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Movement Music: The Final Lecture from Julian Bond’s Class on the Southern Civil Rights Movement—Part 2

By Julian Bond

The Freedom Choir, featuring high school students in Selma in 1964, was just one example of the important role music played throughout the movement.
The Freedom Choir, featuring high school students in Selma in 1964, was just one example of the important role music played throughout the movement. Photo credit: Danny Lyon

I entered the archive at the University of Virginia unsure what I might find. Looking through the Julian Bond Papers, over 130 boxes of materials, I was asked to find his lectures for the class he taught on the Southern Civil Rights Movement. With the aid of several research librarians, I eventually found those lectures, which Jeanne Theoharis and Pam Horowitz edited into the book, Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. One unexpected surprise, and one that we could not fit into the book, was his lesson on the music of the movement. He ended his classes with this lecture, perhaps as a way to celebrate, but also as a way to inspire and to move his students to go out and change the world.

Music served many purposes for the movement. There was great resolve activists gained from singing together. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

“I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.’ It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, help us march together.”

Here we see that music can give a group of activists courage and a sense of togetherness to move forward into action. Music can take people from the realm of ideas into the realm of action. In this realm of action, those resisting are able to transform spaces of oppression into spaces of resistance. Movement singing was largely based on congregational singing, which is not rehearsed but learned in the moment, and is flexible and can respond instantly to the needs of an assembled group. A song-leader raises a song, receives a response from the congregation, and, in turn, the song leader responds. This style was a natural fit for the work being done by civil rights activists. Fannie Lou Hamer provides a clear example of this congregational style here, in her singing of Woke up this Morning. You can here the way the room responds and the dynamic give and take of a group speaking to each other.

Local people in the civil rights movement created a space in their struggles, using music to gain confidence, power, and a voice. In this process, they transformed the space around them; turning churches into spaces to organize; claiming jails as spaces for political speeches; and making armed police and vigilantes back down in realization that they could not control a movement that was showing their unity and power, all through song. In this lecture from Julian Bond, we get a lesson in how this happened through a variety of songs.

You can listen to the entire album, from which Julian played selections for his class, by following this link for purchase of the album or individual songs. We have linked the songs in this article to video and audio freely available online.

—Erik Wallenberg


Movement Music
by Julian Bond

We are going to listen today to several Freedom Songs, all of them taken from a three-record set “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960–1966”—all of them should blow your mind. The set was compiled by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Director of the Smithsonian’s Program in Black American Culture. You will hear her voice on some of these songs and will remember her from the movement in Albany, Georgia. She is best known as the Founder and Director of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. In the liner notes, she says the “music culture of the civil rights movement was shaped by its central participants: black, Southern, and steeped in oral tradition.

These songs tell stories. They are protest songs and songs of rebellion. They issue challenges to the white opposition. They tie the movement’s experiences—a march, a boycott, a clash with white authority—to the tradition of the black church, and take from the tradition of black church songs, substituting words and names to create new songs, applying old songs with Biblical messages to the current movement.

For example, the lines “Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail” could easily refer to Biblical figures, or to jailed protestors in Albany, Birmingham, or Selma. The song “Let My People Go” might mean the children of Israel held in bondage; it might also mean jailed protestors anywhere in the early 1960s South.

SNCC Field Secretary Charles Sherrod described in a field report how the music helped the movement when he wrote about the Albany Movement’s first mass meeting in November 1961:

“The church was packed before eight o’clock. People were everywhere, in the aisles, sitting and standing in the choir stands, hanging over the railing of the balcony, sitting in trees outside the window . . . When the last speaker among the students, Bertha Gober, had finished, there was nothing left to say. Tears filled the eyes of hard, grown men who had seen with their own eyes merciless atrocities committed . . . And when we rose to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ nobody could imagine what kept the church on four corners . . . I threw my head back and sang with my whole body.”

There are many songs on these three records, and many other collections—on records and in songbooks—of movement music. Some of these songs should be familiar to you; others will be brand new. When they are familiar, you should feel free to lose your inhibitions and sing along, following the song’s leader. I have selected a few, loosely divided into two categories—first, songs created by movement songwriters for movement ensembles to express a feeling or sentiment or to sum up a movement, and then more traditional songs from church tradition that have been altered and adapted to become Freedom Songs.

Bernice Reagan explained that process:

“Charlie Jones looked at me and said ‘Bernice, sing a song,’ and I started ‘Over My Head, I see Trouble in the Air.’ By the time I got to where ‘trouble’ should be, I didn’t see any trouble, so I put ‘Freedom’ in there. That was the first time I had an awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I wanted.”

These songs serve many purposes. They help to rally community spirit. They help the community to say things in song they might not dare to say in conversation. Most of them are congregational, sung by everyone at the mass meeting. When everyone sings, everyone shares in the emotion, and everyone shares in the spirit expressed in the song. There were many movement ensembles or groups. Many communities had a favorite choir, drawn from a church, or a choir made up from several church choirs that moved from church to church as the sites of mass meetings moved.

