Because We Had a Dream

Dr. Elizabeth Woodworth

English 1017

5 December 2011

 Because We Had a Dream: Music from the Civil Rights Movement

            It was 1960 before the Civil Rights movement began to gain national attention. African Americans had been fighting for their rights for almost a century. Blacks had made little progress because of Southern laws written to prevent them from being considered equal to whites. The Jim Crow Laws made segregation legal in schools, restaurants, theaters, parks and many other public places (Pilgrim). Music was a very important part of the Civil Rights movement. Many protesters sang hymns and old slave spirituals while they marched. Many songs were inspired by the events of the Civil Rights movement. The music of the era was used to unite and to inspire. It carried the movement through its hardships and difficulties, as well as through its accomplishments and its successfulness.  Martin Luther King Jr. said  “The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.” The same goes for every kind of music in the 1950s and 1960s, from spirituals and hymns to folk music and country (Pilgrim).

            “We Shall Overcome” is a protest song which became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The song was originally published in 1947. It has been publically sung and recorded by many artists, including Larry Goldings, Joan Baez, and Joe Glazer. In August 1963, Joan Baez led 250,000 people in singing this song at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington (NPR: ‘People Get Ready’). President Lyndon Johnson also used the phrase “we shall overcome” in a speech after Bloody Sunday, which occurred during the march from Selma to Montgomery (Great Speeches Collection).  Martin Luther King Jr. also used to phrase “we shall overcome” in a sermon he preached at the Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1965. The sermon was recorded on an audio tape and was lost until 2007, after the death of Rabbi Max Nussbaum. King concluded his speech by saying “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlisle is right; no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right; truth crushed to earth will rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right; truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the then unknown standard God within the shadow keeping watch above his own” (Kim). “We Shall Overcome” is a short song with simple lyrics, but it could be one of the most influential songs of the Civil Rights movement. The song gave people courage through clouds of tear gas and under the swings of police batons, and to the people being attacked by police dogs. It brought comfort to frightened people as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. It gave people the courage to go on the marches, even though they knew it would end in violence. It gave people the courage to embrace their dream and to fight for their rights.

Selma March” by Grant Green was written in 1965 about the fifty mile march from Selma to Montgomery. The first attempt at the march ended in Bloody Sunday. Six hundred Civil Rights activists were met on Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers, who released tear gas, charged the crowd on horseback and attacked the crowd with clubs (We Shall Overcome).

Bloody Sunday

TWU members march in the 1965 Selma, AL Civil Rights march that was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The second attempt was not successful either. The marchers tried to get a court order that would prevent the police from interfering with the march. Instead of issuing a court order, however, they were issued a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place (King, 1965). In March, Martin Luther King Jr. finally began the historic four day march. Five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. People seem to forget that there were two unsuccessful attempts before the march finally happened. In “Selma March,” Grant Green seems to be celebrating the completion of the march. The song is very upbeat and optimistic.

Strange Fruit” is a poem written by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol. It was inspired by the Lawrence Beitler photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana (Margolick). Billie Holliday released her first recording of the song in 1939, but it has also been recorded by three dozen other performers, including Josh White, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Sting, UB40, Shirley Verrett, Tori Amos and Cassandra Wilson. The first time you hear the song, you might be fooled into thinking that it is actually talking about fruit. The song is actually talking about a southern lynching. The song makes you picture a beautiful southern landscape, with magnolia trees in bloom. It contrasts the picturesque landscape with the grotesque image of a black southerner murdered and hanging from a tree. From 1882-1966, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States (O’Connor).

Lawrence Beitler took this iconic photograph on August 7, 1930, showing the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

A Change is Gonna Come” was written by Sam Cooke in 1963. Cooke was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” because such an inspirational song about racism came from someone who was not black (Rolling Stone). At first he was afraid that he would lose his largely white fan base and was uncomfortable performing “A Change is Gonna Come” in public, because he feared violent retaliation. The song is considered one of Cooke’s best hits. It describes the emotional price paid by blacks after decades of oppression, and it also lifts you up with its message of hope. Sam Cooke shows his optimism for the advancement of blacks when he says “it’s been a long, long time comin’, but I know a change is gonna come”.  They had been treated unequally for too long. They were tired of the segregation, of having to use separate water fountains and to not be able to swim in white swimming pools because whites thought they could catch “black diseases.” They knew that a change was going to come, and they were willing to fight for that change. After a long battle, change finally did come. After a century of discrimination, blacks finally got the privileges and sameness they deserved.

Water fountain segregation

This picture illustrates how the African American race was treated before the Civil Rights Movement.

Take My Hand” is a hymn that was released by Nina Simone in 1956. Nina Simone is better known as Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She became involved in the Civil Rights movement about twenty years into her career. Her music was very influential to the movement. She wrote songs in response to the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children. She was one of the most expressive and outspoken artists of her time. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was sung at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in April of 1968. This song is about always trusting in the strength, love and grace of God to help in difficult times. God told the apostle Paul, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

The music from the Civil Rights movement is teeming with hurt and bleakness, but it is also filled with belief and reassurance. The Civil Rights movement showed us the evils that humans are capable of, but it also showed us how we have perseverance and hope. The 1950s and 1960s might have been a low time in our country, but it was a high point for the African Americans who finally gained the rights they deserved.

Works Cited

“A Change Is Gonna Come, The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,.” Rolling Stone 4 Dec. 2004. Web.

“Great Speeches Collection: Lyndon B. Johnson Speech – We Shall Overcome.” The History Place. Web. <;.

Joshua 1:9New International Version. Print.

Kim, Queena. “Radio Transcript #314.” Hearing Voices. 21 Jan. 2008. Web. <;.

King, Statement on violence committed by state troopers in Selma, Alabama, 7 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.

Kloudie13. “No real name given.” Photograph. Flickr. 3 November 2008.

Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000), pp. 25-27.

Minakata_jin. “glscz.” Photograph. Flickr. 8 September 2011.

Morrison, Nick. “Songs Of The Civil Rights Movement : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 18 Jan. 2010. Web. <;.

No real name given. “transportworkers.” Photograph. Flickr. 6 October 2008.

“NPR : ‘People Get Ready'” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 26 Aug. 2003. Web. <;.

O’Connor, Pat, ed. “American Lynchings.” Crime Magazine. Web. <;.

Pilgrim, David. “What Was Jim Crow?” Ferris State University: Michigan College Campuses in Big Rapids MI, Grand Rapids MI, Off Campus Locations Across Michigan. Sept. 2000. Web. <;.

“We Shall Overcome — The Cost.” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America. Web. <;.


9 thoughts on “Because We Had a Dream

  1. Forgive me if I missed this, but have you ever heard Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit?” The above photo reminded me of it. It’s hard to read these that you post but I make myself, in the name of tolerance. It keeps the rawness present of what hatred does so it’s not just some interesting little story about devastated lives. I could go on and on… Thank you.

    • I have heard that song. I researched it for this paper, but decided against using it. The song was originally a poem written by a white school teacher. The photo reminds me of the song as well. Reading things like this keeps the rawness present and insures that they will not happen again.
      You’re very welcome. Thanks for reading.

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