Fighting Segregation with Song

Then, music inspired and united a movement. Now, we need to sing more than ever.

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) (funded by the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning at CGS), Boots journeyed through Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, DC, collecting more than two dozen interviews for a book tentatively titled Sing When the Spirit Says Sing (publication anticipated in 2018). 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 College of General Studies senior lecturer in humanities, shares what she learned—and what it means for understanding race in the United States today.

“Woke Up This Morning,” a spiritual sung in African American churches, is an example of how civil rights activists converted some well-known spirituals into “freedom songs.” In this song, “Jesus” was changed to “Freedom.”

Collegian: What are some of the contexts in which civil rights activists sang?
Boots: 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 that.

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 is a very powerful feeling, and it comes from singing and listening to music in a very deep and meaningful way. [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?

Joan Baez frequently marched and performed in concerts during the Southern Freedom Movement. Here, she performs “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement, at the 1963 March on Washington.

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 postracial 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 the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” as part of a eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the shooting in Charleston.

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?
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. Why do you think Obama chose to sing?
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.

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.

A version of this article originally appeared in Research.