Each community also had song leaders. Each leader brought something different to each song. On occasion, a member of the ensemble or choir—or of the congregation or audience—can supersede the leader, suggesting a line, introducing the chorus, even beginning a new song. Typically, the leader serves both musical and organizational roles. He or she establishes which song is to be sung, and the rest join in. The leader must select the right song for the right moment and must infuse the group with the spirit to sing. The typical song follows a pattern imported from Africa, adapted to field or work songs during slavery and peonage, and existing today in church and popular music, and in the cadences of black and white ministers—call and response.

Thus, in the spiritual, “the leader asks, “Have you got good religion?” and the congregation answers, “Certainly Lord.”

Leader: “Have you got good religion?”

Audience: “Certainly, Lord.”

Leader: “Have you got good religion?”

Audience: “Certainly, Lord.”

Leader: “Have you got good religion?”

Audience: “Certainly, Lord. Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord.”

With the change of a few words, this spiritual becomes a Freedom Song.

Leader: “Do you want your freedom?”

Audience: “Certainly, Lord.”



The next songs are traditional songs from the standard hymnal and church repertoire that have been altered to become Freedom Songs, this one from the height of the Birmingham movement in 1963. It is based on the parable of the lost sheep.

The singers are Carleton Reese and the Alabama Christian Movement Choir, and the song is a traditional gospel song with new words. As you listen, you’ll hear the leader, Carleton Reese, open with the call, “Oh Lord, I’m running,” and the choir will respond, “Lord I’m running, trying to make a hundred.” Later they will exchange places and the choir will issue the call, “35, 40, 45, 50,” and Reese will respond, “Won’t do, won’t do.” Then he’ll take over and he will issue the call “Let me tell you 91, 92,” and the choir will respond “Won’t do, won’t do.”



Next is a song sung and recorded at a mass meeting in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the fall of 1961. Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer leads what began as a traditional Christmas song, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which announces the birth of Christ.



The next song, “This Little Light of Mine,” was recorded at a mass meeting in Selma in October 1963. The group is the Selma Youth Choir. The leader is fifteen-year-old Betty Mae Fikes—here, Betty Mae Fikes talks decades later about the role of signing in preparing for going to jail—who is one of the movement’s strongest singers. Fikes is going to use the names of local figures and people and places in these songs to make them relevant to a Selma audience. She will mention Governor Wallace, Alabama’s governor; Jim Clark, the Dallas County Sheriff; Judge Loomis, who has been a movement opponent; Mayor Heinz, Selma’s Mayor; Hudson and Farish High Schools, the segregated black and white schools in Selma; Mr. Anderson and Miss Moore, popular teachers at the black high school, Hudson High; and Pres’s Place and the Thirsty Bar, segregated after-school student hangouts in Selma.



“If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus” is a song written for the movement during the Freedom Rides. Here, Betty Fikes changes the usual words to fit the specificities of the Selma movement:

“If you miss me from the back of the bus,

and you can’t find me nowhere,

come on up to the front of the bus,

I’ll be sitting up there.”

She inserts local names—George Wallace, Jim Clark, and others—to make points not easily made otherwise. Listen carefully and you will hear her say:

“If you miss Jim Clark,

and you can’t find him nowhere.

Come on over to the graveyard,

He’ll be lying over there.”

Here is the Selma Youth Choir and fifteen-year-old Betty Mae Fikes.



Next is a song whose title should be familiar to all of you. It is “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table”—this was the name of the course reader Julian assigned for his class—and is sung by Hollis Watkins. He is at a rally for striking coal miners in West Virginia and he takes this 1930s labor song, which had been transferred into a 1960s Civil Rights or Freedom Song, and makes it a union song again.



Last is the movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” George Stoney has produced a marvelous documentary on this song, tracing its development from an old church song “I’ll Overcome Someday.” In 1945, members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union in Charleston, South Carolina, adopted it for use during a strike and brought it with them to Highlander Folk School. Zilphia Horton used it at union meetings all over the South and taught it to Pete Seeger. Seeger and Horton added verses appropriate to labor, peace, and integration movements.

In 1959, Guy Carawan was hired as Highlander’s Music Director. He sang it at SNCC’s organizational meeting on Easter Weekend, 1960. That was the first time I and other students had heard it. It quickly became the movement’s anthem. I saw Israeli and Palestinian women holding hands and singing it; it was sung as the Berlin Wall came down; I heard it sung in Tiananmen Square. In March [2006] in the great immigrant rights marches, it was sung in Jackson, Mississippi in Spanish. This version was recorded in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at a mass meeting in 1964. Mrs. Hamer is the lead singer.



Read part one of “Movement Music: The Final Lecture from Julian Bond’s Class on the Southern Civil Rights Movement.”


About the Authors 

Horace Julian Bond (1940-2015) was a leader in the civil rights movement, a politician, professor, writer, and activist. A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he went on to serve as president of the Southern Poverty Law Center from 1971 to 1979. He served ten years in the Georgia House and six terms in the Georgia Senate. From 1998 to 2010, Bond was the board chairman of the NAACP. He taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, where he spent twenty years as a professor in the history department. He is the author of A Time To Speak, A Time To Act.

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD Candidate in History at CUNY Graduate Center where he studies environmental history and the Black freedom struggle. He researches and writes on the artistic expressions, the music and the theater, of social movements.