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Music in the civil rights era

| Dr. Ryan Jones

The central importance of music in the civil rights era cannot really be overstated. And yet, it is an area that we perhaps take too much for granted when looking back over this period to celebrate its achievements.

We know that singing was integral to and present at virtually every space where the struggle was planned and executed: in mass meetings, in churches, during protests and marches, in paddy wagons and jails. It was a powerful tool for creating bonds not just among disparate groups of activists brought together by the cause, but also between these same protesters and the various groups of people outside the movement peering in to discover their plight. For many, hearing protest songs either in person or through media coverage of a given event served as a primary, visceral mode through which to understand the position, urgency and dedication of those speaking out against injustice. This became especially true as celebrity musicians like Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke raised their voices alongside the rest.

Today the association of a given musical artist with a token humanitarian cause is all but commonplace. Think of Bono or Sting, to single out one or two among others. Perhaps this species of casual, almost self-promotional, dedication may be to blame for our current tendency not to take seriously or truly understand the value that music can play in more consequential arenas of the past. But what is important to remember is just how radical it must have been to direct what was then (and still is now) typically viewed as a medium of mere entertainment and trivial expression toward something broader — even something as downright insidious as the call for basic human rights. Of course the use of music in this vein was not entirely new to the era itself. One can look to songs of the American labor movement from the 1930s, or even further back to the coded meanings running through the songs of the Underground Railroad. But the newly focused, specific and piercing posture assumed by early protest songs like Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (recorded in 1939) — tackling the rampant (and conveniently taboo) problem of lynching that had plagued our country's history for at least a solid century — lay an important foundation for pointing the way to a music that could directly effect political and social advances, eventually coming to encircle, propel, and, ultimately, to help shape a period so central to American history as the civil rights era.

One wonders how those in our turbulent present might next extend this rich, potent tradition to broadcast and bolster new causes in need of similar support today.

Keep listening.