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Civil Rights Songs
Our series "Civil Rights Songs" takes you on the scene to the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. During these hard times, African-Americans fought for equality and justice. Early on, musicians like Billie Holiday and Pete Seeger helped spread the news of crimes by recording songs like "Strange Fruit" and "We Shall Overcome". When marches and protests began in the 50s and 60s songs sung by Nina Simone, Odetta and Dylan helped to pull people of all races together. And artists like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke stepped proudly into the spotlight with "Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud", "People Get Ready" and "A Change is Gonna Come". Songs that remind us that the fight for equality under the law, for all – is not over yet.


# 10 When Will We Be Paid

The Staple Singers were a family group from Mississippi who worked hard to keep the attention of the pop charts. With Pops’ sweet tenor and Delta blues guitar sound and Mavis’s deep soulful voice, they didn’t sound like any other groups. Mavis Staples tells the story of her dad’s meeting with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and how her father decided to follow King’s lead in finding activist subjects to sing about. Pop Staples said “If he can preach it, we can sing it.”

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The Staple Singers

# 9 Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud

April 5th, 1968 was the day after the murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Most major cities in the U.S. were whirling with chaos. Looting, rioting, assault. A surprising reaction to the death of a man whose life was dedicated to non-violence. In Boston, a James Brown concert was scheduled for that night. And the city was going to cancel it, but one councilman convinced the mayor to televise the James Brown show. James Brown performed what was arguably one of the greatest shows of all time that night and dedicated it to King’s life and memory. And Boston was the only major city that did not have major riots that weekend. It was just after this that James wrote an anthem for his people “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud." He wanted children to grow up with a sense of pride in themselves as strong Black people.

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James Brown

# 8 People Get Ready

“People Get Ready” was a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for the Impressions. And it would become one of Martin Luther King’s favorites and a standard used for demonstrations during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s. Throngs of famous people would later record the song, including Bob Dylan, U2 and Aretha Franklin. Curtis shared a philosophy with Martin Luther King, Jr.--that what really mattered about people was not “the color of their skin but the content of their character." And this song “People Get Ready’s” lyrics have the stamp of sincerity, intelligence and soul shared by both great men.

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Curtis Mayfield

# 7 A Change Is Gonna Come

In 1956 Sam Cooke started writing and singing pop music. One year later his song “You Send Me” knocked Elvis’s out of the #1 spot in the charts. After that, the singles kept coming from Sam Cooke and with his movie star looks, intelligent, friendly way of talking and his business savvy, it seemed that he’d have a long, successful career. But Sam Cooke was an African-American who refused to be treated as less than an equal in a time of intense racial struggles. So every bit of fame made his life more dangerous. In 1963, inspired by Dylan’s song “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Sam wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come”. One year later Sam Cooke was shot to death by a hotel owner. The details of his shooting still remain a mystery.

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Sam Cooke

# 6 Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone was a famous African-American jazz singer when horrifying civil rights struggles were happening on June 11, 1963, when President Kennedy made a speech to the nation. In his speech that night, Kennedy called on all Americans to embrace equal rights for people of all colors. Later that night, in Mississippi an assassin killed young civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Because of Kennedy’s speech this crime was all over the news. And right away Nina Simone sat down and wrote out her rage in a song. A song that would damage here career for years to come. A song that called out the government for being slow, the churches for being idealistic and the country for treating her like a second-class citizen.

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Nina Simone

# 5 Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom

In 1955 Montgomery, Alabama was a battleground for civil rights. African-Americans were educating themselves on how to stop the unfair treatment they were getting. There were separate restaurants for different races. Separate washing rooms. Separate neighborhoods and churches. And separate sections for African-Americans to sit in on the bus. The busses were the frontlines for the movement. And one day in December an activist and seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat when a Caucasian man demanded it. It was 13 long months before the boycott won out. The community met weekly in churches to sing spiritual songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom." The music gave the people strength to carry on.

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Rosa Parks

# 4 The Times They Are a Changin’

Following a folk tradition started by artists like Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, Bob Dylan started writing political songs in the 60s. His compositions like Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changin’ were some of the most powerful written during the Civil Rights era. And his music helped empower people of all races who bonded together to march, protest and sing for equal rights for African-Americans.

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Bob Dylan - Times Are Changin

# 3 Oh Freedom

Odetta was an African-American woman born in the South, but because of her talent was able to travel all over the US. In these travels she saw people of all colors working together. So she decided she wanted to be part of the movement that would bring this togetherness to the whole country. Odetta risked her life every time she stepped up to sing “Oh Freedom." When she sings the lyrics “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave”--it’s not a metaphor.

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Odetta

# 2 We Shall Overcome

Even after being blacklisted from performing commercially, Pete Seeger continued to play at marches for civil rights for African-Americans. His talent of being able to teach the songs to the audience as he went along worked well for protests. He’d get the whole crowd going on a song and then sing harmonies over their notes. He took the words to an old spiritual called “I Will Overcome” and changed the hook, added a few verses and sang it as “We Shall Overcome”. This song became the anthem for protest movements around the world.

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Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger singing "We Shall Overcome" by Herbert Randall

# 1 Strange Fruit

Ten years before what’s known as the “Civil Rights Era”, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday used her fame to sing this song about lynching, the hanging and beating of African-Americans done mostly in the South.

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Billie Holiday - Publicity Photo


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