We Shall Overcome. Booklet cover from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Select the link for more information. Prints and Photographs LC-USZC4-6525.
African American civil rights efforts made gradual progress in the early twentieth century. Before World War II President Roosevelt's administration, pressured by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, succeeded in passing a law ordering corporations to desegregate, but enforcement of the law was a problem. During the war, the Army remained segregated. So during the 1950s frustrated African Americans stepped up their efforts in demanding desegregation and the enforcement of laws that guaranteed equal voting rights. The largely northern folk song revival's interest in the songs of African Americans in the south led to awareness among affluent young white Americans of these issues. Spirituals, blues, and Gospel music provided the basis for many of the songs created by African Americans themselves, which became part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as well as young people from the north who went to the south to aid the movement. Some spirituals needed little or no changes in their lyrics to be used as inspiration for the movement, such as "This Little Light of Mine" (sung in this example by Doris McMurray on an ethnographic field recording made by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939) and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (performed on this recording by Marian Anderson in 1924). Songs were also used to bring in money for the movement at fund raisers featuring leaders of the movement, such as Rev. Martin Luther King.
This presentation also includes a performance of songs from the Civil Rights era from the Washington, DC-based sextet Reverb, consisting of Steve Langley, Victor Pinkney, Chris Hunter, Troy Edler, Kevin Owens, and Jason Deering. The Civil Rights songs performed on this webcast are "Freedom Land" (timecode 00:05:20); "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (timecode 00:08:55); "Ain't Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Round" (timecode 00:11:20); "Oh, Freedom" (timecode 00:16:00); "I Woke Up This Morning with my Mind on Freedom" (timecode 00:18:30 ); and "Dog, Dog," a song with humorous lyrics that encourages people to along (timecode 00:24:45). The group also sings a modern protest song calling attention to the plight of the poor, "In This Land," composed by group member Steve Langley (timecode 55:15) and contemoporary songs commemorating the contribution of African American soldiers to American history and the difficulty of making their service more widely known: "Tuskegee Airmen," by Bruce O'Neal (timecode 00:35:55) and "Buffalo Soldier," (no composer announced, timecode 50:35:00).
- "African American Song" (Songs of America)
- "African American Gospel" (Songs of America)
- "African American Spirituals" (Songs of America)
- "Blues as Protest" (Songs of America)
- "The Chicano Civil Rights Movement," (Songs of America)
- The Civil Rights Era," Library of Congress. This page forms part of the online exhibit African American Odyssey.
- Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress. This presentation includes interviews with singers Candie and Guy Carawan, Dorothy Cotton, Jamila Jones, and Pete Seeger, as well as interviews with other activists who describe the use of song in the Civil Rights Movement. A resource list of Library of Congress collections, web resources, books, and videos that relate to the movement is also available.
- "Making a Way Out of No Way: Martin Luther King's Use of Proverbs for Civil Rights," presented by Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont. Library of Congress, February 10, 2011. This talk is related to Mieder's book, "Making a Way Out of No Way": Martin Luther King's Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric, 2010.
- "Songs Related to the Abolition of Slavery" (Songs of America)
- "Songs of Social Change" (Songs of America)
- Stewart, Kate, 2013. "Tracing the Long Journey of 'We Shall Overcome.'" In Folklife Today. Library of Congress. The essay includes interviews with Jamila Jones and Pete Seeger.
- We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi, a book talk presented by illustrator and journalist Tracy Sugarman. May 15, 2009.