How gospel music helped fuel the civil rights movement

Music is a powerful tool. It can give hope. This can incite anger. It can be an incentive to seek peace. This can incite to engage in violence. An example of the genius of the civil rights movement, in this classic era, is how activists harnessed music to bring people together rather than divide people or incite violence. They used music to soften hearts and grab the attention of the audience.

Q: The 1963 March on Washington was one of the most iconic moments of the civil rights movement. How did gospel music play a role in this event?

One of the most famous gospel artists of all time, Mahalia Jackson, not only sang on the march, but also drew on black church tradition to influence what has become one of most famous speeches in American history.

People say the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was reading a prepared speech when Jackson, who was on the podium near the podium, shouted at him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” She and King had traveled together, singing and speaking at events, and Jackson had heard King describe the dreams he had for racial equality in the South and the rest of the United States. And his outbursts prompted him to leave his notes and start improvising: “…[S]o even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…”

What Jackson did would have been familiar behavior for King, as she drew on the call-and-response tradition of the Black Church. In this tradition, preachers do not just give speeches; on the contrary, the sermon is a kind of exchange or dialogue with the congregation. They say something, the audience responds, they speak again with the audience response in mind. And that’s what Mahalia did – she engaged in a kind of call and response, and it resulted in a speech that every American child is learning today. This exchange is, for me, a demonstration of the important and close relationship between faith and the word and music in black social movements.

Q: How long has this close relationship existed?

This music goes back, back, back. Before the birth of the gospel during the Great Migration, there was the hymn tradition – “We Shall Overcome” was originally a hymn called “I’ll Overcome Someday” – and concerted spirituals, which were still sung. All of this music became a pool that activists began to tap into. In the civil rights era, there was a concerted and organized effort to use music as a sort of defense against fear. Within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, there was a group of civil rights activists who came together to learn and practice music, and then they brought it back to the various groups they led. One of the leaders, Bernice Johnson Reagon, shared how singing this music helped them cope with the life or death situation that was manifesting. This trained them to keep going even when they felt the threat of violence from police and civilians in the streets.

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