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From “We Shall Overcome” to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the “freedom songs” of the civil rights movement helped motivate people of all ages and races, from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists and Freedom Riders to the thousands who marched on Washington, Selma, and Montgomery. In summer 2015, Cheryl Boots (GRS’94,’00, STH’14) embarked on a 9,000-mile journey through the American South, interviewing veterans of the civil rights movement about how freedom songs inspired activists even in the face of violent opposition.

With support from a grant from the Boston University Center for the Humanities and research assistance from Julia Katzman (CGS’14, CAS’16), Boots journeyed through Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., collecting more than two dozen interviews for a book tentatively titled Sing When the Spirit Says Sing. Highlights include conversations with Rutha Mae Harris and Charles Neblett, two of the original band of “Freedom Singers” who toured the country, educating and energizing crowds and demonstrators; and Mary King, one of the first white women to work at SNCC headquarters. Boots, a senior lecturer in humanities at BU’s College of General Studies (CGS), spoke with Bostonia about what she learned—and what it means for understanding race in the United States today.

Bostonia: You previously studied singing during the time of slavery, and now you’ve turned your attention to the civil rights movement. How was the use of music similar or different in these eras? What about the songs themselves?

The Freedom Singers perform “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

Boots: I wrote my first book about the way 18th-century British hymns, largely by [religious reformers] John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Isaac Watts, were used in 18th- and 19th-century America by social visionaries who imagined a multiracial America. They used these hymns because they had what I call a language of dissent: they were about being in a difficult situation and trying to continue working in a divine cause, despite efforts against them. Each of these men experienced violence, threats, resistance to what they were trying to do, and so the language that they used to write about their experience was then very transferable to the dynamics of late-18th-century, early Republic Antebellum United States, where the question was: “Who is an American?” The answer was up for grabs.

The songs that I’m working with for this book primarily come from spirituals, hymns, or from new compositions that were created during the movement. But a lot of the ideas about developing community, arguing for individual humanity and equality, carry over between the two books.

How has this research experience been different?

I can go to people who were involved in the movement and ask them, “What did you sing? When did you sing it? What did it mean to you then? What does it mean to you now?”

How did they answer those questions? What are some of the contexts in which civil rights activists sang?

Joan Baez performs “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

People would sing while marching in front of department stores that did not allow blacks to be served at the lunch counter, or did not hire blacks to work in the department store. When hanging out at the SNCC office, they would sing. When they were at mass meetings, they would sing for two hours. People would sing in jail; often, they were separated, so they couldn’t see each other, but they could hear each other, and so they would sing. Freedom Riders sang on the bus, and wrote songs about I asked John Lewis [a Georgia Congressman, veteran civil rights activist, and organizer of lunch counter sit-ins] if they sang at the lunch counter, and he said, “Oh, no, no, no. When you’re at the sit-in, when you’re at that counter, you’re quiet. You read a book, or you look ahead. You ordered, and then you waited. And then, when we got arrested, we were carried out…But once we got in the paddy wagon, we made it rock!”

You have said that people of all races would sing these songs together. What made that experience so powerful?

Because of segregation, blacks were systemically separated from being in communion—in community—with whites. So music was important for creating a community, an egalitarian resonance, or the sense of commonality we feel when we sing together. It may or may not last, but it is a very powerful feeling, and it comes from singing and listening to music in a very deep and meaningful way. It takes everybody to make that music, old and young, male and female, white, black, brown, yellow, pink. Singing together crosses generations; it crosses time. It’s kind of a model: Okay, we can make music together, why can’t we live together in peace, valuing each voice?

Today, many people seem to think that civil rights reformers all agreed about the best way to advance the movement, but you’ve said that freedom songs tell a different story, revealing that there was conflict, especially between the younger, more progressive generation and the older, more conservative one. Which songs illustrate this?

The Freedom Singers perform “Woke Up This Morning” at the Newport Folk Festival, July 26, 1963.

A song called “Which Side Are You On?” shows us not everybody was in agreement all the time. There was not universal support for the process of civil rights reform, though there was certainly universal support for the idea. I don’t think any African American in 1955 would have said, “No, no, this is fine, I like how segregation is.” They would have said, “I don’t know what the alternative is, so I’m just going to stand and watch.” But this song asserts that if you don’t say anything, you’re not supporting the movement. And so that question—“Which side are you on?”—was one way of trying to encourage, or push, people to be committed to the movement.

[Musical activist and scholar] Bernice Johnson Reagon also pointed out that music was a way of crossing generational lines. For example, there is a spiritual that comes from the African American tradition, from slave times and then from segregation, called “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Jesus.” Very clearly it’s a church song; but what happened during the movement was somebody changed the lyric to, “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” So church music that becomes freedom song is a way of crossing that generational divide.

What makes this an important moment to tell this story?

There’s a lot of evidence—statistical and anecdotal—that in the US race continues to be an issue, a question, a debate, and a place where there is great disagreement and, I would say, fear and misunderstanding. The way the music functioned during the civil rights movement can’t necessarily be replicated today, but by having an understanding of it, we might be able to better understand what’s happening today.

How so? How can we apply the messages of freedom songs to modern-day civil rights reform?

For me, part of the research is to expand the simplistic narrative that we are a post-racial nation now because we’ve elected an African American president. Music shows us civil rights reform is a much more complicated and ongoing process. In our country, all of us need to be concerned about race, and in fact, after [events like the church shooting in] Charleston, there’s even more need to talk about race, whether you’re white or black or brown, whether you’re an immigrant, or whether you’ve been here for seven generations.

Singing together is a way of interacting among equals, and the crucial component of that activity is the creation of community. In terms of Charleston, Ferguson—and sadly too many other places—our potential for talking across races can be facilitated by singing together. Through singing, we can open each other to a more honest, genuine communication.

In places like Charleston and Ferguson, have you seen people singing for this purpose, or is it an activity in which we should be engaging more often?

In June 2015, President Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” as part of a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the mass shooting in Charleston.

I haven’t noticed it on national coverage of events. I’ve seen chanting, which keeps people motivated, but it doesn’t do the same thing singing does. Music makes us even more vulnerable, in a good way, because it promotes openness. Openness to an exchange is powerful and builds strength between people and within a society.

Although we are not seeing singing in the news, I suspect it’s happening in other places. After Charleston, I went to the prayer service at Boston’s Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal [A.M.E.] Church, and we did a lot of singing that had the feeling of the mass meetings held during the civil rights movement. We sang, choirs sang; music was an important part of the event. I suspect singing is happening in places that have not necessarily gotten news coverage.

In June 2015, President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” as part of a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the shooting in Charleston. The event went viral on social media, moving viewers around the country to tears. What is it about “Amazing Grace” that makes it so powerful, and why do you think President Obama chose to sing it?

President Obama reflected the tradition of spontaneous singing in so many African American churches, using music to connect with his audience in a way that is different from speech. When we sing, the words are drawn out because of the musical expression behind them, so they’re more memorable. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) would use portions of songs people knew; drawing out what he would say gave it a distinctive quality that was part of his speaking style.

“Amazing Grace” cuts across the spectrum of religious belief and moves across racial lines. It has deep meaning for many people regardless of their religious affiliation, race, age, or gender. It never talks about God or Jesus—it talks about presence, and people can define that in whatever way they want.

Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul, and Mary] said singing opens us up to our humanity; stripped of our status or position, we interact with each other as human beings when we sing together. By singing “Amazing Grace” President Obama stood before the world as a person, which is profoundly moving. Singing transcends speech.

Additional reporting by Sara Rimer.