available here through Our Documents). Correspondence from several Freedom Riders is available, as well as an interesting court case involving Freedom Riders vs. the KKK. If students are new to analyzing music as a primary source, consider consulting the National Archive’s document analysis guide for sound recordings. The Center for History and New Media, in addition to the Smithsonian Institution, offers unique resources as part of their Object of History project. Additionally, the PBS-sponsored site Eyes on the Prize hosts many primary documents that span the entire civil rights movement (and beyond) and gives useful historical background and multimedia resources.
Activity 1: Setting the Stage
- Begin with a discussion where students define and understand the goals of the civil rights movement and the concept of equal rights.
- The Freedom Riders website, under the section Issues, contains short essays on aspects of the movement most relevant to the Freedom Rides.
This essay from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize by Bernice Johnson Reagon gives useful framework for music’s meaning in the civil rights movement.
Activity 2. Understanding the Message Have students analyze the lyrics to a song and analyze the message behind them.
o "If I Had a Hammer"- Pete Seeger (1949)
o “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned”- Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington (1963)
o “This Little Light of Mine”- Various Artists and Performances (1950s and 1960s)
o “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”- Various Artists and Performances (1956)
o “Get Your Rights Jack”- C.O.R.E Freedom Singers (early 1960s)
o “We Shall Overcome”- Various Artists and Performances (consider Joan Baez's version, 1963)
o “Blowin’ in the Wind”- Bob Dylan (1963)
o “A Change is Gonna Come”-Sam Cooke (1964)
o "Here's to the State of Mississippi"- Phil Ochs (1964)
o “Nowhere to Run”- Martha and the Vandellas (1965)
o “Rescue Me”- Fontella Bass (1965)
o “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”
- Nina Simone (1967)
Next, have students rank them according to their relevance to civil rights and social justice.
o Several resources can provide songs such as the Smithsonian Folkways collections on songs by the C.O.R.E Freedom Singers and songs by the Freedom Riders, and the PBS website for the Eyes on the Prize documentary.
o A more focused version of this activity could center attention on a specific and foundational song, such as the anthemic freedom song “We Shall Overcome.”
o In what ways did protesters and civil rights advocates utilize this song?
o What types of meaning and emotion could be extracted from the lyrics and the performance of the song?
o Where did the song actively appear in protests of the early 1960s?
o See Our Documents to view a March on Washington brochure and analyze the context surrounding the song and the march.
o Then have each student present their findings and chosen songs (via YouTube, for example).
Activity 3. The Use of Music in the Freedom Rides
As Freedom Rider James Farmer explained, “the prison officials wanted us to stop singing, because they were afraid our spirit would become contagious and the other prisoners would become Freedom Riders as a result of our singing”. This activity will further explore the link between song and motivation. Find/read primary documents from the Freedom Riders and examine the use of song as a motivational force. Apply the streaming clips from the NEH and PBS-sponsored documentary on the Freedom Riders.
o How did the anthems of the movement comfort or invigorate the participants? Which songs or group of lyrics were chosen?
o View letters written between jailed Freedom Riders as a way to understand their place in confinement. Additionally, these Library of Congress-hosted photographs of Freedom Ride bus stations and events can help illustrate the harsh tone and environment around their project.
o The PBS documentary site Eyes on the Prize provides insight into the role of music for the Freedom Riders.
o Use the documentary Eyes on the Prize to also analyze the use of the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” How does this song serve as an example of music as a tool that aided the Freedom Riders’ cause?
o How else did the Jim Crow era further protest music in the 1960s? For this, utilize the NEH-sponsored documentary on Jim Crow in the South.
o What was the role of spirituals in both the Freedom Riders mission and in the greater use of music in the civil rights campaign.
o To examine the use of spirituals as a tool, examine this clip discussing the role of spirituals from the PBS Freedom Riders documentary.
o Use the EDSITEment lesson plan on the historic role of spirituals in African American history to gain more context and insight.
o This list of spirituals, work songs, and ballads from the Library of Congress may be a useful resource.
o What role did “We Shall Overcome” play in the Freedom Rider’s campaign?
Activity 4. Seeing and Hearing the Message
The students can compare and contrast a prominent document or speech to important songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “Get Your Rights Jack” (1963), or “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) (clips available through the Smithsonian’s Folkways library). Ask them to examine if these prominent events and documents reflected the wants and needs of the participants.
Have student consult Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream" speech. How did Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” reflect the tone and mission of Dr. King’s “dream”?
Activity 5. Examining the Popular Music Landscape
Have students examine the top-selling songs from the early 1960s (specific years are the choice of the instructor). Have each student pick two or more songs and explain the connection (or lack thereof) to the civil rights movement and the racial politics of the day using the provided worksheet.
Examples of top songs of 1961 (the year the Freedom Rides campaign began):
o "At Last"- Etta James
o "Are You Lonesome Tonight"- Elvis Presley
o "Blue Moon"- The Marcels
o "Crazy"- Patsy Cline
o "Cryin'"- Roy Orbison
o "Hello Mary Lou"- Ricky Nelson
o "Let's Twist Again"- Chubby Checker
o "Please Mr. Postman"- The Marvelettes
o "Runaway"- Del Shannon
o "Running Scared"- Roy Orbison
o "Shop Around"- The Miracles
o "Travelin' Man"- Ricky Nelson
o "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"- The Shirelles
The early 1960s saw the beginnings of pop ensembles later known as girl groups. Characterized by stylishly presented all-female singers with glossy production such as The Shirelles, The Ronettes, and later The Supremes, girl groups created a distinct sound of youthful and innocent love songs. Juxtapose the sound of the early girl group phase with the somber and harsh lyrics of “Strange Fruit.” Instructors can utilize this NPR podcast concerning Billie Holiday’s use of the last song and this additional podcast providing context around the song and lynching.
This PBS film “Strange Fruit” may prove useful for its timeline overview of various protest music in American history.
Activity 6. Doing Oral History in Your Community
Have the students conduct interviews with parents, relatives and neighbors about what songs they remember from the civil rights era and how this music reflected the times.
The interview should stem from the interview activity worksheet, which helps students develop oral history skills.
Have students present their findings and play their song via YouTube, NPR Podcast, or Smithsonian Folkways streaming media pages to the class.
Instructors should grade students on:
- Their assessment of the civil rights movement
- Their ability to demonstrate understanding of the role of popular culture in political and social movements
- Their ability to process and analyze primary sources
Students should develop a better understanding of and define concepts of non-violent protest
Students should be able to produce a written assessment on their oral history experience. In addition to a written component, the student’s should be evaluated in their presentation to the class.