Reconsidering Civil Rights Songs for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just twenty-six years old when, in December of 1955, he was called upon to address the gathered masses in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks had just been arrested for her most famous civil disobedience and the Black people of Montgomery were gathered to receive a word on how to respond.

Among many other things, he told those gathered:

“We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. … But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Across the next decade-plus, through his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as is well-known by now, King became one of the most charismatic leaders of a particularly productive era in the civil rights movement. But he was not the only one.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed in 1960, with the late John Lewis as its president. SNCC membership was teeming with people who would become community leaders in the ensuing decades—Lewis as well as Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Charles Sherrod, Ella Baker, and numerous others. Folk music was wrapped into the group’s foundation.

After the folksinger Guy Carawan played the song “We Shall Overcome”—a hymn that had been adapted by Black labor leaders in the 1940s and then spread throughout the labor movement by Highlander Folk School’s Zilphia Horton—at SNCC’s formative gathering, the group adopted the old folk song as its anthem.

A few members of SNCC also formed a singing group for the purpose of using music as an organizing tool.

The SNCC Freedom Singers amplified the music that was inherent in the movement. Pulling from old folk songs and hymnody, they performed concerts on occasion but were mostly motivated by what a song is capable of doing—to the people who sing it as well as those listening—when it is used with intention.

One of the Freedom Singers, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, would go on to form a group called Sweet Honey in the Rock, which was committed to bringing the music of justice and Black struggle to concert halls around the world.

One of their songs, “Ella’s Song,” was adapted from the words of Baker, who had been involved with SNCC and the SCLC, among other groups. She was a tremendous speaker and her words about how “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” remain a rallying cry for the movement for Black lives even now, in the 21st century.

Even as activists have always employed folk songs and hymnody as organizing tools, so too have recording artists of various generations focused their albums and performances on the plight for racial equity. This was particularly true during King’s unfortunately abbreviated lifetime. King, after all, was a fan of music and understood its utility within the movement. He frequently referenced songs and hymns in his speeches, following the lead of groups like the Freedom Singers who used the songs as an organizing tool.

One of the last speeches of his life saw him riffing on “We Shall Overcome,” which by then had become a somewhat unofficial anthem of the movement itself. Folks sang it in police paddy wagons and prison cells against the forces that would sooner see them despair in jail than employ love and joy and music as a form of resistance.

“Before the victory’s won, some of us will lose jobs, but we shall overcome,” he told those gathered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., four days before he was assassinated. “… We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—no lie can live forever.”

As activists sang the song in jail, so too did famous musicians like Pete Seeger and groups like the Staple Singers record it so that people in living rooms across the country could hear the song that was moving a nation.

This two-sided coin of how music has been employed for the purpose of social movements is an important thing to recognize but is so often overlooked.

Most often, music media focuses on “songs of the civil rights movement” by pointing to those that have been recorded for sale to the general public. But Dr. Reagon was among the most powerful voices on the fact that, while recorded music is important for amplifying a movement, it is also vital to consider the songs people are singing on the street, when they may be faced with great fear and intimidation and choose to sing in response.

To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Folk Alley has included a special hour of its weekly radio show focused on this two-sided coin. Among the songs in the mix are “We Shall Overcome” and “Ella’s Song.”

Also in there is Ruthie Foster singing “Woke up This Morning”—an adapted hymn the Freedom Singers brought into the room when people were organizing, which then found its way into documentary films about the movement and also onto recordings. (The original lyric—”Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus”—was a simple re-write, as Dr. Reagon made the split-second decision to change the word “Jesus” to “freedom.”)

Rhiannon Giddens is in the mix with her version of “I Shall Not Be Moved”—another song Horton spread throughout the labor movement, which then metastasized during civil rights organizing in the 1950s and ‘60s. Though Horton and other labor leaders often sang it as “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the use of the word “I” was important to civil rights leaders because it was a powerful way for Black folks, who had never before had the right to walk into a room full of white folks and assert their individual personhood, to take control of the narrative and assert that each individual was human and had something vital to contribute.

Nina Simone is in the mix, singing the song by jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor, “I Wish I Knew What It Feels to Be Free.” And, from a more recent recording, Patty Griffin ruminating on one of King’s most famous speeches, with her original “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).” In its lyric, she refers to King’s own words from April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.

He told those gathered in Memphis—sanitation workers, whose union he was addressing—“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

A talented recording artist and songwriter sympathetic to the cause, Griffin transformed those words into song: “I may not get there ever in this lifetime / but sooner or later it’s there I will go.”


Kim Ruehl’s 2021 book, A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School, shares untold details about the history of “We Shall Overcome,” among other things.

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