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Music & the U.S. Civil Rights Movement
by Jacquelin C. Peters

Song and eloquent oratory are integral to African-American religious expression, and they were pervasive, spiritually sustaining elements of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. In emotionally tense or physically threatening situations, the standard of nonviolence and a serene attitude were maintained through song, prayer, and words of encouragement. Massive church rallies, picketing demonstrations, and even jail houses echoed with the sounds of resolve, declaring, "Just like a tree standing by the water / We shall not be moved."
       Sacred African-American music provided the basis for many freedom songs. One such spiritual, "I Will Be All Right," has evolved to become the universal anthem of protest, "We Shall Overcome."
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome someday.
Deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome someday.
       Techniques such as call and response, "worrying the line" (using melismatic vocal embellishments), or "lining out" (the song leader's singing or reciting the next line of verse before the end of the previous one) are other retentions from traditional African-American song.
       Grounded in the tradition of Black congregational song, choral quartets and ensembles transmitted the Movement's musical message to audiences far from the locale of the struggle. The Montgomery Gospel Trio, the American Baptist Theological Seminary Quartet (also known as the Nashville Quartet), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Singers, and the SNCC Freedom Singers gave performances that encouraged the world to sit up and take notice.

       Jacquelin Celeste Peters is a consultant scholar for the D.C. Community Humanities Council. She compiled the premier edition of the Directory of African American Folklorists for the Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies.

Suggested Listening
Been in the Storm So Long. Smithsonian Folkways SF 4003 1.

Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs. Smithsonian Folkways SF 40032.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement. Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1965. Smithsonian Collection of Recordings R023.

Wade in the Water, Vols. 1-4. Smithsonian Folkways SF 40072/75.

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