Southern School Desegregation
Which Side Are You On?
Songwriter: Florence Reece, with new words by James Farmer
Performed by: The Freedom Singers
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Freedom songs came from union halls as well as churches. "Which Side Are You On?" had been written by Florence Reece, the wife of a striking Kentucky coal miner.
Civil rights activists changed the words to ask whether the listener was on the side of freedom fighters or on the side of ("a [Uncle] Tom for") Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. Barnett, like some other Southern politicians, had been a moderate who veered to the right, embracing segregation to get more white votes. Barnett and his counterparts in Arkansas and other states resisted admitting black students to all-white public high schools and universities.
The song's question was directed to two groups. First, it addressed whites, who were faced with the choice of supporting progressive and often unpopular activists or maintaining a comfortable status quo that was increasingly seen as racist.
Second, the song addressed middle class blacks who might have felt they had more to lose by standing with the grass-roots activists; one verse of the song is: "Come all you bourgeois black men/ With all your excess fat/ A few days in the county jail/ Will sure get rid of that."
For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.